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Fun at Work: Building an Organizational Culture in Which People Can Flourish

Key Takeaways

  • The only way for organizations to be fit for the future is to create the best employee experience
  • Engagement is not something that a manager can sinply turn on
  • Leaders need to build an organization that is exciting, fulfilling, meaningful and fun
  • Employees nowadays look for a job within an organization with an appealing purpose, employs people that they feel connected to and gives space and facilities to make fun together
  • A happy workplace is more productive and more effective for all envolved 


Tuesday morning, a few minutes after 10 am. A bell rings at the two levels of the building, where Guidion, a company that matches supply and demand for technical services, has her call center. All employees leave their computer to gather in the kitchen, where music sounds. It is time for their daily stand up. At 10.10 sharp, a bold guy, mid twenties, shirt, jeans, sneakers, and beard climbs on a soapbox and announces that there are new faces. He asks the newcomers to step forward and introduce themselves. After that he invites a colleague to give an account update and share a recent success. Then, for the last time, the bold guy climbs on the box and shouts to the kitchen: ‘What's on today’s menu?’ An invisible person (he stands just around the corner) shouts back: ‘Magda’s fried eggs!’ Standing ovation. And then it is done. Everybody heads back to his or her desk.  

Happy culture  

This, for Guidion almost sacred ritual takes place every day in less than ten minutes. It is an important pillar of their ‘happy culture’, a culture carefully designed from the start of the organization. In those days Pepijn Post, one of the founders, was inspired by Tony Hsieh’s book Delivering Happiness, that describes how to build an organizational culture around happiness. He chose fun and pleasure as the way to distinct from competitors and to attract people without paying huge salaries. Pepijn: ‘It is all about fun, communication and attention. When we founded Guidion most of our employees were students and not necessarily committed to the organization. By making strategy, results and communication more fun we were able to involve young people and get their commitment to the business. After all, an excellent customer experience can only be achieved if the people, who have to give it, are happy. Therefor, in the end it is also a way to help the customer in the best way.’  

Fit for the future

Nowadays, what do you, as an organization, do to distinguish from competitors and to attract the right people? The answer isn’t paying the highest salaries or providing the best perks. It isn’t even about engaging people. As Josh Bersin of Forbes says: ‘the word engagement often limits our thinking. It assumes that leaders or managers have the responsibility to reach out and ‘engage’ people, rather than to build an organization that is exciting, fulfilling, meaningful and fun.’ The only way for organizations to be fit for the future is to create the best employee experience by building an organizational culture, in which happiness plays a central part. Employees nowadays look for a job within an organization with an appealing purpose, an organization that enables making progress in meaningful work, employs people that they feel connected to and gives space and facilities to make fun together. 

Like a garden

Peter Drucker already said it a century ago: ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ When the culture sucks you won’t be able to execute your company strategy.  So when you want your organization to succeed and your people to flourish it is very important to focus on a happy culture as the key element of your success. But how do you do that? And what do we mean when we talk about organizational culture? Let’s first take a look at a definition. Culture is the whole of collective habits and shared perception of how things go within the organization. They are expressed in the language and the behavior of the company members. It is about the things people have in common, what people share. Immediately when you start working at a company you learn to adapt to the companies culture, without being conscious of this process. Culture is not visible and it is not possible to influence it directly. And when an organizational culture exists it is stable, sustainable and hard to change. So it is very important to be aware of how it develops and how to influence it; like a garden. When you plant and prune and cultivate your garden carefully, you get a beautiful place. But when you let the trees, plants and flowers go ahead it becomes messy, overgrown and with lots of weed. The same goes for organizational culture.  

Importance of leadership

Building an organizational culture isn’t easy, and it takes a long time, but it is worth the effort. When you are able to create a happy culture, in which people can flourish, your company will be invincible. That starts with a clear vision and good leadership; with the belief of the top level in happiness at work. And then it is about creating the right conditions, about facilitating happiness. Research shows that one of the main reasons for a lot of unhappiness in organizations is bad management. Gallup: ‘managers account for at least 70% of variance in employee engagement scores across business units’. So when we want teams and organizations to become happier we have to train managers in happiness at work; they have to take care for the happiness of themselves, their employees, their customers/clients and for the world. But be careful: building an organizational, departmental or team culture is not the only responsibility of a leader or manager (it isn't even the responsibility of a so-called chief happiness officer). It is something members of a team, department or organization do together. Because no one can make someone else happy. 

Levels of organizational culture 

When you want to develop, shape and reshape a happy company culture it is good to know that there are different levels to be aware of. The first level is the most superficial and visible one; it is the level of the artifacts, observable products and outcomes of the culture. These are the symbols, stories, language, company jokes, rituals, facilities, ceremonies and awards. The second, deeper level is the one of the values, the norms about what is right and wrong and what is un- and important. This level is also about purpose, mission statement and company slogans. The deepest, hidden level is that of the assumptions, the ‘taken for granted’ shared beliefs. Changing programs in organizations most often start with the values, without aligning them with the assumptions. If that’s the case nothing will change. So when you want to change an organizational culture you have to discover the basic assumptions and align your values accordingly.

Importance of understanding

Of course that sounds easier than it is, but it is possible and it starts with common sense. If you, as a leader, manager, HR- or happiness officer or employee, want to create a happy culture, you have to talk and listen to your colleagues to understand what is really going on. The first step is to become aware of what the assumptions, values and artifacts are. You have to understand why they do or don’t match. Only when you understand the assumptions you will be able to translate them into values that fit, and that’s the basis of a happy culture. As it is at Guidion.     

People & Culture  

Let’s go back to the example. Ammarai and Matthijs are both happiness officers and work in the People and Culture team. ‘At Guidion we believe that happiness leads to success, not the other way around. So in our culture happiness is leading and with building and maintaining this, philosophical and practical issues come and go. Happiness is about subjective wellbeing and no one can make someone else happy. Everybody is responsible for his or her own happiness. But that doesn’t mean that our organization isn’t responsible at all. And that’s where we as Team People and Culture come in. We advise about and facilitate an environment that is challenging, meaningful, fulfilling and fun. And to know what people need we measure happiness very frequently. Because we do, we know that happiness at Guidion is not about salary, perks and legal terms. It is about personal growth, impact and fun. So we focus on those aspects and that’s reflected in our values: ‘Happy to help’, ‘Can do is you’, ‘Let’s grow’ and ‘Share the fun’. All employees are involved in defining and redefining our values. It is what connects us, the basis of how we act.’ 

Share the fun  

Ammarai: 'One of our key values is Share the Fun. So we have a party crew that organizes two big parties every year and every employee can take a Happiness Day yearly. Besides an annual amount of holidays, every employee of Guidion can take a day off, just to do something that makes him or her happy. That can be anything; the only rule is that they have to share what they have been doing on our Happiness Wall; by making a picture, writing a blog or making a short video. The reason why is that sharing fun makes other people happy as well.’  

Employee of the month  

Another way to share the fun is the ritual Employee of the Month. Matthijs: ‘Every first Friday afternoon we choose a colleague to be employee of the month. Colleagues can nominate someone by motivating why they think this person deserves the title. By doing this we invite all employees to take a moment to think of what their colleagues did in the last month that made them happy at work.  All these motivations (compliments) are gathered and send to all the nominated persons. The icing on the cake is the selection of one colleague and the celebration on this first Friday afternoon. Of course fun is a central element during that event, but it is also about paying attention and people feeling appreciated. The fact that all nominations receive compliments, makes it even more valuable.’  

Pizza, Beer & Questions  

A last example of making fun part of Guidion's business strategy is the ritual they call Pizza, Beer & Questions. ‘Every quarter we organize a strategy session with pizza and beer. Every employee is invited to ask our board everything they want to know. These kinds of strategy sessions started a long time ago and over the years this event has developed into a structured format that is both informative and fun. We have made a team of volunteers responsible for this quarterly and they turned it into a lookalike of a famous Dutch talk show. Everybody can address topics and the team uses all the input to fill the items of the show (there is for example a house philosopher and a house band). During these sessions people hear what they want to know (the board is really transparent) and they also laugh a lot.’  

Breaking bad company habits

Building a happy culture is the easiest when you start at the establishment of an organization; like Guidion did or Google or Facebook. But that is definitely not always the case. A lot of organizations and companies where founded without the awareness of the importance of building a culture. So for these companies there is a little more work to do, in breaking existing behavioral patters that undermine a happy culture. Besides that they have to build upon what adds to happiness and that starts with realizing that culture is no accidental by-product of a collection of people but the result of deliberate efforts they can align processes, terms of employment, communication and cultural elements. 

Measuring happiness 

Also measuring can help and it is good to know that measuring happiness is something else than measuring job satisfaction. A yearly survey with questions about how you value your manager, your colleagues, your perks etcetera, is very useful. But it doesn’t say much about your daily emotions, how you feel day by day. And that’s exactly what motivates people and what makes them flourish. So as a leader, manager or company you need to measure these daily emotions. An awesome tool that combines measuring happiness at work and job satisfaction is Happiness Lab ( Besides insights about happiness it is very important to understand the nature of your organizational culture. What are the characteristics, where do they come from? To find out an organizational culture scan helps. 

Agile way of working

What makes Peter happy at work can be hell on earth for Ann and what works in one company can be a complete disaster in another. There is no secret recipe for happiness at work for every company. So when you want to start with happiness at work you start with research. What is our culture about? What are the basic assumptions here? How do we walk the talk? How happy are our managers? What makes our people tick? Why do we get out of our bed every morning? How connected do we feel? What makes us proud? And how much fun do we have together. Based on the answers and on the information you get, you can make a plan of action for increasing happiness within your team or organization. And be a little patient. It is about doing things step-by-step, agile, and about inviting people to join you by focusing on the things that make them happy at work. 

About the authors  

Maartje Wolff and Fennande van der Meulen founded in March 2015, together with Pepijn Post Happy Office. Their aim is to help working people to focus on being happy in the place where they spend on average 30% percent of their lives. Being happy at work makes people healthier, a nicer person and more successful. Happy people are more productive, more engaged, cooperative, creative and innovative. Happy office helps organizations in building and maintaining an organizational culture around happiness top down and bottom up, with workshops, programs and tooling (for example measuring). In 2017 they launched a training program to become an expert on happiness at work and in 2018 they took the initiative to declare the last week of September International Week of Happiness at Work .

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