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The Importance of Fun in the Workplace

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Things at work that make us smile or laugh can improve team cohesion, productivity and organisational performance. Fun can’t be forced, but it can be fostered, said Holly Cummins at FlowCon France 2019, where she spoke about the importance of fun in the workplace.

Cummins presented three steps to achieving fun. What she calls step 0 is an implied prerequisite, which is to stop prohibiting fun. Step 1, removing un-fun things, is often a double win, as Cummins explained:

Usually, people hate tasks because they know they don’t add value. So eliminating waste, busy-work, and repetitive tasks increases efficiency but also makes our workplaces more fun.

Step 2 is having fun, where the right kind of fun will depend a lot on who is having the fun. Cummins mentioned that there may not be a one-fun-fits-all recipe:

I personally advocate for fun-with-exercise (like ping pong), since exercise breaks improve brain function. However, having a giggle, playing a game, or watching something funny are all great.

Cummins explained how programming and fun are related to each other:

Programming is fun! Well, I should qualify that. On bad days, when nothing works, or where there’s lots of tedious graft, programming maybe isn’t so fun. But at its best, programming is really fun - there are puzzles, and then when we figure the puzzle out, there’s the reward of working code. And we get to make stuff! Programming has a creative aspect and a logical aspect, so it’s satisfying in multiple ways.

Agile is about eliminating waste and shortening feedback cycles, Cummins said. She mentioned that work which everyone knows is useless drains fun from a workplace, so eliminating overhead and heavy paperwork is a win for both people and productivity. Cummins also mentioned SRE, where a primary goal is to eliminate toil:

Toil is those repetitive, manual, un-fun tasks which eat staff time. This makes being on an SRE team way more pleasant than one doing traditional ops.

Feedback is also important, as Cummins explained. Tighter feedback cycles give us a better chance of delivering the right thing, and they also improve job satisfaction. "Nobody likes doing work and having it go into the void - we want to know if we’re doing well and see a positive impact from our efforts," Cummins said. "Ultimately, what we want is to see people using the things we made."

Fun isn’t about what people are doing, it’s about how they’re feeling. Cummins mentioned that managers shouldn’t try to enforce fun, but they can create a culture where fun can flourish. The first step is ensuring the team knows fun is tolerated, so that people aren’t afraid to laugh or play. Managers can set an example by having fun themselves.

InfoQ interviewed Holly Cummins, worldwide development leader, IBM Garage, after her talk at FlowCon France 2019.

InfoQ: How would you define fun at work?

Holly Cummins: I find it most useful to define fun by example. Fun is things that feel good, that make us smile or laugh (this is called "positive affect" by fun geeks). Things that are fun include exploration, play, puzzles, games, and jokes. For a young child, exploration might be playing with a rattle. For a developer, it might be making a computer say Hello World, in Go, in a container, on Kubernetes. A child’s puzzle might be a Rubik’s cube, whereas an adult puzzle might be figuring out why the Go program is generating a big stack trace!

InfoQ: What makes fun so important?

Cummins: There’s a lot of evidence that fun defuses tensions, improves team cohesion, and reduces sick leave. What’s more surprising is that fun also improves productivity and organisational performance. This is true even if the fun is really trivial. People shown a comedy video before taking a test scored 12% higher on the test than those who went in cold.

InfoQ: How can we measure fun?

Cummins: The best way to destroy fun is to measure it. That doesn’t mean fun can’t be quantified - people whose job it is to research fun do that all the time. My favourite academic measurement of fun is the "funtinuum". However, if we try to institutionalise and operationalise fun by defining fun metrics … it’s not going to create a fun environment. I heard a sad story of an office party where management took attendance, to make sure all staff were having the mandated fun. That’s just so obviously counter-productive.

InfoQ: What should not be done when you want people to have fun??

Cummins: I used to think there were two steps in achieving fun; the first step was to eliminate un-fun things, and then once that was done, fun could be added. However, once people started telling me their stories about fun, I realised there’s actually an implied prerequisite, which is to stop prohibiting fun. This should be obvious, but apparently it’s not. I’ve been told sad stories about HR prohibiting people from sending out emails to share cakes, or management telling distributed teams that they couldn’t play Doom as an after-hours team-building exercise. The (frankly mystifying) mandate was that if they were in the office after 5:30 they had to be doing work. Someone even told me their project manager once caught them looking happy and said, "Why are you smiling? Work isn’t a place to be happy!"

InfoQ: How can gamification and play help us?

Cummins: Games and play are both excellent ways to learn. We sometimes use the terms interchangeably, but games have a goal and rules, whereas play is unstructured and is done for its own sake. Gamification has an obvious appeal to management, since its goals and rules can be aligned to the broader organisational goals. I know of one team that managed to churn through ten years of technical debt, create a thousand new automated tests, and eliminate hundreds of SonarQube issues by running a competition. What I find fascinating is that the prize wasn’t big - it was just a free lunch! StackOverflow is another example where gamifying the support forum model hugely improved the quality of both questions and answers. StackOverflow doesn’t even have a material prize at all, but people still want to win. Rewarding good answers with points was so effective that all StackOverflow’s predecessors have more or less vanished. It’s more subtle, but velocity tracking is also a form of gamification - teams want to see that number go up, so they will push to try and claim one more point before the end of the sprint.

The benefit of play is harder to quantify, but it’s still important. Play in the workplace often manifests itself as quirkiness in the design of internal tools, or easter eggs in products. These quirks can delight both the users and the developers who create them. Play is also what we do when we’re learning something new. Play is often a precursor to innovation; we find new ideas when we explore the boundary between what we know how to do and what we don’t. One of my favourite quotes is from John Cohn, an IBM Fellow famous for his IoT gadgets and rainbow-dyed lab coat. He says, "You must take the time to play to be creative."

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