The importance of fun in the workplace
5 min read
By: Holly Cummins
The importance of fun in the workplace
One of the key elements of the Cloud Garage Method is Culture. That single word encompasses a whole range of practices about how we manage our projects, and how we interact with our stakeholders and each other. One of my favorite parts of the Cloud Garage culture is the fact that it includes a fun work environment.
Although we all like fun (I hope), it’s often seen as slightly unprofessional – fun is something that happens outside work. Most of us would be a bit nervous about writing, “I’m great fun” on our CVs, or reporting to our boss how much fun we’re having in the office. Nonetheless, fun matters a lot, and not just because it’s nice.
Why fun matters
The evidence that fun boosts productivity is compelling. A happy work environment means fewer sick days, harder work, and greater productivity. Research shows individuals with a positive mindset are 31% more productive than those with a negative mindset – or even a neutral one. Think of it like a placebo effect for the workplace; just as taking a sugar pill can trigger a healing effect as powerful as that of a ‘real’ drug, thinking tasks are achievable actually makes them so.
Although a sustained happy mindset with underpinnings in a positive company culture is clearly best, even a very brief episode of fun can boost productivity; one study found that watching a comedy video right before doing an exercise boosted participants’ performance by 12%. Just a few laughs already makes us more effective employees.
Why fun helps cut waste
There’s another aspect to fun. Not only do we work more effectively when we’re having fun, activities that are fun are often more effective. Many of the activities we dislike, we dislike because we know that, fundamentally, they’re wasteful. Think about interminable meetings, status reporting, nitpick code reviews, bureaucracy, manual deployments, repetition … not fun, right? Many of those are also not useful – or at least, the same value can be achieved in a much more efficient way which is also more entertaining for everyone involved.
How to get fun
The best approach to making a workplace more fun doesn’t start with adding ball pits, beer slides, or silly ties – not even compulsory comedy videos. Forced fun is an oxymoron; the best fun has an element of spontaneity, and definitely no element of coercion or institutionalisation. A corporate culture can enable fun, but it can’t mandate it.
Instead, the starting point should be removing un-fun – the daily grind of wasteful activities that drain morale. The good news is that we can fix these – and we can become more efficient along the way. Modern development methodologies, such as the Cloud Garage method, focus on increasing feedback and removing cost. A happy side effect is that they remove a lot of the tedious low-return activities that used to take developers away from delivering customer value.
Businesses live and die by the quality of their applications, and how well their development team understand them. Having more than one set of eyes on business-critical code is essential. Traditionally, businesses enforced formal code review processes to try and ensure code quality. This was often not so much fun for the person being reviewed, who was having their work criticised, and it wasn’t great fun for the reviewers, either, who had take time away from their own code. Problems identified were often so trivial they weren’t worth fixing (bikeshedding), or so fundamental that fixing them could involve rewriting days’ worth of work.
Pair programming takes this critique-based process and turns it into something much more collaborative. When I moved to the Cloud Garage I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy pair programming all the time, but I discovered I love it. I learn so much every day I pair. Having a development partner makes tough problems less daunting, and it means when something hard works there’s someone to share the excitement with.
In the Garage, we write the tests first, and we use them to guide both our implementation, and also our thinking about what we actually want the thing we’re writing to do. This approach is great for quality, but it’s also fun. Watching the red tests go green is gratifying. As we develop, our aim is to keep our implementation clean so that we keep the tests green, and each all-green test run is a tiny thrill.
Lightweight – or no – sizing
In the London Garage, we’re evaluating the #noestimates approach to sizing. Sometimes, pointing meetings can add a lot of value and help everyone in the team understand what we’re trying to do and what the tricky bits will be. Other times, they seem like an exercise for the sake of it, especially if we get bogged down in small details or small number differences. On the project I’m currently doing, we didn’t do story points when we started, but then we did a pointing exercise midway through the project because at that point the answers mattered. That worked well for that situation, but other projects may be different. My guide at the moment is a fun-based one – if the pointing meeting is interesting, we’re getting value from it. If there are yawns all round, it’s waste and we should skip it.
Devops and automation
Repetition is boring. Automating stuff is fun. Once tasks are automated, you’re free to go do other more valuable work. The great thing about automation is it helps in a whole bunch of domains, from progress tracking to release deployments to machine maintenance. If the cost of automating a task is less than the time it will take to do the task repeatedly – take advantage of your skills, and automate it. Have fun doing so!
Now on to the fun
Once we’ve got rid of as much un-fun stuff as we can, and eliminated a whole bunch of waste along with it, we can move on to having fun. At this point you can bring out the Hawaiian shirts if needed, but fun can’t be forced.
Games, play, and quirks
Children learn through play and as an industry we’re realizing that learning through play doesn’t stop when we get older. Play has several forms, all of them valuable in their own way (and all of them fun).
Gamification is changing the way we learn, teach, and do business. We all know how StackOverflow revolutionised internet help forums by using scoring to reward the best answers. IBM runs OWASP training where developers have to hack the course web page to get the right answers. (It’s the most entertaining education I’ve done for a long while.) Companies like Uber, Marriott, and the US army are even applying gamification techniques to recruitment.
Games are getting everywhere, but not everything with a game in it is gamified. Think, for example, of the wasdev.net Game On microservices demo. The game is a tool for talking about microservices in an engaging way, and people playing the game will get a score, but – unlike StackOverflow – their score isn’t really related to how well they understand microservices. This form of play is best described as exploration. Work has a goal, and games also have a goal, but exploration is a focused investigation without such quantifiable success metric. One of the best things about my job in the Cloud Garage is that it involves a lot of exploration of new technologies and new domains.
Another form of play is doing activities for their own sake – that is, just for the joy of doing them. The benefit of these activities is hardest to quantify, but I’d argue these contribute the most to making a workplace a pleasant place to be. In other words, even though we can’t measure them, they contribute most to achieving that 31% productivity boost from a positive mindset. The IBM Cloud Containers team wrote a bot on their slack channel to manage their release train. Even though it didn’t add anything, in terms of strict functionality, they chose to use train-related characters and phrases. The bot says “Choo Choo” before kicking off a build and, adorably, uses train emoticons in its messages. The investment has paid off, because everyone involved in releases has a slightly nicer experience.
So the next time you find yourself having a giggling fit with a colleague, racing an office chair down the corridor, or using variable names that make you laugh, you’re doing your employer a favour – your increased happiness is also increased productivity.
Illustration concepts by Rebekah Olsen.