The folks at Oakville-based tech venture Prodigy Education know how to party. When the 260 employees get together, the company brings in a DJ, cranks up the music and busts out the drinks (alcoholic and non). But the company has also purchased several vintage video arcade games, which it deliberately positions in quieter corners. The aim is to create a space where workers — of all personality types — feel at ease.
The arcade machines are a hit, especially with the more introverted workers, says Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen, who is Prodigy Education’s chief people officer. As a company that makes educational video games, Prodigy has its fair share of gamers on staff. “This is what they do for the job; this is what they do for fun,” says Lehtinen.
Prodigy is one of the more insightful companies I’ve worked with in my years advising organizations big and small on their people strategies. Its nuanced approach to office parties is indicative of the serious effort the leadership team puts into its corporate culture. They think carefully about issues like employee evaluations, personal development and succession planning and how they create a workplace that is flexible, engaging and fulfilling.
Prodigy’s secret sauce is that it sees its corporate culture as something that is built slowly from the ground up and is always evolving. But far too many companies try to take a shortcut and simply will it into existence. Their favourite tool: one-size-fits-all workplace fun.
A few weeks ago, shortly after a French worker had won the right to opt out of office social events, I was inundated with tales of misconceived attempts at institutionalized good times on my social networks. One high-performing consultant said he’d been rewarded with a five-day group trip to Puerto Rico. Sounds lovely. Except he travelled constantly for work and would have much preferred some quality time at home. Several others found that the sparkle came off retreats and reward trips when they discovered they’d be sharing them with senior executives and assorted spouses — and that all their meals had been planned in advance.
The early pandemic was the nadir of corporate socializing — memories of awkward Zoom happy hours still make me shudder — but the office reawakening is also bringing its own dubious attempts at force-feeding team spirit. Companies are trying to lure staff back to their desks with everything from free smoothies and wine tastings to visits from puppies. It all feels very “Are we having fun yet?”
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with trying to catalyze team building. Knowing your colleagues better creates the psychological safety net needed to lob out a wildcard idea at a meeting. The problem is how they’re implemented, which is often in the form of an all-staff email decreeing when and where happiness will occur — regardless of employees’ schedules. In general, I’m pro-puppy. But would I want one yapping at my ankles when I’m on a deadline? Maybe not.
Adam Waytz, a professor of psychology and management at Northwestern University, has highlighted factors that thwart attempts to engineer workplace socializing. In his view, these events mess with the mental filing system we use to separate our communal relationships (family and friends) and our exchange-based ones (colleagues and acquaintances). With the social rules uncertain, awkwardness ensues. Inevitably the conversation turns to the one thing everyone has in common — work — which makes the whole event feel like, well, work.
There’s also a broader issue at play. Many companies aren’t seeing the full picture of what employees actually like about their jobs. Last year, I helped write a report on what drives employee retention in the tech sector. The three biggest motivators were a sense of connectedness, workplace flexibility and a clear path to growth. Fun at work is only a small part of the first of these, yet it looms much larger than it should in perceptions of what good corporate culture looks like.
To create great workplaces, executives need to shift their focus away from forced fun and think more broadly about what engages workers. An often-overlooked fact is that many people find their work stimulating and enjoy taking on new challenges to develop their skills. This is backed up by a survey last year from Asana’s Workplace Innovation Lab that found employees wanted what the authors termed “deep fun.” That included thought-provoking panel discussions or creative problem solving around thorny problems.
Building a truly engaging corporate culture requires ensuring workers have what they need to succeed. That means leaders have to be transparent about organizational goals, individual expectations and how performance is measured. They need to give their teams opportunities to grow and plot out career paths so that people can see where they’re going and how they fit into the bigger picture. And they have to give workers the autonomy to figure out how, where and when they’re going to get their work done. That’ll do more for employee engagement than any number of artisanal beers in the fridge.
The fact is, good times with colleagues are the result of a great workplace culture, not a driver of one. When more companies figure that out, the answer to “Are we having fun?” might finally be yes.
Daneal Charney is an Executive in Residence for MaRS Momentum. The program works with high-growth Canadian companies to accelerate their path to hitting $100 million in revenue. Is your business Canada’s next anchor company? Find out more and apply to join the program .
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