Why Mandatory Fun at Work Is Awful (But Every Company Insists on It)

mandatory fun
Image Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

What’s the best way for your employer to keep you toiling away, happy and productive? One trend that seems to be on the rise is something a recent article from BBC.com dubbed “forced fun” — that is, mandatory (or “strongly encouraged”) work events that have nothing to do with actual work itself.

What is “forced fun?”

Team-building exercises aren’t just for kids away at summer camp anymore. These days, you might find yourself climbing a ropes course or running a three-legged race with your colleagues. It’s not all gym class, either: some organizations hire companies to come in and stage a murder mystery for teams to solve together, for example, while others host games of some other kind (think karaoke/lip syncing contests, etc.).

Sometimes the “fun” isn’t quite so organized. Mandatory social outings with less structure also fall under this category of forced fun. There was a time when the annual holiday party was the one and only required party on our calendars, but now some workers have to attend events like ballroom dancing classes or field days, on a semi-regular basis.

liz lemon party

What problem are they trying to solve?

Organizations that participate in these kinds of events are certainly well-meaning. The idea is that these kinds of activities could help reduce stress, increase productivity, and heighten creativity, while also improving retention and building bonds among colleagues. Many employers understand the benefits of having friends at work, and they hope to hurry that process along through these efforts. Also, these kinds of bonding activities might be even more crucial today than in the past, since workers are spending more time away from the office. Some employers believe it makes sense to strengthen ties during the rare times everyone is at work.

Is it working?  

Although some positive effects seem to come from these kinds of events and activities, there are some downsides to consider as well. The primary problem might be that forced fun is sort of a contradiction in terms. Ethan Mollick, a Wharton management professor who’s studied gamification in the office, says that games work better than these kinds of forced events.

“That’s the paradox of mandatory fun,” Mollick told Business Insider. “When you do something that is required and is supposed to make things fun, it violates the idea of funness. It’s no longer a fun activity; it’s a mandatory activity.”

The BBC article explores other reasons these forced-fun events don’t always go the way employers hoped. Some workers don’t appreciate having to take time away from pressing deadlines, while others resent having to spend more time with coworkers whom they feel they already see quite a lot. Still others find these kinds of events uninteresting and perceive the activities to be simply a waste of time. However, the author also noted that some managers have found that they do help with team dynamics and employee retention.

The future of mandatory fun:  

As companies gain experience with these kinds of events and activities, they’re likely to learn something that will help them to improve the process. Giving employees options to choose from might be a good place to start. Being able to opt in or out (even if a certain number of events per year, for example, are required) could make a big difference in how much workers enjoy these activities. Also, it’s important that companies work toward attending to their work-culture issues in other ways as well. Reducing stress, strengthening teams, and improving productivity are valid areas of focus, and they are also complex issues to conquer. A company-wide Jenga tournament, alone, likely won’t be enough to do the trick.

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