The other day, a group of professionals in their 50s and 60s shared crazy stories about life at work in the 1980s and 90s. These were ridiculous, hilarious stories about client dinners, trips to conventions, new product brainstorming sessions, Wite-out-clogging copy jams, recommendation memos that failed, presentations that failed even worse, and late-hour runs for pizza that led to new types of copier jams.
While some of these stories would be considered highly inappropriate in today’s work climate (and for good reason), most of them were just plain harmless and hysterical. They involved funny people making the best of various high-pressure, everyday situations in the spirit of collaborative steam-blowing and comic relief. Their stories also illuminated how group suffering, even benign group suffering, is a professional salve.
For those who work in organizations where everyone is encouraged to work remotely, there’s just so much hoo-ha-ing you can do from the neck up on Zoom or other videoconferencing platforms. Fun and great ideas happen with unlikely collisions, unexpected interactions, and unplanned responses. When half of millennials and three-quarters of Gen-Zers leave work for mostly mental health reasons, according to the National Institute for Mental Health, we’ve got to assume that at least some of that is because the workplace has become a corporate version of Alcatraz. There is no one to goof off with, for even a minute, and it’s just not that fun in solitary confinement.
Worse, I wonder if non-boomers even know what it means to have a good time at work. Sometimes, I hear them talk about their jobs, and joy never enters the description. They share more about the tasks associated with their particular professional contexts than they do their actual experiences, and they describe them using high-fat jargon that would choke a rhinoceros.
Case in point: The other day, I asked a twentysomething how work was, and she responded with buggy eyes: “So good! Our SEO is finally optimizing first-quarter results, so traffic is way up, and we’re doing A/B testing to optimize our social. Fun!”
Of course, back in the days of clients who overpaid, of overhead that was used to fund more overhead, and of computers that cost $5,000 and can’t be found on eBay for $5, there were a whole lot more people doing the same work that a whole lot fewer people do today. This is where I (and the science) argue that a layer of fat in the workplace, in all its iterations, is a good thing. It acts as insulation from burnout, anxiety, stress, and everything else these poor young people experience every day as they die a slow death while making a living.
From a practical standpoint, this is not about installing a climbing wall in the conference room or setting up a keg near the coffee maker. We’re talking minutes of investment, not mountains of money. And it must come from the top: Fun and productivity are not an oxymoron but a generous paradox. CEOs, especially boomer CEOs, may have forgotten how much fun they used to have at work and how that fun helped develop them as leaders.
How about starting by offering open office hours with leadership? Or “Failure Fridays,” where every week, teams celebrate areas in which they’ve failed (and meaningfully learned from this failure)? Or feature a “You think you’ve got a problem?” weekly challenge to invite collaborative solution-finding from everyone, and that means anyone, at work. It always helps to honor great ideas by acknowledging folks who made them.
On a lighter note, encourage everyone to participate in the New Yorker’s Cartoon Caption Contest and post all entries publicly. Come up with your own judges and prizes. Offer a monthly “Bring your dog/pet to the office” day and watch how many serious people talk like babies to a passing Doberman. Host a brown bag lunch with a mystery speaker. Put up a Wonder Board with questions people have always wanted to ask.
Many companies recognize birthdays, odd anniversaries, and big little accomplishments. It doesn’t take much. And it costs practically nothing. The fat is in the focus, not the funding.
This is about giving human beings a chance to be the social animals they are while doing tough tasks they are required to do. The Seven Dwarfs chose to whistle in harmony on their way to the mines. Millennials and Gen-Zers will come up with much more creative solutions to love their jobs. They just need a chance to have a little fun. But please, don’t always ask them to do it on Slack.
Deb Sawch, EdD, is a coeditor and author of the book Educating for the 21st Century: Perspectives, Policies and Practices from Around the World and is currently an independent research consultant at Yale University. She is the former director of strategic alliances at what was once Kraft Foods (now Mondelez).