by Eddie Pipkin

Image by Aritha from Pixabay

I was struck by the headline in a recent news scroll on my phone. “Am I fun enough?”  Before I clicked it, I thought maybe it was going to be a playful challenge to parents (because we all know that as parents we’re supposed to be all about the fun) or, since it was Valentine’s week, maybe a challenge to people in romantic relationships (because we all know the first thing our significant others like to say about us how much fun we are).  But it turned out this pointed bit of self-analysis was aimed squarely at bosses.  As a boss are you fun enough?  As a team leader, do you bring the merriment?  It turns out that as people trickle back into the office and some sense of normalcy returns – at least three days a week, on average, that is —the people in charge are once again having to think up ways to bring joy to team building and whimsical energy to the workplace.  Or are they?

Here’s the article that originally caught my attention, “You’re Good at Your Job But Are You Fun Enough?” from The Wall Street Journal.  It’s paywall-protected, so you probably won’t be able to read it, but I was surprised to see that the central idea it communicated was that “no fun should ever be mandatory.”  I had started reading the article thinking it would be tips on how to have fun in the office, but I discovered that it was much more a mediation on the way that ‘required’ fun can actually be demoralizing for certain people.  These people (often introverts) are showing up to do their jobs, and find themselves experiencing anxiety and pressure because they are being placed in uncomfortable situations in which they have to actively demonstrate team spirit in ways that are unnatural to them.

It made me think about some close friends we had who have four kids, and when the kids were young and everybody’s schedules were all over the place all the time – they were, like many of us, participating in lots of clubs and sports, etc. – they made it a point to periodically schedule days when everyone was required to do something together: special times that they ironically referred to as “Forced Family Fun” days (FFF for short).  The days were important bonding times of togetherness for that family in retrospect, and they all look back on them with a tenderly nostalgic perspective, but while they were happening, there was definitely some grumpy participation going on.

In workplaces around the world, as remote work subsides and in-person meetings return – a reportedly rough transition in some settings – one of the ways that supervisors are trying to offset the discomfort is by ramping up the “Forced Office Fun.”  The WSJ article questions whether this is a great idea.  People definitely want to enjoy their jobs and like their teams and find fulfillment in their work, but team bonding can hopefully be organic and natural, not something that feels (en)forced.

One of the ways to avoid the pitfalls of no-fun fun is to take the time to know your partners well.  How are the individuals wired in terms of their personalities.  How do they interact best together?  Be attentive to the context of the specific needs of any group you are leading or serving.

Give people a voice in determining their own team-building activities and fun.  Let them brainstorm their own work pastimes and amusements.  If they’re stuck on ideas, give them lots of good options to choose from or to jumpstart the brainstorming.  Support them in their decisions even if it’s not something that would be your first choice.

The BBC’s “Worklife” section has an excellent overview article on this issue, called “The Death of ‘Mandatory Fun’ in the Office.”  It leads off with these paragraphs:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that there’s nothing better than a pizza party, except maybe an ice cream social. Field trips are super fun, too. And you can’t beat a good extra-curricular activity.

They’re the best, that is, if you’re in the third grade. If you’re an adult being forced to attend a team-building exercise, go to a post-work happy hour or celebrate in a conference room with your colleagues lest you be seen as ‘not a team player’, they’re mostly the worst.

For more than two years, a complete shake-up of office culture has effectively banished the forced fun of the pre-pandemic era. Many people have attended some kind of virtual team-building activity or Zoom happy hour, of course. But workers have by and large been spared the mandatory monthly birthday celebrations, afterhours drinks and outings to obstacle courses.

The article’s author, Kate Morgan, is writing primarily about large offices that are trying to lure workers back to traditional office spaces even though 60% report that they would prefer to continue working remotely.  She makes references to the many perks that had been offered pre-pandemic, most famously in tech offices: a collection of fun collective spaces from ping-pong tables to free food stallss to giant bean bag chairs (what she refers to as “Kindergarten offices”).  But she makes the point that what these spaces were always really about was encouraging people to stay at the office longer.

Churches and other ministries are different work spaces than traditional offices.  Although they share many of the same characteristics, ministry relationships are about service and mission in a way that a typical business is not, and they always involve a complex interplay between paid staff and volunteers.  Therefore, building team spirit and spirit de corps is vital as we pursue a sense of sacred mission, and extroverts tend to rule the roost.  But we should be careful that our attempts to promote interpersonal connection and team boosterism do not become unintentionally coercive or manipulative.  We should also leave room for introverts to be who they were created to be, celebrating their strengths and not bending them to the preferences of their extrovert overlords.  At least not always.

Morgan’s article makes the point that all fun events should be voluntarily attended.  It is interesting to think about whether such flexibility is even possible in a local church setting.  Will it even work to have some people opt out?  Close listening and responsive relationships mean that we have the option to get feedback well before something becomes uncomfortably mandatory.

For those of you looking for some creative ideas – I am tempted to write, “traditional ideas for fun in the office” – oh look, I just did! – here is a helpful listicle titled, “27 Shockingly Easy Ways to Have Fun at Work (While Staying Productive) in 2023.”  These are useful suggestions to pass along to your team as they think through what they want their own customized “fun in the office” future to look like.

And here’s a blog from Reuters that suggests some ways that employees are motivated to take joy in their work even when the possibility of a raise is remote (useful stuff for local ministries, where monetary renumeration is not generally the principal path to job happiness, and where we lean very heavily on people finding their sense of purpose in the sacred call to serve): “20 Ways That Employees at Thomson Reuters are Motivated By Their Work.”  It’s a very interesting list.  Can local churches offer the same set of motivations?

In areas where you are responsible to lead others, do you feel pressure to be fun?  Have you enforced fun activities on your team in ways that might have made others feel uncomfortable?  Do you have some stories of times when you let the participants chart their own course to fun and bonding as a community?  How do you make work / chores / projects fun?