Making Work Fun is Not About Table Tennis & Paintball

Cliff Oxford

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

You know something that is often overlooked in business? Having fun at work. No, I am not talking about the make-believe fun of team-building exercises and paintball scrimmages and company picnics. Most of that is a waste of time. I’m talking about making the actual work fun so people take pleasure in doing it.

If you have a fast-growth company, you have to think about this because growth is so demanding that if your people don’t enjoy it, they won’t last. And by the way, table tennis at lunch is not going to help at all. More fun means less turnover. It also means higher performance. Your people are excited to be there, and you won’t need a defibrillator to get them going in the morning.

The question is, How can you make the work fun when growth is just so hard, mentally and physically? I was with a fast-growth chief executive recently who asked, “How do you make shredding metal fun? For goodness’ sake, we are an industrial recycling plant. We sell metal by the pound. How much fun can that be?” I told him it can be a lot of fun if you know how to make it fun. But it doesn’t just happen.

I had a childhood neighbor named J.D. Harris who understood. He was also a farmer, and at the end of the corn harvest, Mr. Harris wanted to kill the rats in his corn cribs. The first week he posted a help-wanted sign to kill rats for cash on Saturday at 7 p.m. No one showed up because killing rats is one of the worst jobs on the face of the earth. The bottom line is that neither cash nor a check is enough to make killing rats fun.

But the next Saturday evening was a whole different story. My brother Kenny and I noticed a long line of trucks parked up and down the road and people were heading to Mr. Harris’s farm. We saw pretty quickly that Mr. Harris had turned the job of killing rats into a festival.

He did three simple things that we can do in our own businesses. First, he figured out that to get the job done he needed to attract hunters and get them to stay awhile. How did he do that? He built a fire, a bonfire bursting with 30-foot flames, and they came — from as far away as a hundred miles.

In a way, this wasn’t all that different from the communication meetings we used to have every morning at UPS. Drivers who were out delivering packages by themselves all day enjoyed the three minutes of congregating before they left for their route. In short, to make the work fun, you have to find a company ritual that brings people together in a common setting that they enjoy.

As the huge fire burned, the second thing Mr. Harris did was to pass out a tool to each person. It was a spear dressed up in feathers that he made to kill the rats. For the people around that fire, chasing rats with an Indian spear is what made the work fun. In almost every job, we focus on the task and the person doing the task, but we rarely spend enough time on what comes between the person and task, which is often a tool or system.

This is the same way you can tell if software is going to work. Whether the user likes using it can determine whether the software succeeds or fails. Mr. Harris figured out what his work force wanted to use so that it would be fun. He attracted and motivated people around a common platform and then gave them tools they wanted to use.

Before he released these hunters to swarm the corn cribs with their spears, he held up the third thing to motivate the group, the crown jewel: a Zebco One fishing reel with a graphite rod. It would belong to the hunter who killed the most rats. There is always a debate about whether sales and employee contests have any real impact on performance and results. They don’t if they are just generic contests with a financial reward, like a trip or a cruise. But believe me more rats were killed with that fishing reel in the deal. Why? Mr. Harris figured out what the group wanted and what motivated each person to want it more. And the winner did not have to share the Zebco rod and reel with anyone. It was theirs so it was fun trying to win it.

I never had any rat-killing fame. My dad had told my brother and me to stay away and Mr. Harris could tell we were not fitting in with his festival. He made a good decision when he waved at us to go home. I think that is another lesson learned about having fun at work. Sometimes you have to send a couple of people home for good because no matter what you do they will never have fun at work and that can make it fun for no one. Mr. Harris had a festival for years to come. They didn’t miss us, and I didn’t miss the fun.

Reprinted from NYT with Permission. Cliff Oxford is the founder of the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. You can follow him on Twitter.