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Fun at work fundamental: Study

Millennial job seekers just wanna have fun, and employers looking to recruit and retain recent graduates should make workplace fun a “central focus of recruiting efforts,” according to recent academic research.

The findings hold up even at a time when a sluggish economy is leaving many graduates under- or unemployed, says John W. Michel, Ph.D., assistant professor of management at Loyola University Maryland.

In fact, during difficult economic times when workers are asked to do more for less, “fun may be particularly relevant” in the workplace, suggest Michel and co-researchers Michael J. Tews, Ph.D., and Albert Bartlett, Ph.D., in their paper, "The Fundamental Role of Workplace Fun in Applicant Attraction," published in the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies.

They conducted the fall 2011 study at three large U.S. universities with 374 undergraduate students, in their final semester, who were actively seeking full-time employment upon graduation. The students’ average age was 22; 77% were white and 56% of all respondents were female.

Respondents were randomly assigned to read and evaluate ads for a hypothetical management trainee position for a fictitious organization, with about 47 respondents each assigned to one of eight different job ads.

Each ad featured a job that either included or lacked a description of a fun work environment, competitive compensation plan and extensive advancement opportunities.

Participants answered a series of questions about how much fun they thought the job would be, their perceived fit with the organization, and the likelihood they would apply to the job the ad described.

They also read a second group of job ads in which co-worker interaction and job responsibilities were presented as fun or not, and formal fun activities were present or absent in the ad. As before, they answered a series of questions about how much fun they thought they would have in that job, their perceived fit with the organization, and the likelihood they would accept the job in real life.

Overall, perceived workplace fun had a positive impact on applicant attraction to the job, on study participants’ perception that they’d fit well within the organization and on their intention to pursue the job. Further, workplace fun had a stronger impact on perceived person-organization fit than did noted compensation or advancement opportunities; however, the researchers noted that more research is warranted, perhaps focusing on expanding the study to include older workers, including older millennials.

As workplace fun has a stronger pull than even compensation and advancement opportunities for millennials, the researchers suggest that fun should be a central focus of an organization’s recruitment efforts. A job ad that touts fun among a company’s core values—with references to a welcoming, cohesive environment, meaningful work, and entertaining activities during and after work—may be a valuable tool.

“[New graduates are] willing to live at mom and dad’s house for some time and wait it out until they find the right environment,” Michel said. Even if they take a job to pay off student loans or meet some other obligation, he said, the likelihood they will stay for long “is pretty slim” if the job is not fun. 

Strategic fun

A fun work environment is one of the elements shared by some of the organizations on CNNMoney’s 2012 list of 100 Best Companies to Work For. FactSet Research Systems Inc. in Connecticut, hosts summer barbecues, ice cream socials and visits from local food trucks dispensing cupcakes, pie, watermelon and grilled cheese.

Arizona-based GoDaddy.com reportedly puts money toward offsite employee activities held during work hours that have included panning for gold, whitewater rafting, trapeze classes and competitive cooking courses.

But for millennials poised to enter the workforce full time, a fun work culture has more to do with coworker interactions and job responsibilities than formal activities, such as the company picnic, the researchers found.

Michel advises using fun activities strategically, such as organizing a company softball team to build morale and co-worker interactions. San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants -- No. 16 on the CNNMoney list -- holds a job-task-related “Housekeeping Olympics” whose events include blindfolded bed-making and the vacuum dash.

Fun on the job is about enjoying the work while accomplishing core tasks, Michel explained.

He pointed to famed Pike’s Place Fish Market in Seattle, where the owner used fun and playfulness to turn around his business. There, workers fling fish, toss off corny puns, perform CPR on a dead fish and joke around with customers. The atmosphere has more to do with attitude, not airborne mackerel, one unidentified fish market worker explained in a YouTube video that showcased the company’s “fish philosophy.”

Zappos, the online footwear company near Las Vegas, injects fun into job-related tasks. Staff members have performed “Saturday Night Live”-style skits during new hire orientation, portraying characters from the show as they act out workplace no-nos.

Making job responsibilities fun can be as simple as affording employees time to read about new trends and innovations in their field or industry, or trusting them to make decisions that might have immediate impact on customer satisfaction. For example, Michel noted that at family-owned Wegmans Food Markets, an employee can “walk a customer across the store to find a particular product … and not feel they will get in trouble with the boss.” Empowering employees to directly meet customers’ needs can be fun and increase their level of job satisfaction as well.

Managerial support is an important element in creating a work atmosphere that is fun, and it starts with the CEO, Michel said. At the company ice cream social, for example, the CEO should be there -- along with every layer of supervisors -- chatting up employees. It sends the message, Michel said, that having fun at work is desired and encouraged, because it filters down into customer interactions and happier employees.

“We’re not saying that fun is going to completely save the day” as a recruiting and retention tool, he acknowledged. Given all the time people spend at work, however, they are looking for more than a paycheck.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.

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