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How a bit of fun can help to keep staff motivated

Fall means “Spirit Week” season at schools. If you have children at the right age, or remember back to you own high school days, you know this means dressing up each day in some crazy get-up — whether it's pajama day, mix-n-match day, superhero day, out-of-this-world day, or some other way of showing school spirit. It got me wondering — what's the point of Spirit Week and why did it get started? And more importantly, why don't we celebrate Spirit Week at work?

In schools, Spirit Week is often connected to Homecoming. A football game encouraging alumni to come back to cheer, along with parades and pep rallies are all part of the excitement. Spirit Week is part of the homecoming festivities, where students wear clothing to match daily themes Monday through Thursday, then wear the school colours on Friday. If you ask children, most will say they love having the opportunity to dress-up in crazy clothes and compete with children from other grades to see who promotes the greatest spirit.

Spirit Week comes at a time during the school year when children are taking lots of tests or midterms and could use a mental boost or break. Doesn't this happen at work? Wouldn't we benefit from poking some fun at ourselves during a particularly stressful time period at work? Wouldn't we get some folks excited if we had different units compete against each other for craziest outfits or accessories? Even if you just had points calculated based on who dressed up from each unit, you could still make it competitive without worrying about the outlandish outfits. Fun is critical for employees to increase sales and retention among workers, as well as reduce stress.

Are any firms doing this? Some actually are. Media Agency MEC, rated among the Sunday Times “100 Best Companies to Work For (2015)”, sponsors an internal Social Irresponsibility Committee to promote fun in the workplace through events like Spirit Week. An online marketing solutions company called iMatrix also holds Spirit Week with dress-up days such as Sports Day, Beach Day, Celebrity Day, Pajama Day, and then Halloween. Executives find that it keeps employees excited about their work in a fun, celebratory way.

In addition to having dress-up days, you can get employees excited about “productivity days”, where they compete against other departments regarding the most sales or fewest customer service complaints, etc.

Competitions among departments are generally very positively viewed. You can even have food competitions where different departments or employees from those departments compete for best food (dessert, main dish, appetiser, etc.). Then, pulling all the folks together at a buffet is a great way to get them to interact with other departments. The goal is to promote fun to enhance morale and excitement for working at the firm. This enthusiasm fuels engagement and subsequent productivity at work.

We know based on research that humour at work is related to greater camaraderie, productivity, employee satisfaction and loyalty, and creativity and innovation. Holding a Spirit Week during or after a particularly stressful time can really impact everyone.

Plan a Spirit Week at your firm by involving employees from various departments. If you try to mandate it as an HR imperative, it will not be very popular. Employees don't like their fun mandated. But they do like to give their opinions, so try to get some employees excited about the idea and willing to explore the feasibility of it. Keep it simple because the idea is to build camaraderie, not spend a fortune on outfits and clothing.

Make sure to put a note up outside the office so that anyone coming in won't be shocked when they see employees dressed up. Another interesting idea: involve different units in dressing a certain way. For example, if two units are struggling to work together, have them come together to all dress the same and compete against two other units combined as a group. Creating teams could actually help them to work together better in the future.

Whatever you end up doing — whether it is one day or five days — having some variation on the Spirit Week most of us grew up with would be greatly valued by many employees at all levels. It could just be what they need to get over the hump of too much to do and no time to do it.

Joyce EA Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Programme at the University of Maryland's Robert H Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organisational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

Fun at work: some occasional light-heartedness in the workplace gives employees a lift

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Published October 13, 2015 at 9:00 am (Updated October 12, 2015 at 8:50 pm)

How a bit of fun can help to keep staff motivated

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