High Performance Teams And Having Fun At Work

Episode 118

August 28, 2013


teams culture

The Agile Weekly Crew and David Foster discuss having fun at work and how culture affects it.

Clayton Lengel‑Zigich: Welcome to another episode of the Agile Weekly podcast. I’m Clayton Lengel‑Zigich.

David Foster: I’m David Foster.

Roy vandeWater: I’m Roy vandeWater.

Are You Working If You Are Having Fun At Work

Clayton: Today we’re talking about having fun at work.

Roy: What’s that?

Clayton: Maybe people listening might not know what having fun at work is.

David: Yeah I think that’s fair.

Clayton: Are you working if you’re having fun at work? I feel like you can’t really do a good job of working if you’re not having fun at work.

Roy: [laughs] I definitely feel like there is so much existing baggage in the world like I have heard so many people saying, “you’re having too much fun,” or “I’m hearing you guys having fun, get back to work,” or “you guys couldn’t possibly be working because I can hear you having fun.”

Clayton: Yeah. That’s because a lot of times fun at work is conflated with goofing off. I have personally experienced a lot of times where I have been being very productive and getting a lot of stuff done. There’s been lots of laughter, joking and having a good time all around. Stuff that if you were overhearing the team room, you would assume that nothing’s happening which is very different. I also have seen a lot of times, plain old goofing off.

The important part is that the goofing off time has to be very transparent, so that there isn’t the temptation to assume that people are always goofing off. One way this was solved when we were working out of Gangplank with the “Street Fighter” and “Blitz” machines, which was a lot of fun ‑‑ Video games at work. They were in a totally separate area of the work space. When people decided to stop working and they wanted to go have fun, specifically have fun playing video games.

It was very clear that they got up from their pairing station and they walked over and they played. If someone was maybe doing that too much, you would notice that they were missing from the team space and they were in the fun space. You could make that distinction, it was very clear. If it was a situation where people were…their version of fun was watching YouTube videos, which I’ve seen something like that or browsing Imager.

Those are the things that are a lot harder to do because then it’s hard to tell when someone’s working and when they’re not working like when they’re goofing off. That’s more detrimental to the “having fun at work” movement than anything.

David: Are you suggesting that the fun needs to be something that is going to be done in a team way? Or that fun, as a team would be the best way of doing that?

Roy: I don’t know if I agree with that, I feel like the YouTube and Imager stuff that you are talking about, basically everybody knows anyway. Maybe it’s harder to have the confrontation with somebody, because you can’t point and be like, “Hey, I saw you over there in the corner the entire time you worked out your machine.” But everybody knows. That’s really just the team not being brave and bringing it up to people who are abusing that type of fun.

Clayton: But I have seen those people, when someone brings it up and makes a joke about like “Well you know, some people watch YouTube all day.” I’ve seen those people say, “That’s not true, I don’t watch YouTube all day.”

Roy: First off, don’t be passive aggressive and second bring it up


Creating Separation and Transparency in Fun and Work

Clayton: Yeah, but I am saying when you don’t have that clear separation and there is not transparency, it’s so easy to just defend yourself and say that’s not true, it’s a he said, she said thing at that point.

Roy: Yeah, but it does not matter, you’re not trying to justify to management like you are not ratting this person out. Your saying, “Hey, I notice this behavior in you, I have a problem with it whether or not you perceive it to be a problem is separate. This is my reality, I realize you have a different reality, let’s reconcile this.

Clayton: That conflict is where the “Don’t have fun at work” stuff comes from. People that we’ve seen that say, “Don’t have fun at work,” or “you are having too much fun at work,” or ” All we do over here is goof off,” is when they have their back turned and they hear the laughing maybe that is joking around while you are doing work and maybe the laughing is you just watching YouTube videos and they can’t tell the difference, so the easy answer, the legalistic answer, is no fun at work any laughing is bad.

Roy: OK, yeah I think that is an issue to avoid.

My Culture Doesn’t Understand Having Fun At Work

David: If you are in a culture working in a company that has a culture that is like that, that doesn’t actually understand the value of being able to have fun at work, rather they think that work should be toil. Have you seen anything that a group can do to be able to introduce that in such a culture? Or do they have to be brave enough to be able to go ahead and do it?

Roy: If a team has earned trust by delivering on the stuff that they promised regularly, it’s going to be really difficult for the organization to criticize why they’re having fun at work.

If you have that trust you can say, “Hey, I know you are having a problem with me having fun, but I delivered when other teams didn’t.”

Accountability and Trust Pave the Way For Having Fun At Work

Clayton: Would that be a prerequisite then, that if a team understands that then first they might want to be thinking about how can they make it so that they are accountable or can be held accountable for the work that they are doing, demonstrate, “Yes, we can actually do this” and then be able to start changing the culture that way.

Because I think there’s a weird trend basically where there’s probably some things that would start out in the beginning. They would be having fun, and it would hurt them. They would maybe go slower, or people would spend too much time doing “fun things.” That would be detrimental to the team in your organization. Then I think as teams maybe mature they get to a point where they can’t go.

The only way they can be as fast as they are is if they are having fun and they are enjoying what they’re doing in that regard. There’s definitely maybe the dip I guess where there’s some period where you’re probably going to see diminished output. If you’re measuring output, which a lot of people do, then that’s an easy way to say, “OK. It was fine that you guys had Nerf guns for a while, but you failed three sprints. So no more Nerf guns.”

That might not have anything to do with it, but that’s such an easy target that people can jump into.

David: Yeah. [laughs]

Daily Card Game

Clayton: One thing that actually we’ve been doing for quite a while is at the end of the day we’ll have a card game when we play just some various card games. It’s a good way for us to have fun at work.

What we’ve noticed is that there’s been a lot of really good conversations that have happened in this context because it’s so still very work‑related, and things that we would talk about during the work day ‑‑ It just so happens that maybe they come up at this time. I don’t know if it’s the relaxed environment or whatever it is, but there’s something about that time that makes a big difference.

Do you guys agree?

Roy: Yeah, I agree. It’s like the informality of it makes it a safe environment to bring stuff up you wouldn’t otherwise feel comfortable bringing up. I’ve noticed a lot of conversations happening there that I was surprised even came up.

David: I think part of it is just because it is at the end of the day, and because of the nature of the cards, you’re playing games so you’re naturally unwinding anyway. That lends itself to being able to being more comfortable to be able to have those kinds of conversations where maybe during the course of the day when you’re busy getting other things, usually you’re involved in meetings, and you have a certain set of tasks to do.

But at the end of the day lends itself to that along with the card game. But I agree, I think that has been a very healthy activity to do.

Roy: Yeah, but if somebody were to walk past and see you playing cards, they’d be pissed, especially if it was your boss or some. That’s part of the problem. You can’t outwardly tell that this is actually a very productive time of day.

In fact, there have been days where the most value I provided and the most value I received was during the half hour or 15 minutes or whatever of playing cards at the end. But any observer that is unaware of that would just think I was goofing off during that time and playing a game.

Just Get The Work Done

Clayton: I’ve always laughed when I’ve heard managers, and managers say this because they want to try and sound cool or they want to be your buddy. They say things like, “Hey, I don’t care what you guys do as long as you get the work done.” I’ve heard people say that.

I always think, “OK, I’m going to bring a TV in. I’m going to wheel a TV in. I’m going to have ESPN on all day long. I’m going to get a Lazy Boy, and I’m going to kick that up in the middle of the aisle. Every 30 minutes I’m going to blow my vuvuzela on the floor, as long as I get my work done.”

Roy: Man, we actually did that in here at one point.

Clayton: Right. Nobody actually believes that. No one does that. That’s the exact same person that if you started playing cards, they’d be like, “Oh, playing cards? Oh, just goofing off, OK.” I think management generally speaking does a really bad job of understanding how fun fits into a team and then staying out of the fun. The fun aspect is very important for the team if the team values that.

I guess there are some teams I’ve seen that don’t really value having fun. But if the team does and that’s something they can be responsible about and they can be accountable to it and they can be transparent about it, I think that’s a fantastic thing.

Roy: But “staying out of it” is maybe the wrong term. Maybe it’s being passive aggressively discouraging it because I think a manager that participates in it and helps promote it can actually be a good thing.

Clayton: Sure, yeah. If the team has certain values, then the manager can play into those or can adopt some of those things or be sympathetic maybe. That probably does go a long way. You look perplexed, David. What are you thinking?

The Importance Of Fun

David: I’m not perplexed. I’m in a position where I do believe that I understand the importance of fun, especially with teams that I’m expecting to be creative and innovative in some of their solutions. I don’t think you can actually do those kinds of activities without being able to have fun. At least that’s not been my experience. But I may be in a culture where that is not seen as the way that you get work done.

I’m trying to think how would somebody in that position, in a management role perhaps, introduce that concept to a team that has never been exposed to that, in a way that can be seen as productive.

I’m thinking of some of the teams that I work with. What would happen with that team if I came in a started encouraging them to actually have fun in some way?

It would be a positive thing, but I’m trying to think through what the ramifications of that would be for a team that has never had that, or been allowed to do that.

Starting Small

Clayton: Yes, it would be tough. That’s why you see a lot of companies that take the approach of “Oh, we have developers, and so in order to be a cool place to work, we’re going to put a ping pong table. Because that’s what they do in Silicon Valley, right”?

That’s the joke you always hear. I think that’s exactly the kind of scenario. If you took your average corporate development team, and you gave them that sort of thing, I don’t think it would make sense. This feels like a trap maybe.

So you have to start really small. I worked with a team that was kind of in that boat of thinking work was just toil. They didn’t like it. But for their Scrum board, I glued Monopoly pieces on to pins and that was this little hint of fun, like “Oh, this is a little different. I like the dog, I want to be the car.” Whatever. That was probably the foot in the door to exploring having fun while you’re doing your work.

So I think you have to start really small like that. Going out and buying a whole bunch of Nerf guns and the Nerf basketball hoop and setting that up in the tea room is probably overkill at the beginning.

Roy: And it doesn’t really help. I think that’s part of trying to add a punch of perks, to use perks to create a culture. The problem is that the culture isn’t the perks. But if your team has a strong culture, the teams end up creating those perks for themselves.

They might find fun in Nerf guns or whatever and bring them in themselves. And then they are self‑aware enough to realize, one, that it isn’t decreasing their productivity, probably even helping. And two, that they have the authority to do it because they’ve built up the trust with the people that they work with.

Clayton: I can definitely see that happening. The thought I was having, or was trying to formulate was, would this actually be a catalyst towards maybe getting a paradigm shift to occur within a team that has been so mired in a culture that is the opposite of that?

Is this something that can be seen as a catalyst? Perhaps not. Perhaps it is something that has to happen naturally with a high‑performing team once they get to a certain level. But I am wondering though, if maybe this is one those things.

Because it’s so different from what many of the people, especially in the enterprise world, are used to. Maybe the introduction of something like this might be enough to completely knock them out of their comfort zone? I don’t know.

Having Fun, Correlation or Causation to High Performance

Roy: It’s an interesting idea, because I’ve always thought of a high‑performing team generally has fun. So fun is a byproduct of a high‑performing team. I’ve never really thought of the idea of using fun, to take a team, to have them become high performing.

It feels a little off to me. I think that’s going to be very difficult to make that work.

Clayton: I think there’s something about…I remember back in school, you might be sitting in the classroom and the teacher’s trying teach you something, some lesson or whatever. And that feels like school and you’re in a class room and it’s the same thing.

But then when you go on the field trip and you basically are learning the same thing. But it’s this entirely different environment, it all of a sudden seems so cool. So I wonder sometimes, with teams who maybe are trying to explore fun or learn how to have fun.

Like if it’s OK, to test their boundaries, if maybe getting outside of the normal work space is a good idea. Is it a matter of “Hey, let’s go work from a coffee shop for the day”? Or whatever the case may be.

Something like that to get outside that zone, so that it feels a little bit different. To break the idea that everything about work relates to the stale corporate environment.

David: Yes, I agree with that.

Clayton: Alright, I think we’re about out of time so thanks for listening.

Roy: Bye bye.

David: Bye.

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