Emma: Hey Andy, have I ever told you about the time I worked at a swanky tech company and had to wake up at 5am one morning to put on a cowgirl costume then meet 20 coworkers in a parking lot so we could carpool for an hour and half to go white water rafting, in assigned rafts, so I couldn’t even sit with my one friend, because it was Team Building?

Andy: What?! And we’ve known each other how long? The part that really kills me is the cowgirl costume.

Emma: It shook me to my very core. Until then, I thought Mandatory Fun was room-temperature pizza and four people playing foosball in the corner one Friday a month. I didn’t realize it could involve very cold water, very early in the morning.

Andy: I mean, that’s the kind of standard fare Mandatory Fun I’ve been a part of. Well, there was one department party where we got a drink sponsor — a little-known açaí liqueur called Veev — and someone went home in an ambulance…

Emma: Oh my. Right now we’re in a time when these over-the-top, in-person shenanigans are impossible. But working from home en masse seems to have cultivated a whole new breed of MF, a push for “connection” between coworkers who no longer see each other in the flesh. Some wacky stuff!

Andy: Truly wacky. I know someone who is being sent a Thanksgiving meal kit, and they will cook it on video with the rest of their team, and then eat it all together in front of their laptops.

Emma: I am agog at this example. At least they won’t be in costume?

But I really understand where this manager is coming from. I’ve never hosted a Zoom cooking show, but I have felt the responsibility of managing my team’s love of the job, as well as their love of each other. This is not a real responsibility…

Andy: I should hope not!

Emma: I’ve felt it nonetheless. And that feeling is pretty much a straight-shot into some version of Mandatory Fun. All work and no play makes for a dysfunctional team, so we enforce play at work, which technically makes it work, et voila you now have to preheat your oven to 400 or you’re not doing your job.

Andy: Have fun — or else! I found this study on ‘Being Yourself’ in the Electronic Sweatshop: New Forms of Normative Control to be extremely enlightening. It describes how Mandatory Fun isn’t real fun; it’s a band-aid that doesn’t work: “Fun, authenticity and play, for example, function as a diversion tactic that takes attention away from an otherwise alienating work process.” We’ve rejected high-control, highly normative office environments where everyone wears grey suits and has zero fun because that fostered alienation, disenchantment, disenfranchisement, dullness, and depersonalization.

But when we’re inundated with Mandatory Fun, we’re back as square one: alienation, disenchantment, disenfranchisement, dullness, and depersonalization. I’ve never felt those things more than when I was miserable on an “all-expenses paid!” work retreat for four days — two of which were weekend days.

Emma: Of course they were. And what makes the whole situation much more complicated is that some Mandatory Fun is great. Just not for everyone…

Andy: Never for everyone.

Emma: Like every single person on earth, I have a very self-centered view on fun which is: if I think it really is a fun thing, and I get to be exclusively with people I like, and I’m not going to have to make up any work, and I don’t have to neglect other responsibilities to do it (e.g. children, hobbies, partners, pets, friends, volunteer work), then hell yes, I’m all in.

If even one of that criteria is missing: this is bullshit.

Andy: Haaaa. Yes! I have the same mentality, which means my take as a manager is pretty much: No Mandatory Fun. I wasn’t always so extreme; I first had to put together enough failed Mandatory Fun events to learn that they are rarely the place for true fun and team connection. Maybe you remember this, Emma, walking to a team lunch to the Cheesecake Factory to celebrate a big team accomplishment. We were so tired and cranky. We wanted to eat alone, or nap, or have a day off. We didn’t want to have fun with the same people we’d already seen into the wee hours of the morning for the past week and a half.

Emma: I’ll add another criteria to my list: have slept the night before.

How to Have Fun at Work

Our biggest advice to managers: you do not have to host Mandatory Fun  not in person, and help us all, not over Zoom. That said, we both really like having fun at work, and there are ways for bosses to help it exist within their teams. These are the five questions we ask ourselves when we’re evaluating things that are supposed to be fun.

1. Is it optional? Anything that’s not part of the job can’t be a job requirement. You’re not allowed to hold it against someone for not wanting to participate or for flaking out. It’s hard not to resent those folks when you’ve put a lot of time and heart into making the fun happen. Which is why you should ask yourself…

2. Is it lightweight and outcome-free? Lightweight means not a lot of time or energy — for the planner or the participants. Outcome-free means you aren’t being measured in any way. This Business Insider article describes a great example from Zappos: When employees logged in to the company’s internal network, they would see a picture of a coworker, along with five possible names. After they guessed the name, they’d see the person’s bio and profile, learning more about those they may not directly work with. This is dramatically different from the required monthly coffee dates Emma had to go on with assigned strangers from other teams at one of her early jobs.

3. Did the team come up with the idea? Sam Warren, a professor of organization studies and human-resource management at the University of Portsmouth told The Atlantic, “The research on fun at work shows that self-authored fun (fun things people do by themselves) are the only activities that people genuinely find enjoyable.” That matches our experience. People really had fun in one office organizing their own Bananagrams tournaments. They did not have fun being forced to do company-wide giant Jenga. (They did have fun gently making fun of company-wide giant Jenga.) We like keeping some budget on hand so we can simply say, “Great! Go for it!” to anyone’s ideas for a fun thing.

4. Is it during work hours? The answer should be yes. This of course means not on weekends and before 5p. But it also means not eradicating all the fun your team is having during a normal work day. This can be extremely hard to do, especially those of us very focused on efficiency and productivity. We can get anxious and annoyed when we see people on our team goofing off, taking breaks, spending lots of time doing stuff that’s not, you know, working. We much prefer scheduled fun that we can all plan around. There’s obviously a balance here — deadlines are real, time is money, etc. But remember, scheduled fun isn’t actually fun. Bonus: naturally occurring fun doesn’t require any time investment from you!

5. Am I trying to fix something? Company- or team-wide fun is not a solution for people who are unhappy or burned out or overwhelmed at work. Like trying to put on some extra perfume to disguise your body odor, using fun as an attempt to distract people from the chronic dysfunctions of your office actually does more harm than good — you’re calling attention to, and not fixing, the root problem. You might even be making things worse. The last thing a tired, stressed out, overworked person wants to do is perform joy and lose work time.

Good Boss Achievement Stickers: Mandatory Fun Edition

Four illustrated digital stickers [1] Pink perfume bottle labeled 'Fun isn't a fix' [2] Someone waving a white flag from under a pile of Jenga tiles captioned 'No forced fun' [3] Bananagram tiles spelling out 'Let the good times roll' [4] Four people dressed in cowboy outfits on a white water raft captioned 'Fun begins before 5pm but also not 5am'