You are not going to believe what he just said… Using laughter to lighten the workplace

Casual business team laughing during meeting in the office

I was standing in the hall outside my classroom watching the masses mill by as my room filled.  Soon one of my students came and stood next to me along the wall.

“Mr. Richard?” he said in a quiet voice.  Deante was a big kid, but rather quiet and shy.  “I finally figured it out.”

“What’s that?” I replied

“That DFTBA thing.  I have been staring at it all year and I finally got it.  And just so you know, I am with you.”

Now this was neat.  Over the summer I had read some of young adult author John Green’s books and his DFTBA was a nod to his nerd fighters.  It is John’s way to embolden his readers with the phrase “Don’t forget to be awesome”.  It was just a small sign I put up above the board, a shout out to those kids who don’t normally get shouted out to.

“That’s great D, glad to hear it.”

“Yep, just so you know.  I’m down for that big ass too.”

Oh my god, did I laugh like crazy.  I explained to him what really meant and we both busted out.  When we got inside the room, the whole class thought we had had a stroke.

That story was told about a hundred times and got funnier every time.  I was popping in talking to teachers I didn’t even know, just to laugh together.  Soon those teachers sought me out to tell me the funny things that happened in their class.  Laughter bounded us together and made us a team.

One of the things that distinguishes a lively and productive workplace from a stiff and lifeless one more than anything else, is laughing.  If the employees feel comfortable around each other and are free to laugh, you can almost guarantee that that company has a strong culture.  Employers everywhere are discovering that embracing fun can be a great way to bring employees together and create bonds that bind and not separate them from each other.

We have all heard the saying “if you love what you do you will never work a day in your life” it is a favorite of coffee cups and guidance counselors everywhere.  However, everyone who has ever worked a job, knows that that can be a difficult thing to live up to.  Even the most enjoyable jobs have their moments of drudgery and boredom.  The idea that if you are not always having fun then it is not the job for you sounds good, but that is about it.  We spend on average over 2000 hours every year working at our jobs and some of those hours, no matter how much we love our jobs just do not seem like fun.  Does that mean we made a bad career choice?  Hardly.  But knowing that those hours are the exception and not the rule is a great tonic to help us get through.

Madness to Engagement

Workplaces are adapting and changing all the time.  For example, every March the NCAA releases its basketball tournament championship bracket.  As the tourney gained popularity, businesses noticed worker productivity was nosediving.  Bandwidth was taken up by brackets instead of budgets; pools instead of balance sheets.  Soon companies were outlawing the contests and clamping down.  A firm but -as far as they were concerned- needed response to encourage worker productivity.

Some companies however soon found that rather than trying to hold back the waves, it might be better to climb onto one and surf it in.  Companies such as Disney turned “March Madness” into “March Engagement”.  Besides having an official office pool, they hosted after-hours watch parties with plenty of options for the non-sports fan, they encouraged employees to wear or display colors and jerseys (even if their team was not in the playoff) and had a championship belt for the winner to hold for the next 11 months until the tournament starts again.

Making the workplace fun has become almost a necessity in keeping employee retention high.  Add into that a millennial generation that while creative and smart, seems to have an innate desire to be entertained.  That coupled with a need to be communal and the modern workplace bears little resemblance to the factory floor of our ancestors.

The great Simon Sinek recently put out a video about how the workplace has a duty to school and mold the millennial generation into being more productive workers, but many workplaces are taking a different route.  They are changing their culture, to better work with this new modern workforce.

I was visiting a friend at his office recently.  He works at a tech firm and had just taken a new job; as we were walking around the data center, something caught my eye:

“Is that a putting green?” I asked.

“Yep, we have added that, a basketball hoop, free soda, and a bunch of couches in the middle of the work area.” He proudly told me.

I was stunned.  This workplace was almost foreign to me.  Looking at the t-shirt and sneaker clad techs I couldn’t help but share “Wow, so much has changed from the stodgy shirt and tie dress codes we grew up on huh”.

“Yep, it is odd.  It takes some getting used to, but the culture has really changed and the company has had to adapt with the times.”  In addition to dress code and short game practice, I noticed decorated cubicles, encouraging chants, and a busy but empowering collegiality among the workers.

Outside of the physical changes, he also talked of a business culture that is built upon service, empowerment and philanthropy.  Each of these changes makes the workplace somewhere you just don’t go to earn a check, it a place that is committed to growing you the person as well as you the professional.

Does it work?” I asked

“We grew 40% last year, on track to do it again, absenteeism is down and turnover is less than 10%.”  Sounds like it is working to me.

Fish!ers of men

Spikeplacefishfinal7415o when did the idea of playing at work take hold?  It is easy to point to the millennials and focus on them, but the truth is it is just the latest incarnation of the evolving work place.

In the late 90’s a school where I was teaching adopted the Fish! Philosophy.   Fish! was started by a fellow named John Christenson.  Christenson, a filmmaker, was on a quest to find the most engaging workplace.  While in Seattle, John happened into the Pikes Place Fish market.  He immediately notices the positive energy the stores had and how everyone who worked there seemed to be having a good time.  In addition to laughing and joking and tossing the occasional snapper around the market they were also focused on making sure the customer had everyone’s attention and were having an enjoyable experience shopping in the store.  Inspiration had struck and John ran with it.  He took the idea of the fish market and expanded on it to fundamentally change how businesses (and schools) run.  Out of this, the FISH! Philosophy was born.

The FISH! Philosophy has four basic tenants or ideas to build on.  They are:

  1. choosing one’s attitude,
  2. playing at work,
  3. making someone’s day,
  4. being present.


Each of those ideas starts with the precept that the employee is a valuable member of the workplace.  They have the power to influence everything that goes on and they can choose to make it a positive and engaging place to work.  This will then lead them to focus more on making sure the customer (or student) is having a good time as well.  This leads to a lighter and more employee focused culture that so many younger workers are looking for.

John’s philosophy became widely successful and his company Charthouse Learning has grown to meet the needs of businesses around the globe.

In schools, like most business, there are deadlines and times where everyone needs to be focused.  Then there is spirit week.  In the school setting, teachers had a love/hate relationship with the school’s spirit weeks and pep assemblies.  It was tough to keep kids focused but it was those days that the students looked forward to the most.  Graduating students have a hard time remembering any of the stories or poems discussed, but they remembered the fun things as if they only happened yesterday.  While it might not be the best day for students to sit and listen to lectures, it is times like that when the students are at their most creative. They work best in co-operative groups and have the best attendance rate.

Those students who were raised in the FISH! type schools are among the millennials populating our current workplaces.  Creative, intelligent, communal, and wanting to be engaged.  Instead of trying to “mold them” into the modern workplace, it is best to adapt to the changing climate.  The idea is that changing the culture can do more than just increase productivity but also increase the way employees feel about their company.  How important is it to have a lighter and enjoyable workplace?  With the many options available to young people today, it is important we make a persuasive case to keep them. Even if we have to walk past the putting green on the way to the copier.


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