October 14, 2008

Does having a fun workplace make business sense?

Filed under: HR — Nicola Rowe @ 4:41 pm

Schluss mit Lustig (loosely, “No more fun!”) demanded the German advertising executive and author Judith Mair von Eichborn six years ago in a book arguing that EQ, flexitime and a culture of trust and fun had no place in the modern workplace.

It was a clarion call in 2002, but it went unheeded even in Ms Mair’s own country: Prussian virtues notwithstanding, the internet boom had left enough of a mark on German culture to make even old-economy firms want to offer their employees an enjoyable working environment. And now, with market indices sliding down around our ears, who would want to deny that work should be fun? Certainly, überguru Tom Peters has been plugging the idea for more than a decade.

While the idea of an enjoyable workplace sounds worthy – praiseworthy, even – should employers pursue it? Does it make business sense, as well as emotional sense?

It turns out it does. Former Harvard Business School Professor David Maister studied 29 firms across more than 15 industries in 15 countries. He concluded that firms scoring in the top 20% of his sample for “commitment, enthusiasm and respect” financially outperformed the average of the other four-fifths by 63%. Firms in the top quintile for employee satisfaction outperformed the other quintiles by 42%; for empowerment, 32%. So getting the atmosphere right at work makes business sense: the soft stuff matters.

Google does not reveal the fate of Mair und Andere, the advertising agency which Ms Mair co-founded and where she worked (in a dark-blue uniform) at the time Schluss mit Lustig was released in 2002. But she published Fake for Real, a discussion about the social conflation of truth and fiction, in 2005. Two books in three years! Might Ms Mair’s diligent application of the pen imply that she is… enjoying herself?


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