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The death of 'mandatory fun' in the office
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The pandemic put an end to required birthday cupcakes, team happy hours and forced ‘fun’ activities. Many workers are deeply relieved.
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It is a truth universally acknowledged that there’s nothing better than a pizza party, except maybe an ice cream social. Field trips are super fun, too. And you can’t beat a good extra-curricular activity.

They’re the best, that is, if you’re in the third grade. If you’re an adult being forced to attend a team-building exercise, go to a post-work happy hour or celebrate in a conference room with your colleagues lest you be seen as ‘not a team player’, they’re mostly the worst.

For more than two years, a complete shake-up of office culture has effectively banished the forced fun of the pre-pandemic era. Many people have attended some kind of virtual team-building activity or Zoom happy hour, of course. But workers have by and large been spared the mandatory monthly birthday celebrations, afterhours drinks and outings to obstacle courses. 

And now, even as some companies call employees back to the office, ‘fun’ at work isn’t what it used to be. In a hybrid environment, it’s tough to get everyone together. Plus, a pandemic-driven priority realignment means many people want to be home with their families as quickly as possible after work – morale-boosting laser tag be damned.

But while the compulsory office party may have had its last gasp, a new kind of work fun is more important than ever. Events that people actually want to attend are a helpful way to facilitate team bonding, and to give those who’d prefer to remain mostly remote a good reason to re-join their colleagues. Smart companies are working to identify the types of ‘fun’ workers actually like: the things they’ll show up for because they want to, not because their arm’s twisted.  

No patience for parties

For decades, companies have – for better or worse – been working to make their offices fun places to be, says Paul Lopushinsky, founder of Vancouver, British Columbia-based consultancy Playficient.

“Over the last 20, 25 years, we’ve seen the rise of these perks no one was considering before,” says Lopushinsky. Think bean bag chairs, colourful lounges, arcade games and ping-pong tables as well as common areas with beer and cold brew taps. “We call it ‘the Kindergarten office’, where it looks more like a kindergarten classroom than a workplace. It started with the major tech companies, and that’s the culture people started to copy.”

Workers who've long bristled at compulsory work events, like birthday celebrations, are breathing a sigh of relief in a changed work world (Credit: Getty Images)

Workers who've long bristled at compulsory work events, like birthday celebrations, are breathing a sigh of relief in a changed work world (Credit: Getty Images)

But there’s always been something a bit insidious about those perks, adds Lopushinsky. “That culture isn’t really about fun; it’s about getting people to stay longer. That’s when you get the ping-pong table, the beer on tap. Now you’re expected to stay after work for happy hour. It was never mandatory, but if people didn’t, it was used against them, like, ‘you’re not a team player’.”

Even in offices without things like giant ball pits, a culture of forced fun has long persisted. And while some extroverts and expert networkers may genuinely enjoy it, many others have long chafed against it. “Nobody wants to be told, ‘it’s Hawaiian shirt day!’, and then you’re a pariah if you don’t participate,” says Adrian Gostick, an executive-leadership coach and co-author of a number of books on employee engagement.

Participation out of obligation creates a “corporate cult”, according to Lopushinsky, “where it’s almost indoctrination. You end up with fake smiles. ‘Oh yeah, of course, it’s great here, I just love these activities.’ It’s a culture of harmony with a lot of disharmony just below the surface.”

By stripping away the trappings around work – the desk-mates, conference room meetings and working lunches – the pandemic helped many realise that working effectively doesn’t necessarily require bells and whistles. It also brought the question of work-life balance to the fore, prompting workers to demand new levels of flexibility from their employers. 

And just as it changed everything else, the pandemic has forced a shift in office fun, too. In short, says Gostick, it’s made people a lot less likely to do things they don’t want to do. 

“I think the pandemic has made us a little angrier, a little more cynical overall, and people just aren’t putting up with things they consider annoying as much anymore,” he says. Thus, many were disillusioned by virtual team-building activities organised by managers desperate to keep people engaged. 

But that doesn’t mean that colleagues stopped connecting altogether, says Lopushinsky. They just started doing it in ways they actually found enjoyable. “On the flip side, the pandemic also led to the rise of more employee-led initiatives,” he says. Team-building events and ‘fun’ ceased to be top-down. “Employees would lead a Zoom yoga class, or a cooking class for their colleagues. It’s an interesting shift, away from ‘you have to do this,’ and toward, ‘what do you guys really want to do?’”

The pandemic has made us a little angrier, a little more cynical overall, and people just aren’t putting up with things they consider annoying as much anymore – Adrian Gostick

Gostick saw a similar trend emerge among his clients as the pandemic wore on. One, a major American corporation, started holding weekly “wine-and-whine” parties on Zoom. “It’s like four o’clock on a Friday. If you want to have a drink you could, or not, whatever. But you come and whine about the week,” says Gostick. “It’s an hour, and everybody complains and talks about their terrible clients and aggravating bosses.”

Rather than creating a toxic or negative environment, adds Gostick, the wine-and-whine events allow workers to blow off steam, let go of any frustrations from the week, prepare to enjoy the weekend and ultimately feel more refreshed on Monday morning. It’s an authentic kind of fun employees have continued to embrace as they return to the office. 

“Companies know they need to be looking for ways to bring people together that feels more authentic,” he says. “It’s not about just planning a party. It’s about making it meaningful, and making people actually want to be there.” 

Giving workers a good reason to go back

Today, after more than two years of remote work, a large number of people no longer want to return to a physical office. In the US, according to a February 2022 Pew Research study, close to 60% of those who’ve been working from home would prefer to continue doing so. In the UK, that statistic is even more stark. 

Employees that are ordered back, says Gostick, are likely to simply quit. So, he says, companies need ways to “lure people back”.

And they are certainly trying. Companies are offering everything from food trucks and free T-shirts to, in the case of Google, a private performance by Lizzo. But while such celebrations might draw a crowd, that enthusiasm wanes when it’s time to go back to their desks.

“One of my clients built a big new office during the pandemic, and they finally opened it up a few months ago and had a big party,” says Gostick. “They had like 90% of people show up. Everybody had a great time, and they were so excited to see each other. But then Monday, maybe 10% of people came in. People are desperate to see each other, but they still prefer to work remotely.”

Mandatory socialisation can breed fake smiles – and even stoke discord among workers who feel they have no other option but participate (Credit: Getty Images)

Mandatory socialisation can breed fake smiles – and even stoke discord among workers who feel they have no other option but participate (Credit: Getty Images)

The flashy parties may work at first, but companies need a longer-term fun strategy, says Gostick; ways to create fun that are meaningful enough for people to want to participate and compelling enough to keep them coming back. “It’s a shift from, ‘Everyone gather around, it’s Stan’s birthday and there are cupcakes’, to getting together in a meaningful way,” says Gostick. 

That means continuing events – like a wine-and-whine Friday – that were popular and useful during the pandemic, and planning others that don’t require people to stay after working hours, or invest time and energy they might like to spend somewhere else. It also means understanding that there are some people who simply won’t come, and not holding it against them. 

The other half of that equation, of course, is that it can’t be forced. “It’s got to be no guilt, no obligation,” says Gostick. “You have to give people the option to opt out.”

That’s a benefit to management, too, adds Lopushinsky. If the ultimate goal of office fun is to facilitate team bonding, it’ll work a lot better if nobody feels obliged to attend. “That kind of get-together has the most positive impact anyway. It’s team bonding that would happen naturally, as opposed to forcing it.” 

Post-pandemic, people are craving a good time and each other’s company more than ever, says Gostick, “and yet the inane office ‘fun’ of yesteryear has wholly passed. We realise, maybe more than before, that every minute of our time is precious. If our bosses want it, they’ve got to use it wisely.”