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It pays to play — and laugh and party and have fun — at work, and that's no joke

Published November 20, 2016 1:36 pm

Job satisfaction • Humor can bring balance and proportion — and, at the same time, boost productivity and unity in the workplace.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A CEO, a human-resources director and a new company hire are left adrift at sea after their ship crashes.

The HR director tells the CEO: "This is all your fault! You steered the ship!"

The CEO retorts: "Wrong! This is HR's fault. You were in charge of the crew!"



The new hire shouts: "You're both at fault! You steered, but you charted the course!"

After desperately casting a memo in a bottle to the tides, all three were eaten by sharks.

The message read: "Worst company retreat ever!"

———

Laughing matters • Humor is as much the stuff of business as it is of life.

Yes, the bottom line is serious. But whether it's daily quips between colleagues in the hallway, ice-breaking meeting openers or the office cutup's water-cooler monologue, such mirth is a basic ingredient to succeeding in the business world.

"You see this in all sorts of workplaces in every profession you can imagine," said Michael Kerr, a scholar and motivational speaker based in Canada who wrote "The Humor Advantage: Why Some Businesses Are Laughing All the Way to the Bank."

"Humor is both a driver of success," the author said, "but it also reflects success."

And that goes far beyond just telling jokes.

"A sense of humor is a sense of balance and proportionality in our lives," Kerr said. "It's about finding the funny in your day-to-day work, about laughing at things you have no control over and laughing at yourself more."

For employees, humor can make work friendlier, unwind tension, project confidence and contribute to career advancement.

From a corner-office perspective, creating a lighthearted environment is known to boost productivity and bond workers. It brings out more creativity and reduces sick leave. A recent study found that a majority of employees would accept less pay in exchange for having more fun on the job.

But levity almost always has an edge to it, and not everyone is comfortable cutting jokes at work, particularly in the conservative Beehive State.

"Utah's culture tends to be a little stiffer than it is in other places," said Lane Beattie, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber.

"You may also be working in an industry that is very stress oriented," Beattie said. "But it is probably even more important in those areas to find time to break with the mundane to a point where people can laugh."

So, what can be learned about humor in Utah workplaces where employees say they are happiest?

A great deal, it turns out.

It pays to play • Humor plays a vital and often nuanced role in how business is done at many of the 65 Utah job sites ranked highly by their employees for workplace satisfaction in recent surveys by Pennsylvania-based WorkplaceDynamics.

Workers at these firms frequently lauded the comic and enjoyable aspects of their jobs as major contributers to their overall satisfaction.

The word "fun" came up repeatedly, part of a larger pattern of employees placing greater importance on intangibles such as respect, feeling appreciated, work-life balance and a sense of meaning than on the heft of their paychecks.

These perceptions proved true at companies large and small — and from job sectors as diverse as accounting, food preparation, insurance, real estate, software development, sales, health care, event hosting, library services and teaching.

"We are always laughing," said an employee at Discover Financial Services, an Illinois-based banking and payment-services firm with offices in West Valley City.

"I enjoy working with people who are all driven to the same result and have fun getting there," a staffer told pollsters in praising his employer, Orbit Irrigation, an irrigation- and misting-equipment manufacturer in North Salt Lake.

In interviews with The Salt Lake Tribune, top managers reported significant business benefits — including improved communication, staff cohesion and resilience — from infusing humor and play into their personnel approach.

"We always encourage people to have playtime with those who are peers to humanize the workplace environment and feel like we can have fun with one another," said Nate Gardner, executive vice president of client services at MX Technologies, a financial-tech firm in Lehi.

"That makes the hard times even more enjoyable," Gardner added, "because you realize you're working with someone you trust, that you like and someone who is a human being like you."

At Ace Recycling & Disposal, Utah's largest independent waste-hauling operation, the laughs, fun and social connections made at regular parties — with family members included — not only build loyalty, but also help workers at the West Valley City company share their burdens as they power through some of the job's toughest challenges, said human resources executive Steve Richards.

"It can be dirty, smelly and a lot of hard work," Richards said. "So we want to find that balance between work and having fun and enjoying ourselves."

To thine own self be true — and witty • Company leaders can make themselves more approachable to their colleagues through humor that is genuine and heartfelt, breaking down barriers to open talk.

There is a humanizing effect "to being able to poke fun at ourselves," said Dan Burton, CEO at Health Catalyst, a health care data warehousing and analytics firm with more than 200 Utah employees.

A self-described introvert in his mid-50s, Burton said he frequently ridicules his own wardrobe and hairstyle, which are stuck in the 1980s. Now team members also have taken to quipping about his pleated pants.

"It's really healthy," he said.

Self-deprecating humor "can make everyone feel we're colleagues and on the same wavelength," Burton said. "We're all committed to the cause, but we don't take ourselves so seriously that we think one person is better than another."

Employees at Zurixx, a developer of financial-education programs, decorate walls of their Cottonwood Heights workplace with edited pictures spoofing one another. At South Jordan-based telecommunications software firm Xima, staffers take turns leading co-workers in an offbeat group activity of their choice, be it a cardboard boat race, egg drop contest, chili cook-off or even a Bob Ross-themed art day.

Scott Beck, CEO at CHG Healthcare, devoted his time slot during a recent company retreat to dancing across the stage while lip-syncing to the disco-era classic "Stayin' Alive" — complete with platform shoes and an outfit "that would make your hair stand up."

Making jokes like that about himself, Beck said, helps connect him to others and put employees at ease so they can be themselves, too, in a way that lifts morale.

"You can't create a real relationship through a corporate filter that is fake," Beck said. "It has to be real and authentic and let people see who I really am."

An executive at Sorenson Communications, which delivers communication services for the deaf, echoed that view, saying it goes both ways.

"There's an honesty in humor," said Paul Kershisnik, the company's chief marketing officer, "that makes people feel more comfortable with who they are."

Health Catalyst emphasizes transparency, Burton said, "especially when it's hard to be transparent" — be it a difficult encounter with a customer or a team member or having to deliver bad news.

"So, apart from these 12 major things that have gone wrong, everything's good," he joked. "Sometimes injecting a little humor can really help defuse things."

Beattie, with the Salt Lake Chamber, recalled one confrontational meeting in which the tone instantly shifted with a single well-placed one-liner.

"It relaxed everyone," he said. "It was masterful."

Laugh it off • Many high-ranking Utah firms also turn to humor to entice customers, whether through playful personal interactions or widespread witty ads. The fun, in essence, becomes part of the brand.

"It's in our DNA," said Tom Love, president of Love Communications, a Salt Lake City advertising firm. "We want to be the highlight of our clients' day."

After catering an event at Salt Lake Comic Con, co-workers at Utah Food Services filled a manager's office with 20 life-size cardboard cutouts of superheroes. The company's president, Richard "Sully" Sullivan, said he sometimes breaks into song during pitches to prospective patrons.

Co-workers were aghast at first, Sullivan said, but the tactic helped expand the Salt Lake City company's clientele.

"Chicken is chicken and broccoli is broccoli," Sullivan said, "so you have to give them something else."

Despite humor's many benefits, fears that workplace wit will veer off course and damage a company are common.

Kerr, the Canadian motivational speaker, often hears worries that it will lead colleagues to question one another's professionalism or that "it's going to unleash everybody's inner inappropriate stand-up comedian."

"Of course, that is a concern," he said. "But if you've created a positive, respectful work environment, then the humor is going to be, for the most part, positive and respectful as well."

Kerr said the typical office jokers, in fact, play pivotal roles akin to ancient court jesters.

"They speak uncomfortable truths to power, build team cohesion and even keep corporate history alive by telling stories," he said. "And if you have the odd misstep, don't get too crazy about it. So what? They are worth their weight in gold 98 percent of the time.

"The positives," he said, "outweigh the negatives."

tsemerad@sltrib.com

Twitter: @TonySemerad

 

 

 

 

 

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