Post-Covid workplaces: Is the fun fading away?

At home or in the office, workplace fun isn't a one-size-fits-all affair – leaders need to acknowledge that and offer a safe environment, according to a University of Auckland study.

Colleagues sitting in office laughing together

Working from home one or more days per week has become a norm for many employees post-Covid; how has this shift affected the ways workers have fun?

Business School researchers Associate Professor Barbara Plester and Senior Lecturer Rhiannon Lloyd explore fun in hybrid work and psychological safety in their article Happiness Is 'Being Yourself': Psychological Safety and Fun in Hybrid Work.

Based on in-depth interviews with workers from two companies, the study finds that fun activities shouldn't be uniformly enforced or encouraged by workplaces; instead, a nuanced understanding of individual preferences and safety considerations is required.

The researchers say hybrid work, where employees work partly in the physical workplace and partly at home, may foster greater interpersonal ambiguity with physical cues missing from some interactions.

"This creates challenges for generating emotional safety and for encouraging fun at work, as interpreting the experience of fun, and understanding what’s safe may be increasingly hard to navigate. This seems to result in less fun or more opting out of fun, both online and in-person, due to uncertainty and confusion about what’s now acceptable," says Dr Plester.

A positive and inclusive environment where fun is an optional, safe experience can boost morale and employee satisfaction, according to the study. Managers can nurture feelings of safety, encourage authentic self-expression, and find creative ways to promote spontaneous interactions.

Spontaneous fun, say the researchers, is rated more highly by employees than managed, planned or structured fun.

However, impromptu fun still comes with risk.

Barbara Plester, Associate Professor in the Department of Management and International Business
Barbara Plester, Associate Professor in the Department of Management and International Business

"We argue that when a fun activity isn’t forced or managed by an organisation, the rules of 'fun' are more fluid and ambiguous, and so, there's potentially more risk associated with fun activities that are not specifically task-related or mandated. In such instances, mental and emotional safety should become an important management consideration as, particularly during transitions, we see in our data that employees need to feel safe to take risks to find and stabilise a 'new awkward'.”

Managers, says Dr Plester, should be aware that online work interactions may limit opportunities for spontaneous fun.

"Providing time and space for employees to engage in unplanned interactions and activities can help alleviate this issue."

While online interactions might lack the spontaneity of in-person interactions, Plester and Lloyd say they also offer the advantage of allowing employees to opt out more easily.

Study participants also indicated that fun needs to be championed - if fun is modelled by senior staff, it helps to create psychological safety, says Plester.

“Such modelling may need to occur in-person and online, so that both environments are perceived as safe.”

Workplace fun is a complex social and organisational activity, and what one employee perceives as fun may be perceived as demeaning or offensive by colleagues. Accordingly, fun can’t be delivered as a package to all employees, say Plester and Lloyd.

The study utilised in-depth interviews, data and observations from a digital design and technology business with 70 employees and a food manufacturing organisation with more than 600 staff, including permanent employees and contractors. It’s published in the Administrative Sciences journal.

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