I remember a time when I was about to meet one of my early clients at his office. We hadn’t met before, and I was a bit nervous about how the meeting would go. As soon as I walked into the office, I noticed a poster stuck to the front of his desk, which showed my client’s face superimposed on the body of a posing body-builder. (As I learnt later, this was a ‘gift’ from his loving colleagues.) Not only did I get a good sense of the company’s culture, and become more relaxed, but by the time we shook hands we were both laughing. Of course, we had an instant rapport, and our meeting went really well.
Is there place for humour in business?
If you look into current workplace trends, you’ll find that concepts like work-life integration, inclusive workplace cultures, casual dress codes, and making friends at work are becoming increasingly popular. Clearly, companies are starting to value authenticity, welcome the whole person in the workplace, and treat everyone as human beings.
Now you would expect that humour should also find its way into the workplace – especially after having conquered the marketing world ages ago. But humour is still often seen as inappropriate at work, perhaps due to the common belief that it stops people from taking their work or subject matter seriously.
Isn’t it sad to walk into an office and only see work-related items wherever you look, and nothing that reflects people’s true spirit? In some of the workplaces I’ve visited, the only room where employees felt safe to loosen up and stick some fun stuff up on the wall was the toilet.
Treating humour as taboo when addressing serious issues not only makes work less exciting but also limits people’s thinking. Ironically, the more difficult a situation is – and thus when innovative solutions are needed the most – the more likely it is that creative ideas that could surface with the help of humour get suppressed, because the issue needs to be taken ‘seriously’.
The signs are positive
I believe that with the right intentions we can bring humour into almost any subject while still respecting its importance. Of course, humour has its time and place, but shouldn’t we trust our responsible team members to know the boundaries?
The good news is that humour is increasingly welcomed in the business world, and a growing number of companies – and their workplaces – not only allow but actively promote humour and laughter.
In his article, Seriously, it’s Time to Lighten Up, it’s Only Business, Andrew Griffiths (Australia’s #1 small business author) offers some great advice for business owners who want to encourage their team to laugh a little more often. (If you happen to know Andrew, you’ll know that he loves pushing boundaries with his humour. However, this doesn’t take anything away from his high standards and work ethics; in fact, his jokes only amplify the impact of his work.)
Why is laughter beneficial?
Laughter has evolutionary purposes. Researchers believe that humans developed laughter to strengthen human connections in a group; that’s why laughter is contagious.
Laughter expands blood vessels and increases blood flow. It releases endorphins, reduces stress hormones, strengthens the immune system, and thus contributes to overall health and wellbeing.
As Andrew Griffiths points out in his article, ‘… laughing is also an excellent form of rejuvenation — 15 minutes of laughter has the same relaxing effect as meditating for eight hours; ten minutes of laughter has the same relaxing effect as two hours’ sleep’.
Humour at work
Humour and laughter help people feel and think more positively, which, apart from making work enjoyable, has countless other benefits. Just to name a few, people in a positive mental state learn better, focus better, make better decisions, work with fewer errors, make more sales, and are more confident and resilient.
There’s nothing like laughter to get people to connect, build trusting relationships and enjoy working together. Humour helps build an inclusive culture characterised by authenticity, openness and equality. (Studies show that controlling laughter is a way of exercising power and dominating a group of subordinates.)
At meetings or presentations that incorporate humour, attendees tend to be more alert and interested. Furthermore, in a light-hearted atmosphere people who are concerned about criticism or looking silly find it easier to share their ideas or give feedback.
Humour helps us get us into a creative state of mind really quickly; it widens our perspective and prompts us to think outside the norm. Humour can help us understand problems better, explore different possibilities and find innovative solutions – because sometimes the best ideas are those that initially seem ridiculous. (I know some strategic design consultants who, when exploring what a certain service that they are designing for their clients might look like, ask themselves questions like: ‘How could we offer that service if we were in the desert, underwater, or on the Moon?’)
What’s the role of the physical environment?
The workspace can promote humour and laughter in several ways:
- The space may be packed with humorous design elements and features, so that when you walk in you can’t help but smile.
- It may be a creative and uplifting environment, helping you to get into a playful, light-hearted mood.
- By surrounding you with quirky features, it can give you permission and courage to share your own ‘crazy’ ideas.
- And finally, it can give you the platforms and the tools to express those ideas and show them to others.
Instil the type of humour into your workspace that best resonates with your team members, or let them find their own authentic playful voice.
Examples of how this can be done
Displaying artworks is an easy and simple way to bring positive vibes into a space. A copy of this painting decorates the wall of York Butter Factory, one of Melbourne’s business incubators. This is Banksy’s modern-age take on Monet’s famous painting Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies, titled: Show Me the Monet. (Image credit: Odd Stuff Magazine)
2. Wall murals
Wall murals are not only impactful and affordable, but offer endless possibilities. This large wall mural decorates and lightens up Superhero’s Amsterdam office. Painting a llama on an office wall, especially with an ice cream cone on its snout and with rubber gloves floating around, is certainly an unusual idea – and is probably inspiring many other out-of-the-box ideas. (Image credit: Dezeen)
3. Text on walls
Communicating uplifting messages can be as simple as writing them to where people can see them. For example, putting the organisation’s values on office walls – while can look quite tacky if not done right – can make a real impact if presented creatively and with a bit of humour, like the way it’s done in this call centre of Virgin Media. (Image credit: Spaceman Studio)
4. ‘Fun walls’
Dedicate a wall (or two) to people sharing any ideas or entertaining stuff they come across, run competitions, promote fun activities, and so on. Let this place have its own life. (Example: mono’s Minneapolis office – Image credit: Office Snapshots)
5. Unusual experiences
Create unique and uplifting experiences. For example, Stanford d.school’s female toilet is designed to create surprise. Imagine opening the door, and instead of the so-common neutral-coloured walls, being greeted by intense pinkness and a set of disco balls hanging from the ceiling. (Image credit: Fast CoDesign)
6. Create an ‘oasis’ for limitless fun
Allocate a space where people can have fun and laugh as much as they want without disturbing others. This might be a state-of-the-art game room like what you find in some of the trendiest offices (e.g. in TripAdvisor’s Needham office – Image credit: Office Snapshots), but even a simple breakout space that looks and feels welcoming can make a difference. Really.
7. Let your people contribute
Allow your people to bring whatever lifts their spirits to the office, and watch what kind of quirky things appear. This tiny creature – with a big personality – brings smiles to many faces in Prezi’s Budapest office. (Image credit: InVisionApp blog)