More Work, Fewer People: Humor Helps

By Nancy M. Davis Jul 1, 2009
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NEW ORLEANS—Most attendees at the June 29, 2009 SHRM Annual Conference concurrent session, “Get More Work From Fewer People Without Making Them Hate You or Quit,” held here raised their hands when speaker Laura Stack asked how many administered layoffs this year.

Nothing funny about that.

Stack’s advice typically serves decidedly practical goals: Control time wasters such as procrastination, lack of organization, and unnecessary meetings and socializing. Reduce workplace irritation from tight quarters, noise and poor light.

But in her session, the president of ProductivityPro Inc. and author of The Exhaustion Cure (Broadway Books, 2008) started describing and applauding some of her clients’ sincere efforts to merely lighten up workplaces where many employees face unprecedented stress from personal and professional crises brought on by the recession.

Encourage playfulness and fun, she advised. In one Sprint office, for instance, workers had a carnival going on when she arrived recently. An employee told her they scheduled a different game every day. They appointed a director of mirth and a fun committee and were engaging in a favored activity: a toilet-paper-rolling contest down the hall, she recalled. Organizers were handing out “bucks” permitting participants to buy caps and T-shirts.

In another company, across the street from a movie theater, employees rotate duty on Fridays and a group goes to see a movie and have popcorn—“a little something to make work more enjoyable,” Stack said.

Workers at the Denver Water Board participated in a National Clean Off Your Desk Day. Before-and-after pictures were posted in a contest to determine the most improved departments. In yet another company, she said, employees made a list of swear words and numbered them. Now instead of using the swear word, people say the corresponding number, Stack explained. At Dairy Queen these days, employees receive visits from an ice-cream cart.

Such activities “really help. People want to come to work because it is fun,” she said. As evidence of need, she cited Gallup pollsters who recently found that only 27 percent of those calling into work sick were actually sick. “Others were sick of the place,” she reported, adding that other benefits of using humor include increased attendance and productivity, better problem-solving abilities, better communication, and lower stress.

Alleviating stress through humor represents only one role HR professionals must embrace during a recession, however. They must also perform the nearly impossible yin-yang task of improving employee satisfaction and producing extraordinary results. “You feel like a resident counselor sometimes because a lot of people feel the result of stress and burnout. You don’t want employee turnover when the economy picks up again; we don’t want them to leave in search of a better way.

“When was the last time you were leaving the office and had the feeling of being done? No one finishes anymore,” she said. She recounted IBM’s goal of eliminating “speed bumps” by sending around a “speed team” to uncover and bulldoze problems that inhibit efficient operation. She identified potential solutions, including:

  • Reduce burnout among employees by offering flexible schedules and work arrangements.
  • Say “no” creatively by negotiating or extending deadlines, simplifying tasks, reducing quality, revamping or brainstorming processes, or delivering projects in parts.
  • Create codes of conduct. Decide collaboratively what conditions require meetings, e-mails, phone calls and other forms of communication that interrupt workers. Stack says some companies have assigned committees to create protocols about appropriate forms of communication.

Nancy M. Davis is editor of HR Magazine.

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