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The Morale of These Consultants' Story Is: Work Should Be Fun Too

September 29, 1996|MARTHA GROVES

At Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream in Vermont, a permanent Joy Gang headed by a Grand Poobah plans activities for employees.

General Motors Corp.'s headquarters office held an ugly-tie contest, followed by an ugly-shoe contest after female employees complained about feeling left out.

Royce Medical, a maker of orthopedic products in Camarillo, installed table tennis and foosball tables for employees to enjoy during breaks.

When Sprint opens a new long-distance-service sales center near Portland, Ore., on Oct. 10, teams of new sales employees will be asked to develop symbols or themes about what it means to be a Sprint employee. An artist will use the ideas as inspiration for a 25-foot sculpture to be displayed at the center.

Fun hasn't been much on the minds of corporate managers in the last few years, not with the emphasis on cost cutting, lean operations and self-preservation.

Matt Weinstein is one of a cadre of humor gurus seeking to change that.

As "founder and emperor" of Playfair Inc., a 21-year-old Berkeley consulting firm, Weinstein views it as his mission to help workers and managers inject some levity into the workplace. In keynote speeches and seminars, he and the company's vice emperors and empresses (we kid you not) coach a diverse range of organizations--IBM, AT&T, Whittier College, Stanford's business school, Wells Fargo, Wherehouse, Ford Motor, Hughes Communications--on how to lighten up already.

"Solemnity as a way of life is greatly overrated," the impish, curly-haired Weinstein says. "You can be serious about your work and still be having a good time."

Lest this sound like an invitation to be frivolous at company expense, take note that Weinstein promotes the notion that good humor raises productivity, eases stress, builds teamwork and increases loyalty.

Still not convinced?

Sprint, the long-distance company, is so enamored of the idea of linking fun and work that it recently invited Weinstein to speak to potential employees of its new suburban Portland sales office. Price of admission: one resume. The intention was to recruit employees with a zany sense of humor who would respond well to wacky incentives designed to encourage more "cold calls" to bring in new customers.

"It's our job to be in a good mood all the time," says Tony Scelza, inside sales group manager for Sprint in Los Angeles and Portland. "Attitudes are contagious. We all have to ask one question when we walk through the door: Is mine worth catching?"

Companies find that Weinstein's mood is generally worth catching--or at least worth laughing at. In his uplifting talks, he pleads for a standing ovation, going so far as to offer to return his fee if he doesn't get one (but he always does). Participants can ask for a standing ovation too, and be about as assured of getting one as they ever will be in life.

Getting skeptical employees to break the ice--with Weinstein and with one another--is vital. Robbie Gluckson, director of strategic planning and research for R&B Apartment Management in West Los Angeles, recalled Weinstein's inspired efforts to help assimilate workers from a company R&B had recently acquired.

First, everyone in the group picked a partner. Within just a few minutes, one partner, constantly prodded by the other, had to list everything he or she loved about himself or herself. Then they switched roles. Another exercise had people talking about their most embarrassing moments.

After hearing Weinstein's spiel, R&B fine-tuned some of its employee recognition programs. Among other things, it offers a companywide electronic "brag line" for spotlighting any employee who does something terrific, such as work overtime through a hurricane or earthquake.

In his recently published book, "Managing to Have Fun," Weinstein offers a year's worth of suggestions for humor-challenged managers. Here are a few:

* Give an employee a surprise day off.

* Post baby pictures of staffers and have everybody guess who's who.

* Create a stress-free zone, as did Brookstar, an automotive supply firm in Michigan, which set up a hammock and an inflatable palm tree outside its conference room.

* Give anonymous and unexpected (positive) feedback, such as a bouquet of flowers or a "way to go" note.

* Have a "secret pal" program.

* Encourage workers to get together outside of work once a month, to play cards or basketball or to go hiking.

If you're thinking right about now, "Surely he jests; this is all too hokey and touchy-feely," chances are your workplace is a solemn and oppressive place.

"It doesn't have to be," Weinstein says. "I hope that people in upper management will get this. Otherwise, they might be rich at 70 but have a hollow feeling."


Does your company have an innovative approach to management? Tell us about it. Write to Martha Groves, Corporate Currents, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Or send e-mail to

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