Field Notes: 4 ways to create a fun workplace

December 2, 2019
  • Competencies
  • Leadership and Management
  • Professional Well-Being

"Field Notes" is a regular AACRAO Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at connect@aacrao.org.
by Jennie Brackett, Assistant Registrar - Reporting and Research at University of Notre Dame


At AACRAO 2018, I attended the session with Kevin Carroll about the "red rubber ball" and having fun at work. Carroll has made a profession of helping companies find ways to incorporate fun into the culture of the company. 

Wait. Can those two words go in the same sentence -- "fun" and "work"?

According to recent studies, mixing fun and work absolutely should happen. For example:

Taking regular breaks helps you to be a more productive employee.  In fact, according to Dave Crenshaw's book, The Power of Having Fun: How Meaningful Breaks Help You Get More Done, a break every ninety minutes increases creative thinking by 40% and improves your focus by 28%.  That break might be a simple walk around the building, or as extensive as planning a family vacation. Regardless of the length of time, the point is to take breaks regularly, to rejuvenate yourself, and to be able to approach work with a fresh perspective.  

We all know those people that are too busy to take a break (anyone?), so is it really bad to just work, work, work? Regular breaks keep us from becoming bored and unfocused. Our brains are not wired to have the extended focus that we force them to have. Breaks help us to make those sub-conscious connections that happen while we are daydreaming. They also help us to re-evaluate our goals and to accomplish what we set out to do. When we hunker down and work harder, longer, and without breaks, we tend to be less efficient, make more mistakes, and we are less engaged.  How does that help anyone?

Vacation is important. According to "Project: Time Off," a study by the U.S. Travel Association, 52% of Americans left vacation time on the table in 2018. That translates to about 705 million unspent vacation days, about $62.2 billion in lost benefits -- around $561 "donated" to employers. But that time doesn't necessarily translate into productivity, as we have seen how important regular breaks -- whether the short kind taken during the day or the longer time away taken on vacation -- are to doing meaningful work.

Are employees fearful of taking time off because they will appear less dedicated and/or replaceable? Do employees feel guilty when they take time off? When you are on vacation, are you still checking your email? I have a colleague who categorizes vacation as "Capital V" vacation, or ‘lower case v’ vacation -- "Capital V" is off the grid or out of the country without an international data plan.  When you vacation, is it ‘Capital V’ or ‘lower case V’?  

Find ways to improve the office climate.  So, how do we as leaders in our industry help to incorporate fun into our workplaces?  How do we help our employees understand that taking breaks is not only acceptable; it is in fact something that will make them more productive? 

Studies show that ‘forced fun’ is not something that employees desire and/or appreciate.  Fun works best when it is something that makes each individual happy. Some of my colleagues enjoy a walk around campus during lunch, enjoying what nature has to offer. Some enjoy going over to the campus rec center to sweat out their frustrations. Some just enjoy socializing and taking time to build relationships with others. 

It might be that you, as a leader, need to encourage or even plan a quarterly event that sounds fun for your team, something as simple as geocaching or going to a local ballpark.  Maybe it is lunch off-campus. Maybe it is the encouragement of your employees to take time off to have an extended weekend or vacation, without the fear of repercussions. Some studies even say having an office pet is a fun thing and can be stress relieving.

Lead by example. No matter how you do it, demonstrating having fun as an exemplar will give your team the permission to recognize this need in their own work balance. This is important before you and your university end up contributing to "active disengagement" in the workplace. In a 2013 study by Gallup, only 30% of Americans are happy in their work, while 70% feel indifferent, or may even hate their jobs.  

What can you do personally to find a way to take small breaks and refresh your engagement?  Companies reflect the mentality of their leadership. If you want employees that are giving you the best possible work, they need to see that taking meaningful breaks is an important aspect of being a great employee. So, here is your license to go have fun and come back rejuvenated and fresh with ideas.