Hard business of having fun

Sally Whittle discovers how what goes on outside can reap rewards inside the office

While salaries and benefit packages are important factors in choosing where we work, three quarters of workers questioned by recruitment group Adecco earlier this year said they would prefer to work for a company that promotes a fun atmosphere.

“Generating loyalty and commitment need not be about hard cash,” says Adecco director Andy Powell. “In a strained economy, employers would do well to focus on employee wellbeing and happiness.”

The challenge for employers is how to balance fun and productivity. “The key to knowing where to invest money is knowing what you want to achieve upfront, and what success will look like,” advises Lorraine Makepeace, head of talent management consultancy Chemistry Group. “So if you want people to be more energised and make more sales, that’s what you need to measure.”

A third of UK companies have sports teams, clubs and schemes that employees can join but some companies push the boat out just a little further. The Chemistry Group’s most successful ‘fun’ project has been a company nutrition programme, which provides employees with advice on a energy-rich diet, and invites workers to cook a meal together once a week.

Online retailer Appliances Online has enshrined fun in its HR strategy with a policy called “Engage Me”, which invites employees to get together with colleagues to take part in fun activities, and the company will pay 50 per cent of the cost.

Snowboarding together is a great way to get people interacting

These activities can include anything from Spanish and guitar lessons to snowboarding and cookery workshops, explains Nicola Brown, people and engagement co-ordinator with Appliances Online. The company also invests in a beer festival, Christmas party and summer gala for employees, along with a sports day for employees and their families. There are regular dress-down Fridays and employee charity drives, including one which saw 12 employees climb Mount Kilimanjaro and raise £100,000 for a local children’s youth centre.

The Engage Me scheme has proved a particular success with the company’s 400 employees, but it has also benefited the business, says Ms Brown. “Taking a snowboarding lesson together or getting together after work to go ice skating is a great way to get people from around the company interacting with one another, building relationships and friendships.”

The scheme has proved so successful that a dozen employees recently signed up for a brand new “fun” opportunity – a five-day snowboarding holiday for more than a dozen Appliances Online staff – with the company subsidising 5 per cent of the cost. This has proven something of a challenge, Ms Brown confesses: “It’s not easy to find five days when 12 people can all be out of the office, including the head of group finance!”

This warm and fuzzy factor translates into hard benefits for the company, however. “What we get from it is far higher levels of employee engagement, reduced turnover and better motivation,” she says. “Despite the recession we’re fortunate to still be growing as a business by 4 per cent a year and some of that is certainly down to our people.”