Back in the 70s, a bumper sticker that seemed to be pasted on the posteriors of well-heeled VW buses everywhere espoused a philosophy that I've always enjoyed. "Life is far too important to be taken seriously." Trite, perhaps, but there's a grain of truth in there that can serve us well in the midst of our ever so serious business lives.
General Patton once observed that tired soldiers were invariably pessimistic soldiers. In today's frantic and stressed out workplace, where there's always another deadline and the corporate culture makes you feel like a whiny loser if you want to skip the overtime tonight or actually take a day off, burnout is legendary. People often think that they're giving a lot of value to the company by putting in continual extra effort, but consider this: what quality of work do you think tired and pessimistic people are going to produce? If you don't find ways to perk your people up, their hard work and dedication will run your company right into the ground.
Consequently, I look for every reason I can find to laugh and have a little fun with my career. I've learned the hard way that all seriousness and no silliness makes for one crispy critter. Like many others, I rarely do my best work in this state.
Back when I was a programmer working for a major telephone company, I lobbied for the ability to telecommute from home on occasion. My justification was that I did my best work in my robe and bunny slippers. Somehow, much to everyone's delight, this got leaked throughout the company. In a serious corporate environment, the image of a techie walking around with furry, floppy-eared footwear became local legend. I didn't have the heart to tell them that it was just a figure of speech and that I didn't actually own any bunny slippers.
Nonetheless, in my little corner of the world, the joking lightened things up a bit. Consequently, I made it a point to embrace my notoriety as a somewhat eccentric character. We had some ridiculous deadlines and put in our share of all-night adventures. Rather than letting the stress turn me into a quick-tempered and pessimistic drone, I decided to not take myself so seriously. I laughed when I could, kept things in perspective, and together we kicked out some great work. And we had fun doing it.
Turning work into play is another way to improve morale. Periodically, I'll stand in line for a sandwich and watch the person behind the counter spin bottles in the air, twirl knives, crack jokes and generally ham it up. Far from slowing them down, these natural entertainers are invariably the fastest workers, make the best quality food, and most importantly, have the most repeat business during their shifts.
This same scenario is repeated in a wide variety of industries. People would rather have fun. When they decide to show a little personality and lighten things up a bit, they're always more productive. Why? It's not really rocket science. All other things being equal, happy people do the best work.
Although going to outlandish extremes might not be appropriate for some environments (I'm not sure I want to do business with a banker dressed up in a clown suit), you can always find ways to have a little fun with your work. What kind of atmosphere do you promote? Are your people enjoying themselves? If they aren't, I can assure you, you're not getting their very best.
Bunny slippers became a running joke with people who knew me, and a close friend finally tracked down a pair as a gift for me. Do I wear them? Absolutely! In fact, if you happen to catch one of my speaking engagements, don't be surprised to find me sporting them. Life is far too important to be taken seriously. So is business.