º Be self-deprecating. Set the tone that humor is not only desired but encouraged by mildly goofing on yourself. “If you’re in a position of power, self-deprecating humor is very safe, and makes others more inclined to like you by reducing the power distance that exists,” says Cecily Cooper, an associate professor at the University of Miami School of Business. Don’t go crazy—no need to tell about your failed first marriage—but something dignified and humble should work, like mocking your inability to find matching socks in the morning or making light of a mistake you made.
º Be the straight person. Not everyone is funny, and that’s fine—laughing at someone else’s joke is a great way of letting your staffers know that humor is appreciated.
º Use humor in the décor, as far as is appropriate to your business. Advertising firm Door Number 3, for instance, is an open workspace, with a yellow plastic sofa, a totem pole, and a fish tank made from an old TV. That wouldn’t fly in a financial planning firm, but a plaque with an ironic or humorous adage might.
º Set up your workspace communally. Spontaneous joking is a lot easier when you don’t have to knock on someone’s door to do it.
º Lift restrictions on emailing and social networking. Research by Christopher Robert, associate professor of management at the Trulaske College of Business at the University of Missouri, found that the type of humor that had the biggest impact on workers’ engagement in their tasks was emailed humor. “It’s hard to get management to give people their space, but they should,” he says.
º Hire people with a sense of humor, says Robert. “You’re more likely to generate a culture of humor.”
º Pay attention. Watch out that all employees feel comfortable with the level and type of humor in the office. Make it clear that anyone can come to you privately and complain and will not be viewed as a Debbie Downer if she does. Most people know instinctively what will be offensive, and most office cultures are self-regulating, but it’s fine to ask people to err on the side of respect and wholesome humor.
º Create opportunities. Off-site meetings and family days held every so often show people that humor is welcome. Buzz Revolution, a marketing firm in Denver, for instance, has an annual hot dog-eating contest and turkey bowling events. But you don’t need to leave the office to open the door to a little laughter. Engaged Health Solutions, for instance, has a plastic figurine of a meerkat (a ferret-like creature from Africa) that someone found in a Dumpster, which became their peer-nominated employee of the month trophy and is festooned with decorations from each winner. In the break room at Door Number 3, the first line of a story is posted (“On my way to work I saw...”) so employees can add a line to the story as they come in, and by the end of the day the result is a chuckle. Also, those who want to make an announcement at a staff meeting must signal their intent by banging a door knocker shaped like a moose. “People can be a little too cool for school and things like this help us dial it back a little,” says Door Number 3 President M.P. Mueller.
Sometimes office fun can get out of hand and you need to find a way to say that it’s time to get back to work without sounding like a killjoy. An office full of people motivated to go home and see their families is unlikely to devolve into a giant playground. If the goofing off doesn’t stop, though, make sure all parties know that they are expected to complete their work before they leave for the day, which will likely get them back to the grind in a timely fashion. If someone is inappropriate, take him aside and explain exactly why and how. At Peppercom, a public relations firm that has a kickball team, company co-founder Steve Cody says a new male receptionist made a crack about wanting to see some of the female players in wet T-shirts. “He just didn’t realize that while we like humor, all humor wasn’t OK,” he says. The lines were clarified and it never happened again.
Learn more about how a funny workplace can make happier employees in our Funny Business article. Don't forget to also check out our blog post on our very own Best of SUCCESS Office Antics to see how our SUCCESS staff keeps itself happy and entertained.