Mandatory fun is bad. I don’t mean it’s badly intentioned. I’m sure whatever powers that be inflict mandatory fun on the rest of us probably think they’re doing something positive, if not exactly something wonderful. It just seems to me that the forced joviality of people who work together pretending to be the best of friends feels awful in just about every possible way. Consider, if you will, when was the last time you had an unadulterated good time at the office Christmas party or the company picnic? For the record, I don’t consider going because you need to “make an appearance” or because it’s slightly better than spending those hours at your desk to qualify as fun in this instance.
Most people make at least some small effort to have a firewall between what they do for fun and what they do to make a living. Maybe there was a time long ago, before everyone was an easily offended, uptight stick in the mud, when these official organizational celebrations were good times. Today they mostly feel like a formality – just a small nod to that bygone era. Most people will go along with it, of course, because making waves is rarely the best tactic to endear yourself to whatever bosses you serve. Go along. Get along. It’s one of the oldest stories in the working world.
If you insist on mandatory fun, my recommendation is to keep it simple. Make sure there’s lots of food, back up a beer truck, and maybe hire a band. Let people self-select with what and who they choose to engage. That’s probably about as good a situation as you’re likely to manufacture. There are ways to screw that up, though. You could overlay the lukewarm pay as you go food with several mandatory training events and dispense with the beer truck, thus ensuring that even the illusion of a “fun day away from the office” is shattered completely.
It’s easy in cases like this to blame the planners… but I can reasonably assure you that they want to deliver a better product than the specified and implied guidance allows. Experience tells me that the real fault in these cases lies in the realm of leadership and the good idea fairies that dwell with them. I mean if someone really was all that interested in boosting my morale, all they’d have to do was give me a couple of hours off and point me towards the closest used book shop. I don’t expect there would be a line for that, but then again I don’t subscribe to the idea that a good time necessarily has to be a team activity.
I’ve been trying hard to avoid the impending office Christmas Party. I’m not a social butterfly, hard as that may be to believe. I don’t enjoy small talk or making pleasantries with whatever random people I end up sitting with. Frankly, I find events like this absolutely exhausting. Staying at my desk in hopes of getting something done actually sounds far more pleasant than eating an institutional lunch and trying to chat with a room full of strangers.
In the last week, I’ve gotten a spate of emails “reminding” me how much the food has improved, how important team building is, and what a boost for office morale these occasions are. I’m getting the distinct impression that while this is a purely “voluntary” event, the expectation is that we show up, paste on a smile, and pretend to have a good time. Because I’m Mr. Go-Along-and-Get-Along, I’ll probably end up caving in.
Even though I’m almost inevitably give in to peer pressure, it’s my firm belief that mandatory fun just isn’t, especially when you get to pay for the privilege of doing something you really didn’t want to do in the first place. Something about adding insult to injury. Really, the only saving grace of these activities is that they take place during normal working hours. If it was something I was expected to do on my own time, well, I think you can imagine how that might go over.
If anyone is reading this and actually wants to improve my moral, instead of coercing me to buy $15 rubber chicken and cold vegetables, how about giving me a raise for the first time in four years… or a bonus… or even a time off award that costs exactly nothing. I can fill my own head with platitudes about how important the work is, how valued I am, and that my contribution matters. Sadly, a cash bar, awkward conversation, and a mediocre meal just don’t rank high on the list of things that motivate me to do great and wonderful things.
It’s that time of the year when those social butterflies of the office start soliciting donations, selling tickets, and generally making it impossible to forget that the Non-Denominational Winter Holiday Gathering. You and I know it as the Office Christmas Party. Now if you’re like me, you’d rather drive a blunted screwdriver into your eye than go to one of these functions, but since it’s being held during the day it’s slightly better than actually staying at your desk, but only because there’s a good chance that you’ll get home a hour or two earlier than you would on a normal Friday. Personally, if I could stay at my desk and get a few things done while everyone else wandered off to be festive, I’d be perfectly happy with the alone time.
Sadly, the Christmas party is yet another score keeping activity, so I’ll be there with a gratuitous smile plastered on my face. I’ll overpay for lunch and do my best to duck out at the first available opportunity. Even in the face of peer pressure, I won’t be participating in the gag gift exchanges or endless number of parlor games that the diehards are going to want to play. If you really want me to get into the Christmas spirit, give me a bottle of bourbon and a roaring fire… or at a bare minimum make this a non-official function and open the bar. At least with booze flowing there’s a chance that something interesting might happen. As it is, it will be the same tired work people talking about the same tired work issues. Hard to believe anyone wouldn’t be in a festive mood for that.
Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of posts previously available on a now defunct website. They are appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.