There’s a poster of Seinfeld’s Cosmo Kramer (allposters.com) on the wall outside the ladies room of our office.  If you’re a fan of the series, you know which one I’m talking about.  How it wound up there is a long story, but it’s emblematic of the nature of our company, which is that we insist on having fun (we will have a fun company, and that’s an order).  In fact it’s written into our value statement: that we won’t take ourselves too seriously.

A few years back when I went to work on my MBA I read quite a few case studies on companies that had embraced “workplace fun”.  Perhaps the most notable of these companies were Southwest Airlines, Nordstrom, Hewlett-Packard, and (not surprisingly) Disney.  I think the most effective application of the fun is to not keep it bottled up within the doors of the company – the fun should be shared with customers, vendors, partners, and random visitors to the office.  Some dark-suited vendors may have been in our office and thought the Kramer poster “less than professional”; those are vendors I won’t be doing business with.

A couple of fun at work instances with Southwest come to mind, like one flight attendant’s safety announcement “…and in the EXTREMELY HIGHLY UNLIKELY event of a water landing…” on a flight between Dallas and Austin (those of you not familiar with Texas geography should check a map).  Another flight attendant’s Bobby McFerrin style “disco sounds” (sorry, don’t know how to express the sound in words other than “oo-Wah, oo-Wah”).  On one particularly bumpy landing in bad weather, the pilot’s artificially cheerful and beautifully sarcastic announcement, “Hey folks, welcome to Houston!” (which proved to be a wonderful way to relieve all the white knuckles).  And finally, a flight attendant’s announcement, just as we’re slowing down halfway down the runway during landing, in perfect Roy Rogers style, “Whoooaa, big fella”.

What’s so interesting about companies who embrace fun is that not only are they companies with lower turnover than their competitors, but they’re also companies with better customer retention rates and better customer satisfaction.  Hmm, I wonder why?  Back in the days when I flew Southwest (unfortunately they don’t fly in the Atlanta market, so I don’t fly them much any more) I flew them almost as much because I enjoyed flying Southwest as because they were cheap, at least insofar as you can enjoy flying anywhere and with anyone.  Fun seems, then, to be a great investment.

So what happens around our office?  The developers have been known to take all the stuff off someone’s desk and replace it with sticky note and whiteboard pictures of the stuff.  We have a football that was supposed to have been a trophy for our annual “college football challenge”, but it got put to use, well, as a real football.  One time, I got a call from one of our vendors – it was a synthesized voice telling me that our account was past due by 39 cents and they were about to shut us down if we didn’t pay immediately.  We had had some billing troubles with this vendor, so it didn’t surprise me, but this pushed me over the edge and I started making calls and leaving messages for what surely must have later been bewildered customer service agents.  It turns out my professional services guys had programmed this phone message, not the vendor.  I thought it was hilarious.  The really funny thing was I NEVER got a return call from that vendor (so I never had to apologize for having been “mistaken”) – if I had ever gotten an irate call from one of my customers, I would have been calling them in a heartbeat.  It’s no wonder we’re no longer with that vendor.

So here’s the challenge for you: I need to get back at my professional services guys, and I need a good idea.  Seriously.  It’s been over a year, so they’re not expecting anything (unless they read my blog, which I REALLY SERIOUSLY doubt).  Email me your best workplace practical jokes at chuck.ros@emeraldsoftwaregroup.com or post a comment to this blog – if I get a good one I’ll try it out and blog about how it worked.

Update: Chuck sold Emerald Software Group in 2011. You can learn about his new company by clicking here.

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