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A compelling case for having more fun at work

There are good reasons for having a laugh on the job

How much fun do you generally have at work?

I found myself asking this question the other day when I came across a British academic named William Donald. He is an associate professor at the University of Southampton, where he works on career development and human resources management, and in 2022 he had a brainwave. What if he could publish a paper with another academic whose surname was Duck so that anyone citing their research would have to say it was by Donald and Duck?

I would like to say there was a serious rationale for this venture, but when I called Donald, he said he did it chiefly because “I thought it would be mildly entertaining”.

Alas, finding a co-operative Duck proved arduous. Donald spent 18 months contacting potential co-authors via LinkedIn before he found Nicholas Duck, an organisational psychologist in Australia who runs a workplace productivity consultancy called Opposite.

Unlike some other candidates, Duck did not find Donald’s proposal offensive or ridiculous. “I like shaking things up and not taking things too seriously,” he told me last week. Donald’s idea was right up his alley, he said.

Since the pair had a shared interest in the workplace, they decided to write a paper on what they called the Donald Duck phenomenon, or the unconventional reasons that propel academics to publish. These included: revenge against a rival; collaboration with a hero; and a desire to promote a cause and simple amusement.

The result was a slender work of just three pages — five including references and notes — which was, somewhat astonishingly, published last month in the GiLE Journal of Skills Development. This is a relatively new, open-access publication that nonetheless claims to use a “robust” peer review process.

For all that, the paper does not add an enormous amount to the sum of human knowledge. It is arguably self-indulgent and childish. But it is also a delight and I wish there were more follies like it.

It’s not just that these things make the large slice of life spent at work more bearable. There are serious reasons for fun at work when governments across Europe are fretting about a post-pandemic drop in average working hours that is being blamed for making economies more feeble and uncompetitive.

Jokes alone are no answer, obviously. But it is telling to consider how rarely one hears about playfulness at work these days.

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It is 17 years since Steve Jobs stood on a stage in San Francisco to unveil a new Apple gadget called the iPhone and dialled a nearby Starbucks to order “4,000 lattes to go, please”. He immediately said, “wrong number” and hung up. But the store was still getting orders for that many coffees from Apple fans years later, to the bafflement of managers.

Chief executive capers, however, are thin on the ground. I was astonished to read recently that Citigroup chief executive Jane Fraser is a serial prankster with a long history of playing jokes on colleagues.

In 2022, she asked her senior team to sign a waiver to go skydiving, the Wall Street Journal reported, and left them to agonise about the prospect of the bank’s leaders all risking death together before emailing again to say: April Fools’.

Another time, she reportedly kidnapped a teddy bear she had once given to an executive in charge of cost-cutting, duct-taped its paws and told the man to ease up on the cuts or the bear would get it.

News of this jolliness might jar in some quarters at Citi, where Fraser is overseeing sweeping job losses. Even academic citation jokes can misfire.

In the 1940s, a physicist named George Gamow decided it would be fun to add the name of an eminent friend, Hans Bethe, to a paper that Gamow and his student, Ralph Alpher, had written on the origins of the universe.

This had the excellent effect of creating a paper by Alpher, Bethe and Gamow, a pun on the first three letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha beta gamma. But Alpher was reportedly miffed, fearing his contribution would be diminished by the addition of the eminent Bethe’s name.

You can see his point. Jokes at work need to be deployed with skill and care. Yet the best are glorious and the working world would be a far better place if we had a great deal more of them. — Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

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