Who said work shouldn't be fun?

Contributed by Peter Hirst, Associate Dean, MIT Sloan Executive Education

A few years ago, a sailboat captain who had given up a 9-5 desk job in Boston to skipper tourists around a Caribbean paradise asked me, "Who ever said that work shouldn't be fun?" What a great question! But we don’t all have to make such a radical career shift to achieve this. I was delighted last month to see that a local company that we have been working with for a while was named a "Top Place to Work" by The Boston Globe. The Globe is a venerable institution and bastion of journalistic integrity (as was powerfully depicted in the Oscar-winning movie, "Spotlight") even as our senses are being washed over by Internet trivia, social media, and the twenty-four-hour cable news cycle. So while these "Top Places to Work" (and other "listicles") are of course mostly a bit of fun, there is at least some investigative methodology behind this one, including a nomination process and a comprehensive employee survey analyzed by an independent expert on employee engagement--over 77,000 employees in Massachusetts participated in the 2015 survey. 

Matter Basketball

When I asked our friends at PR agency Matter Communications why they thought they had received the accolade this year, they pointed out that the company has established programs such as flexible Fridays, summer Fridays, basketball and golf leagues, running clubs, weekly spin classes, yoga, and more all-employee benefits. Clearly there are many other attributes that people value and that contribute to employee engagement and satisfaction, such as the opportunity to do meaningful work connected with a strong sense of purpose, security, trust, fairness, and a supportive culture, so I found it interesting that the more "fun-sounding activities" came to mind for these individuals. Rather than trivialize these initiatives, though, I suspect their presence is more a symptom of an underlying set of beliefs and values that help create a positive culture and work environment. These are the necessary (but perhaps not sufficient) conditions for creating a "great place to work."

I noticed in Matter's list of programs were absent those kinds of benefits (free dry cleaning, 24/7 food, sofas and beds for sleeping at the office, etc.) that are criticized in some quarters as being cynical methods to keep workers chained to the office. There is a similar concern about flexible working--for example, being a code for creating expectations of 24/7, always-connected availability, and the erosion of boundaries between work and home life. These are legitimate and important concerns. Yet in my small team of 35 staff in MIT Sloan School's Office of Executive Education, making available and encouraging--but not requiring--comprehensive flexible working arrangements has netted us significant benefits. Now more than two-thirds of our staff have made a formal flexible work arrangement (up from about 15%), 100% of our staff at least occasionally make use of flexible working informally, and our entire team has said they would recommend that other departments and organizations consider implementing comprehensive flexible working.

Video Conferencing Robots at MIT

There are challenges, of course, and we are still working on them. There are choices to be made about technology, norms, and practices, ensuring that flexible working is effective both for individuals and for the organization. In our office, we decided (and note that was "we"!) to try to limit internal meetings to the core hours of 10:30am - 4:30pm, to decree that all meetings should allow for and enable remote participation, and that in order to promote important social interactions, everyone should come into the office on Wednesdays. We invested in (and experiment with) technologies to help support this, including shared calendars (with details of work items, not just free/busy availability), collaboration tools for video, chat and document sharing, and even video conferencing robots that allow remote workers to dial in and whizz around the office (or classroom) almost as if they were there in person.

We all report feeling less stressed about managing the demands of our work and home lives, feeling more in control of our schedules, and more trusted to get our work done. Our business agility and productivity have increased, and as far as I can tell, this has not come at any significant cost to our ability to innovate and collaborate with each other, our customers, or those colleagues who still retain more traditional working arrangements.

Peter Hirst MIT Sloan Executive Education

We all might hope that every organization and their leaders should aspire to creating this kind of positive work environment. There is mounting evidence of the benefits for business outcomes as well as the fact that for many of us it simply feels like the right thing to do. I am happy to say that MIT also made it onto one of these best places to work lists (#20 on Forbes' 2015 America's Best Employers). Logically, we know it's not the lists themselves or our placement on them that's important (although presumably it must help those employers recruit and perhaps even retain top talent). But that does not detract from the pleasure of seeing the names of companies that we know and admire (and ourselves) in lights.  So congratulations to our friends at Matter Communications, enjoy the limelight, and keep up the good work!

Peter Hirst
Associate Dean, MIT Sloan School of Management 

This entry was posted in on Thu Mar 17, 2016 by MIT Sloan Executive Education


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