I hit play and the clip started. A few seconds later the room filled with laughter. Not just light laughter, it was deep, loud belly laughs. Everyone in the room loved it! And getting that reaction sent a tingle up my spine.
The occasion wasn’t a gathering of friends. It was a workshop I was running for a senior management team earlier this year. What better example to demonstrate the futility of meetings than by using a scene from the BBC Two comedy mockumentary ‘W1A’? That short clip — and the laughter it triggered — seemed to signal a change in the room. I felt a surge of energy course through the room.
I’d only met some of my workshop attendees for the first time that day, so I really didn’t know any of them well. But in that moment of laughter, it was like we all got to know each other better. It was like I’d glimpsed who they really were underneath the facade and what made them tick. In the session before there’d been a lot of healthy disagreement between the group, but as we united in watching that comedy clip it was as if we were all on the same page. We all found that scene funny. It was as if everyone had let their guard down, they had relaxed.
So when we moved on to talk about the team’s attitude to meetings, it felt like we were able to achieve much more.
I think the benefits of joy and laughter at work are underestimated. And to be honest, one of the biggest things I’ve missed about my previous working life as an “insider”, is the office camaraderie, being amongst a group of people and having a laugh. And we certainly laughed a lot at my old company. One of my legacies from my time as managing director of Unique Facilities — a small media company I led — was an annual event I’d started, ‘The UFAs’ (that's me, on the right, above hosting the 2000 UFAs). Every year I’d host an awards ceremony, write a funny script and give out plastic Oscar figurines to staff. We had a great laugh. I loved it.
I’ve been listening to the Eat Sleep Work Repeat podcast from Bruce Daisley Recently Bruce and his guests have been talking about the importance of having fun at work. He believes being around people laughing is one of the biggest motivators at work. In his article ‘How laughter makes you a better worker’ Bruce asks, “what if, rather than signalling inactivity, laughing together is something that improves team collaboration and stimulates innovation?”
I think he’s right. Yet having fun at work still seems to be the preserve of start-ups and small organisations with a younger workforce. Organisations that treat ‘having fun at work’ as trivial are missing a trick; a team that’s laughing together is such a positive thing. As Daniel Coyle, author of ‘The Culture Code’says, “laughter is not just laughter; it’s the most fundamental sign of safety and connection.” Laughter builds bonds with colleagues and shows we are open to each other, that we trust each other.
As a creative consultant and storyteller, I make sure there is always an element of fun in the work I deliver. In my workshopsI often include an improv storytelling exercise that uses a set of cards with random pictures on. Attendees start out uneasy about the idea of venturing out of their comfort zone, but once they get stuck into the exercise, fun is guaranteed. It’s not that I set up the exercise asking people to tell funny stories, but most people choose to use the cards to make their stories funny. And I mean, really funny. So much so that their efforts often get me snorting with laughter. And if I snort with laughter — well to me that’s a great metric for success.
So why are so many work cultures so damn serious? When we’re working harder than ever, isn’t it better for our mental health — let alone our productivity — that we have a laugh at work?