The plea for more fun at work

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How much fun do you generally enjoy at work?

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

I’d like to say there was a serious reason for this venture, but when I called Donald, he said he was doing it mainly because “I thought it would be a bit entertaining.”

Unfortunately, finding a cooperative Duck proved difficult. Donald spent 18 months contacting potential co-authors via LinkedIn before finding Nicholas Duck, an organizational 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 to shake things up and not take things too seriously,” he told me last week. Donald’s idea was right up his alley, he said.

Because the pair had a shared interest in the workplace, they decided to write an article about what they called the Donald Duck phenomenon, or the unconventional reasons that drive academics to publish. These include revenge against a rival; collaboration with a hero; a desire to further a cause and simple entertainment.

The result was a slim work of just three pages – five including references and notes – which, somewhat astonishingly, was published last month in the GiLE Journal of Skills Development. This is a relatively new, open access publication that nevertheless claims to use a ‘robust’ peer review process.

Nevertheless, the article does not add a huge amount to the sum of human knowledge. It may be self-centered and childish. But it’s also a delight and I wish there were more silliness like it.

It’s not just that these things make the large part of our lives spent at work more bearable. There are serious reasons for joy at work as governments across Europe worry about a post-pandemic decline in average working hours, leaving economies weaker and uncompetitive.

Jokes alone are of course not an answer. But it’s telling when you consider how rarely you hear about playfulness at work these days.

It’s been seventeen years since Steve Jobs stood on a stage in San Francisco to unveil a new Apple gadget called the iPhone and called a nearby Starbucks to order “4,000 lattes to go,” please. He immediately said “wrong number” and hung up. But years later, the store was still receiving orders for that much coffee from Apple fans, to the bewilderment of the managers.

However, the antics of the CEO are few and far between. I was surprised to read recently that Jane Fraser, the CEO of Citigroup, is a serial prankster with a long history of pranking colleagues.

In 2022, she asked her senior team to sign a waiver to go skydiving, the Wall Street Journal reported, raising concerns about the prospect of the bank’s leaders all risking death together before they could do it again emailed with the words: April Fools’.

Another time, she allegedly kidnapped a teddy bear she had once given to an executive in charge of cost cuts, duct taped its paws, and told the man to soften the cuts or the bear would kill him get hold of.

News of the glee could filter through some circles at Citi, where Fraser is overseeing a major job cut. Even academic citation jokes can fail.

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 origin of the universe.

This had the excellent effect of creating an article 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. Workplace jokes should be used with skill and care. Still, the best are glorious and the working world would be a much better place if we had many more of them.

pilita.clark@ft.com

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