How do you create a fun workplace culture while getting stuff done? (Based on a 2016 FourthCanvas story)

A few days ago, I got this question again — How do you create a fun workplace culture while getting stuff done? — this time from Tomide Oladapo, a proficient UI/UX designer whose progress I admire. He has been up to building teams and systems, with 21 pixels been one of his most recent initiatives. I tried to answer the best way I could in that moment and as I did, I discovered I had probably given the best answer to that question so far, and so I decided I had to put it down for many more people.

The first and major thing I tried to emphasise is that you don’t create a fun workplace really, you simply don’t stifle it. Naturally, people are wired to have a great time with one another, whether or not you have installed cards of Playstation at the office. If you put people, especially of the younger generations Y and Z, in a room to work together every day, soon enough they will chat, gist, laugh and make jest of one another. However, as we lift from the existing cultures from previous workplaces or what we have heard about in workplaces, people will often in a new workplace learn what is accepted or not based on the reaction of their bosses to their actions. The natural desire for fun can’t be killed and so what happens in workplaces found to be hostile to this is people steal opportunities to make themselves happy. In a case where the organization (read boss) does not frown at their default, they simply live it out and be themselves. An example comes handy from 2016.

I walked into the office at FourthCanvas to meet Ademola (great and weird guy, still works with us) watching highlights of a Premier League match at around 10am in the morning. It was in his earlier days working with us and it was too late for him to minimise his tab when I got to him. As he later confessed and as I also expected that he would probably be, he was terrified and unsure how I would react to that. There was work to be done, “for God’s sake”. I pulled the chair beside him, joined him and commented on how incredible a particular strike was. He added some more context and shared his own reactions about the match and we both had a good gist about the games. He would refer back to that moment several times later as a significant moment for him that defined what the culture was like.

Here is a random picture I found from 2016 taken in our office back then and on the exact spot where the YouTube ‘event’ happened. That’s Ademola to the bottom left corner of your view. (BTW I am wondering now why I was the only one excited in that pic. Maybe we were watching Liverpool beating Arsenal).

So, what happened at the end of the Youtube video? You may be curious. “So Demola, how far those YNaija logo files? What’s your progress with preparing them for shipping? Still on track for 1pm right?” Then he goes ahead to give me updates and reassures me on meeting the timelines. Now ladies and gentlemen, that is all that matters, that work still gets done not whether people looked like focused zombies all day staring at documents or creating solutions.

Now what if I got to the office late in the evening and discovered that a timeline had not been met but he had been watching YouTube all day? What do you do in a case like that? You put purpose first, as opposed to tackling what you regard is its enemy. I will explain but first let’s look at what a “boss” could have done.

The typical boss may yell in a situation like this about “how would you be watching YouTube all day and then miss out on our client’s work? Infact I am blocking YouTube from what is accessible via our internet and declaring a No-YouTube policy during work hours”. He/she then goes on to kill the human spirit that wants to choose to work rather than be forced to work. What else is lost? The several other benefits of YouTube like tutorial resources or simply the benefit of a good Burna Boy video as an interlude before going back to great work on a pending task.

Now, what’s a better approach?

“So Demola, let’s talk. We have a deadline and you didn’t meet it, what happened?” I didn’t mention YouTube but he knows that I know that he was doing that while he could be working to meet the time. He goes ahead to judge himself, which is more effective than me doing it, and says he could have done better. I may probe further and ask “What do you think is the effect of not meeting our timelines, given our overall purpose of partnering with our clients to do greater things?” He either says it and if he doesn’t, I go further to stress how missing timelines means losing client trust which means losing business and referrals, which then leads to failing as a business, both financially as well as in the pursuit of fulfilling why we exist in the first place (our organizational purpose). The job of analysing his YouTube, game and banter time to deliver the best work is his to do, not mine. My job is to guide him to make the best decisions with those. While I have used questions in the example above, sometimes it may simply be me telling him why he has to manage his time better, so that this leads to that, all towards fulfilling a goal bigger than both himself and myself. Now that’s how to treat humans, with respect for their right to choose, exactly as you the boss would have loved it for yourself.

Talking about purpose, it is the best axis for any correction when work seems to be left undone or productivity takes a dive. Purpose of the task, as it connects to the purpose of the project, as it connects to the purpose of the organization. Every human responds to a call to purpose and every form of shutting this or that down to get work done is simply an attempt at a shortcut and it often only gives immediate results, far from great and lasting ones. Turn your back boss and we are back at our ways. CCTV? We will use the toilet.

While in my fictitious “what if” with Demola above, I had to take an opportunity of my response to pass the message, another effective way to do this beforehand is to define core values and beliefs and ensure that people understand this—that fun is great and welcome, once work also gets done and purpose come first—at the beginning of their employment. That was 2016 and we also eventually developed these statements and while the daily responses help to strengthen them, the statements and emphasising them helps to lay a good foundation.

Another from 2016. That’s Tunji Ogunoye, now our Creative Dir, looking at whatever they were looking at, with Emmanuel Omole, another great guy who currently eats Bole and makes money with design in Port Harcourt.

So how do you create a fun workplace culture while getting stuff done? First you don’t create it, you simply don’t stifle it. The second thing is realising that pulling the fun plug is not the answer to getting work done. The answer is influencing people to choose their best ways to manage the fun activities such that they do not stand in the way of getting work done. Because they are doing that themselves, they do not experience the additional stress of an overarching boss and that freedom in itself then inspires them to get stuff done — great stuff.

That’s Victoria Akanbi, doing her magic with some pattern sketches, I can easily assume in hindsight. FUN FACT: She still looks exactly like this and with this same hair.
Tunji would say “e ja ka fi oju sunukun wo”, translated to mean “Let’s look at this very carefully and with rapt attention”. What I don’t get though is the view Victoria was trying to get here.
One of those sessions. That’s Timilehin Omotoyinbo trying to make sense of whatever I was explaining to him. The writings on that board looks like jargon to me right now though, or am I the only one wondering?
Here is the last picture for today, featuring the Bolaji himself. Spot our logo design for ILX Center on his tab.

‘Finding my writing’, under the blanket of the known image of a Designer and Agency Founder.