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Comic Relief

Who says work can't be fun? Not these employers.

When Robert Shillman showed up to a meeting of the Cognex Corp. board of directors wearing a King of Hearts costume, he solidified his reputation as an offbeat, zany CEO. But there was a good reason for his wacky outfit: "It was Halloween, and our company rule is that everybody shows up in costume, no matter who you are meeting that day," explains Shillman.

Besides, Shillman's board well knows that "Dr. Bob," as employees call him, is no ordinary CEO. Shillman closes staff meetings with a salute borrowed from the Three Stooges and has added a game room packed with pinball machines at company headquarters. One year, he gathered his workers to watch him and his top executives--dressed in `rapper' outfits--perform a choreographed dance to celebrate Cognex's "many broken records."

What kind of records were broken? Fast-track growth in both revenues and profitability. That's because Cognex--involved in machine vision, a high-tech process that lets computers "see"--may seem like a playground to outsiders, but it's a competitive powerhouse. Last year, it took in $104.5 million in sales, with a 22 percent profit margin. That was no fluke--the year before, Cognex's profit margin hit 25.7 percent.

"Our aim is to have a lot of fun making a lot of money," says Shill-man, a former college professor who founded Natick, Massachusetts-based Cognex in 1981 with $100,000 in savings. "There are two sides to this company. There's a serious side where we work hard. And there's the other side where, after the day is over, we say `Let's have fun.' "

Bravo to Shillman, you say, but this zaniness would never work in your company? Think again. Mounting research shows companies that are fun places to work "enjoy improved employee loyalty, lower employee stress and higher creativity," says Matt Weinstein, author of
Managing to Have Fun
(Simon & Schuster) and founder of Berkeley, California-based Playfair, a consulting firm that helps businesses boost playfulness.

The problem, says Weinstein, is that many bosses--especially driven entrepreneurs--find it hard to have fun at work. "Entrepreneurs, who are usually focused on building long-term success, can lose sight of the need to have fun now to better prepare for achieving that success," he says.

But hard-driving entrepreneurs had better learn how to build more fun into the workday, warns Weinstein. "Fail to celebrate the successes you are achieving," he says, "and you run the risk of driving away the very employees who make those successes happen."

The irony, though, is that having fun on the job isn't easy. "Having fun at work takes work--it doesn't just happen," says Weinstein. And it's you who must do the work: "In small businesses, it's critical that the boss participate. You cannot stand on the sidelines. Top management sets the tone for the whole company, so issuing a mandate to `Have fun!' won't [work] if you don't lead."

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This article was originally published in the October 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Comic Relief.

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