Comic Relief

Who says work can't be fun? Not these employers.
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the October 1996 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

When Robert Shillman showed up to a meeting of the Cognex Corp. 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 , 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 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 ," 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 , 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 , it's critical that the boss participate. You cannot stand on the sidelines. Top sets the tone for the whole company, so issuing a mandate to `Have fun!' won't [work] if you don't lead."

Fun Facts

Weinstein, who has worked with businesses from IBM to Texaco, says rule one for bringing more fun into the workday is "make fun a priority. You cannot say `I'll get to it after the serious work is done.' That will never happen."

Where to start? First, don't just pick a model and copy it. It makes sense for Shillman--a big Three Stooges fan--to use a Stooge salute at Cognex. But if you don't know Curly from Larry, don't even think about it. "Find your own style," says Weinstein. "And start with small steps. You cannot make radical cultural shifts; gradually ease into having more fun. Begin by budgeting about 15 minutes for fun. On Friday afternoon, for instance, bring in a bottle of champagne to toast the week's successes."

Need more examples? Weinstein's book is packed with 52 ways to have fun on the job--one for every week of the year. Consider:

  • In times of high tension (waiting to hear the verdict on a big sales pitch, for instance), instead of biting your nails, have everyone play childhood games like marbles. Hold a companywide championship, and don't worry if nobody remembers the rules and everybody fumbles--"that makes it more fun. You don't want games to get too competitive. When they do, they stop being fun," says Weinstein.

  • Ask senior managers to bring in their own baby pictures; post them on a bulletin board for employees to giggle and guess at. "This is a powerful way to have fun and build community," says Weinstein. "It says that we may be a vice president today, but we all started out as somebody's baby."

  • Another case: "One retail store manager routinely hides state lottery tickets in the store's back room for employees to find," relates Weinstein.

  • Shillman at Cognex offers his full-time employees a yearly bonus. This year, about 330 employees got a "night on the town"--a limo for five hours plus dinner for two at a swank restaurant. "I want my employees to feel rich," Shillman explains. "This is a tangible way for them to enjoy the profits of their efforts."

Fun And Function

Get the idea? Coming up with ways to have more fun on the job is simple. But making the fun happen still takes some effort on your part. "The key is to see the ideas then adapt them to fit your ," says Weinstein.

Friday afternoon beer busts, for example, are a Silicon Valley staple, but that fits the collegiate atmosphere of many computer companies. Before rushing out to buy a keg, make sure this party atmosphere fits your company . "Don't just dump ideas on your people. Really work at finding good fits with your team," says Weinstein.

Keep working to make fun happen in your business, and, says Wein-stein, you'll find a secret payoff: You benefit as much as your employees. "Entrepreneurs need to celebrate the little successes as much as their staff does," he says. Otherwise, it's too easy to start seeing work as, well, work, not fun. And work as fun is the attitude successful entrepreneurs like Cognex's Shillman bring to the office every day.

"The biggest fun of all is ," says Shillman. "At the end of every day, every week, every quarter, it's fun to know you've done well. That's how we have fun--and why we'll keep having it."

Contact Source

Robert McGarvey writes on psychology and topics for several national publications. To reach him online with your questions or ideas, e-mail


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