Work, but make it funny

The benefits of bringing humour to the workplace are many, but it takes practice, and fostering a culture that can take a joke is no laughing matter.

Happy diverse colleagues have fun at lunch break in office, smiling multiracial employees laugh and talk eating pizza and drinking coffee, excited workers celebrate shared win ordering takeaway food.

As many teams moved to working remotely, I started seeking ways to use my skill set to build connections with team members over Zoom and Slack. I felt like my sense of humour was making a difference, but I had no clue if making teammates laugh had any real value in business or if I was just making a clown of myself.

As with so many things in life, there’s an app for that, and the app that helped provide me with clarity was edX, an online learning platform created by Harvard and MIT. I just about fell out of my chair when I discovered they offered a professional certificate called Remotely Humorous: Build Joyful and Resilient Virtual Teams with Humor. The course is led by two lecturers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Naomi Bagdonas and Connor Diemand-Yauman.

There’s also a book for that; Bagdonas co wrote Humor, Seriously with Stanford professor Jennifer Aaker. If humour is a legit tactic taught at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, it definitely has value. Here’s what I learned:

Who Says Humour is an Asset?

The Journal of Managerial Psychology (wait, that’s a thing?) published a meta-analysis of positive humour in the workplace. Its findings showed that “employee humor is associated with enhanced work performance, satisfaction, workgroup cohesion, health, and coping effectiveness, as well as decreased burnout, stress, and work withdrawal.”

Another study demonstrated how employees who watched a comedy clip before working were more productive than those who didn’t watch one. This data was on top of self-reported feelings of happiness communicated by the team members who had humour integrated into their work experience. The bottom line — there are many, many positive benefits when levity is part of your team culture.

Why Does it Work?

Laughing with others causes a release of endorphins and dopamine in our brains. This is a natural health benefit that can improve how we feel and perform during our work day. Using humour in our team interactions enables us to experience these positive brain chemicals together, building connection, cohesion and engagement.

These key enablers of levity are also essential elements in developing psychologically safe teams that feel comfortable to engage, take risks and be innovative. Levity simultaneously relies on and cultivates these elements.

Giving it a Go

Bringing humour to the workplace also means bringing a healthy dose of humility and risk taking. Not because you’re going to tell risky jokes, but because they’re not all going to land the way you hope. There’s a reason comedians workshop their material, sometimes even bombing in front of an entire audience. It’s not always perfect, but it’s the openness to trying that will gradually show you what works and what doesn’t in your team culture.

What Makes Something Funny?

If you’re not sure, there are so many fun ways to learn. YouTube, Netflix and more are full of stand-up clips and specials by some exceptionally talented comedians. Obviously, some comedy doesn’t age well or is off-colour, so be selective. If a joke makes you laugh, stop and watch it again, and ask yourself what makes it funny. Is it the setup? The delivery? Is it relatable or absurd? Deconstruct each joke to understand how and why it works. Will this make you into a master stand-up performer? Probably not. But it could help provide you with a means of bringing intelligent humour to your team dynamic.

What if You’re Not Funny?

If you really don’t feel funny and don’t want to try to be, that is more than OK. It’s an opportunity to create space for others to step into their sense of humour and support them by laughing, smiling or otherwise showing you appreciate what they’ve contributed. Also, don’t underestimate the power of deadpan humour — a dry, witty statement delivered at the right time can be incredibly funny if you make it safe for people to laugh at it.

Funny to You May Not be Funny (or Smart)

It should be terribly obvious, but just incase it’s not, any humour that’s racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. is a bad idea for so many reasons. Be thoughtful with your humour, and consider how what you’re about to say may be experienced by the listener(s). There are so many ways to be funny that don’t rely on ridiculing, demeaning or shaming others. If you’re not sure where the line is, don’t go anywhere near it.

Humour has always played a powerful role in our society and is a much-needed “release valve” when we’re under pressure. Schindler’s List tackled the horrors of the Holocaust and even it had some jokes in it. Laughter can help us through tough times together and shouldn’t be underestimated. Science says so, and you don’t want to fight science. Climate-change deniers are bad enough; we don’t need levity deniers causing trouble, too.

Erin Skillen is a writer, former Creative + Ops at Amira Health, founder of Content4Good, harried co-parent of two kids and six chickens, and co-host and producer of the Demarried Life podcast.

More reading:

How leaders can foster inclusive workplaces.