Letting your employees have more fun around the office could them make them better at their jobs, new research suggests.
A study recently published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior discovered a link between informal learning, which is a common way employees pick up new skills that improve their job performance, and having fun at work.
Michael Tews, one of the study's authors and an associate professor at Penn State University, said informal learning includes most unstructured, nonclassroom forms of education.
"Most learning at the workplace occurs independently at the desk, or with a few other people, not necessarily in a classroom," Tews said in a statement.
The study's authors believe it's not necessarily the fun activities themselves that teach the new lessons to employees. Instead, they think it's the fun atmosphere that creates a better learning environment. [See Related Story: 'Learners' Make the Most Effective Leaders]
Tews said employees in fun work environments are more willing to try new things and not stress about mistakes they may make.
"It's easier to make the connection between fun and retention, or fun and performance to the extent that it leads to creativity, but fun and learning doesn't seem connected at the face of it," Tews said. "The gist of this argument, though, is that when you have a workplace that is more fun, it creates a safe environment for learning to occur."
The study's authors said the research revealed that while fun could be considered a distraction, it actually has the ability to improve employee resiliency and optimism, which in turn leads to better attention on tasks.
Fun also has the potential to bring co-workers together, which can help learning among colleagues.
"It creates this group cohesion," Tews said. "So, when there's fun, then the co-workers may be able to get to know each other, have better connections, and be more apt to help each other."
For the study, the researchers surveyed 206 managers from a chain of casual dining restaurants. The surveys had the managers rate fun activities, their own bosses' support for fun, their attitude and informal learning at their restaurants.
The questions were designed to help determine if fun activities were supported by management, such as team-building activities or recognition celebrations, and how much overall support there was for fun on the job.
The study's authors discovered that fun has more of an impact on employee learning than whether not an employer has created a climate for learning.
"What we're showing is that this fun on the job actually matters as much as ― or even more ― than that support for learning," Tews said.
The study's authors note, however, that fun cannot cure everything that is wrong with workplace performance. Previous research from Tews found that while fun can increase employee retention, it also has the possibility to hurt productivity.
Based on the current and past research, Tews believes employers should be selective in how they use fun to encourage learning and productivity.
"With most management tactics, there are always going to be pros and cons," Tews said. "There's never going to be a perfect workplace, there's never going to be a perfect management intervention, so you have to choose your battles."
Although Tews believes moving forward it would be beneficial to examine other groups of employees, he does think that this current study does support the notion that fun has instrumental value in the workplace.
The study was co-authored by John Michel, an associate professor at Loyola University, and Raymond Noe, a professor at Ohio State University.
Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.