Office fun is serious business

Cityhunt participants in New York. Trust falls, scavenger hunts, outdoor teambuilding -- these are activities best left to the professionals.

Kai Ryssdal: Truth is, not all jobs are fun. But there are some companies out there trying to make it so.

Today's installment of our summer series on "Fun at Work" takes us to New York, where Sally Herships reports sometimes fun is best left to the professionals.

Sally Herships: Here’s an idea:

Ben Hoffman: Work doesn’t have to suck.

Ben Hoffman runs Cityhunt, a scavenger-hunt service for companies that want their employees to bond while having fun.

Herships: You sound like what’s his name in "The Office."

Hoffman: I don’t know if I should take that as a compliment or an insult.

He's laughing because the character of the boss on "The Office" is the prototypical example of fun gone wrong.

"The Office" clip: Today, we are not just spending a day at the beach. We are all participating in mandatory fun activities. Funtivities!

Creating fun can be a delicate and tricky science -- which is why Hoffman says you should bring in professionals, like him. So to see fun, as it is officially created, I tagged along on a scavenger hunt in New York with Group Global Strategy, a communications and research firm. The company was broken down into seven teams and let loose in the city. Quick tip -- it’s helpful to be on the CEO's team.

Herships: Wait a second, do you have a car here?

Jon Silvan: Yeah, small advantage.

Jon Silvan is CEO of Group Global Strategy.

Herships: What have you accomplished so far?

Silvan: Good god. We’ve got people break dancing, we’ve got people talking on payphones. We stole candy from a baby.

Herships: How did that go over?

Silvan: That went over fine. This is New York!

CEOs -– not surprisingly -- go-getters. Which can be helpful when you’re trying to score points for spotting a pair of twins near Union Square or a celebrity. I should clarify: This is a photo hunt so instead of capturing an actual celebrity, the Group Global Strategy teams just had to take a picture of one. And even B-listers count.

Herships: Who was the celebrity?

Liana Klippel: It was Kieran Culkin.

Josh Moskowitz: It wasn’t really him.

Herships: Like MaCaulay Culkin’s brother?

Klippel: You got it. And he turned us down! I was like come on man, you’re a great actor.

It was really hot out. But we worked together as a team. Well, the employees of Group Global Strategy did. They took their photo playing with five dogs at a time and even serenaded a complete stranger.

Klippel: Take me out to the ballgame. Take me out to the crowd. That's good -- that's enough.

Sorry if what I'm about to say makes me sound like a party pooper, but is all this fun actually accomplishing anything? Alice Driscoll just started with Group Global Strategy six weeks ago, so I asked her to compare this company to her old one.

Driscoll: I mean people are definitely happier, I feel like a little more excited to go to work.

Herships: Here?

Driscoll: Yeah, definitely. There’s a focus on happiness and not just making PowerPoint slides.

What employee doesn't want to get out of making PowerPoint slides? Still, is paying for a scavenger hunt worth it? Cityhunt's cost between $60 and $160 per person.

Rita McGrath: There are actually some pretty sound business reasons why having at work actually makes sense.

Rita McGrath teaches strategy at Columbia Business School. First, she says the happier your employees, the better they'll treat your customers. Next, fun allows employees to be creative. McGrath says you can't plan flashes of insight -- sometimes you need to get your mind away from work. Think about companies that do creative work.

McGrath: Their workplaces are really fun. They have colorful Post-it notes, and balloons, and people bring bikes to work and you don't see them working in cubicles where everything is grey and it's all the same.

And, added bonus, networking. It can be hard to keep corporate hierarchies in place when you and your boss are singing to strangers. It is possible one or two Group Global Strategy employees may have told me it was awkward to hang out with their boss. But most of the ones I saw seemed to be having fun. Even Michael the intern had a chance to prove himself. He managed to find a pair of twins.

Klippel: You know what? I love this intern. I’m not going to have him pick up my dry cleaning anymore.

In New York, I’m Sally Herships for Marketplace.

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.
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Participating in one of these scavenger hunts teaches you a little about American retail business too -- particularly how "un fun" and serious chain stores are about image and inventory control. I work for a Massachusetts-based company and earlier this year we did just such a hunt around Boston. Scavenging through a mall in Cambridge, collecting pictures with mannequins, trying on Celtics sports paraphernalia, we were shooed away from a high-end fashion store for taking pictures near their windows. And before being chased out by Mall security we could not talk the lovely ladies at the lingerie store into gifting us any damaged inventory -- it all had to be sent back to HQ, presumably to be ecologically disposed of, or whatever else they may do with ripped up nickers.
Hans in Munich, Germany

I can tell you this kind of thing DEFINITELY works! I've been at the same company for 18 years. For the first 9 years we had annual company-wide, nationwide, competitions with the winners of each market competing at HQ in Schaumburg, IL. We met people in other parts of the business we would never have met otherwise. It was a wonderful experience and we learned things about each other that we would have never discovered in an office setting. Besides, it was good exercise and a chance to socialize away from glowing computer screens.

That was years ago - and we no longer have the budget or time for such competition these days. In fact, non-work social events are indeed rare. As a result I only get to meet people on my team and over the years I've lost a lot of contacts to help me get things done.

I like working for a large company, but I can appreciate the benefits of working for a small company or a start-up.

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