Laughing is good for business

Know someone in your office who is a barrel of laughs, a stress buster?

Yvonne Zacharias, Vancouver Sun

Thursday, April 01, 2004
Lighten up, Vancouver. It’s time to dust off those old slapstick routines, dream up some improv comedy and inject a little humour into the workplace.

Everybody, take a deep breath. One, two, three. Now laugh.


Because it’s good for you. And it’s good for your company, too.

Putting some fun in the workplace are Van City’s Donna Wilson, apparently dressed as Princess Leia, Rock.Paper.Scissors’ Diana Frances (left) and Lee-Anne Ragan.
CREDIT: Mark van Manen, Vancouver Sun
To get the laughs rolling, a little Vancouver company called Rock.Paper.Scissors, the only improv company in Canada to have entertained the troops in Afghanistan, along with a handful of sponsors, is offering a brand new contest.

Know of someone in your company who is a barrel of laughs, a stress buster who boosts morale with a little levity, who dreams up skits and contests and gets the place roaring? Or do you know of a company that is good at providing a laugh a minute?

You can nominate them for the first annual Rock.Paper.Scissors Humour in the Workplace Awards by going on-line at Entries open today. You have until May 7 to nominate that corporate comedian in the crowd. The winner will be announced at the Yuk Yuks Comedy Club on May 25 where Rock.Paper.Scissors will provide the on-stage laughs.

In many ways, the need for humour in the workplace is no laughing matter. In this age of competitiveness, globalization and high demands, it can be vital.

A survey sponsored by an international temporary service agency found that 96 per cent of executives surveyed said people with a sense of humour do better. The same survey suggests that a sense of humour may help light-hearted employees keep their jobs during tough times. It may also propel them up the corporate ladder past their humourless colleagues.

Research conducted by psychologist Ashton Trice at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia showed that humour helps us think. Trice’s research showed that taking time out to laugh can help us to get rid of negative feelings and allow us to return to a task or move on to another project unaffected by past defeat.

VanCity is one company that understands the benefits of humour.

At its annual awards night, chief executive officer Dave Mowat switched costumes a number of times, appearing as Alice Cooper and Elvis. Donna Wilson, vice-president of human resources, dressed up as Madonna. Managers posed as members of the band The Commitments and lip-synced Mustang Sally.

“We were good. Well, we tried,” Wilson laughed.

A five-year plan is usually regarded as the grist for dry conferences and memos. Few think of it as a vehicle for humour.

Yet VanCity spun theirs into a video. The five business pillars were done as movie snippets like The Matrix, starring Wilson as Morpheus, and Star Trek with the senior vice-president of marketing starring as Scotty the Engineer.

“I was dressed like Morpheus is — all in black with black glasses and offering up the choice of a blue pill or a red pill to decide whether you were going to join us on this journey as an employee partnership,” recalled Wilson. “Even though I was in the form of the Matrix, I was talking the language of a very important part of our five-year plan, which is employee experience and what some of the important elements of that experience are.”

Wilson feels that VanCity’s forays into the realm of humour are not just a frill; they are essential to retain staff and provide some sort of a release valve.

“The workplace is becoming more and more demanding. The information age has increased the demands across all industries because it has taken what could take four days before and shrunk it down in time.”

VanCity is very careful about who it hires. It is also very careful about trying to retain employees because hiring is expensive. For this reason, Wilson said, it is important for employees to feel safe in their job, enjoy who they are working with and have some fun in their job.

Rock.Paper.Scissors, the 12-year-old corporate and entertainment company behind the contest, knows that humour, while essential to a healthy workplace, can also be dangerous territory.

Some things go over like a lead balloon.

Jokes about racial, religious and gender-related issues are taboo. Humour shouldn’t leave anyone bloodied or bruised. Forget practical jokes. The recipient often doesn’t find them funny. Humour also has nothing to do with taking your job lightly.

What works best in the workplace is seeing the humour in everyday situations and having the confidence to laugh at yourself.

“Often time, humour is gentle and behind the scenes,” said Lee-Anne Ragan, one of three principles of Rock.Paper.Scissors.

Stephen B. Leacock defines humour as “the kindly contemplation of the incongruities of life and the artistic expression thereof.”

Many workplaces can be a battleground. Rock.Paper.Scissors has actually gone into one to demonstrate that no territory is too dangerous for humour.

Diana Francis, the comedian at Rock.Paper.Scissors, has just returned from a second contract in Afghanistan.

“This is probably the most stressful workplace,” said Francis. “Most Lower Mainland businesses don’t have to worry about deactivating a landmine when they go into work every day.”

The Department of National Defence sponsors an entertainment show for the troops periodically. “It’s just the most cathartic experience for the soldiers,” said Francis. “What the laughter can do for the morale is unbelievable.”

On a smaller scale and closer to home, Francis, Ragan and a third partner, David C. Jones, believe that humour can do the same thing for businesses in the Lower Mainland.

Hence the contest. They are calling on non-profits, private companies, public companies, labour organizations, associations, volunteer groups, multinationals, government departments and other organizations to submit “case studies” to a panel of judges that will include University of B.C. professor Stephen Heatley, who has studied the history of comedy.

A case study is a problem or challenge in the workplace, how the funny stuff rolled out, and how it helped.

The contest is open to entries in three different categories: An organization with under 50 employees and volunteers, with over 50 employees and volunteers and an individual within an organization.

The winner will get a hand-made trophy sculpted by a local artist and a free entertainment or corporate training session from Rock.Paper.Scissors and a second one to donate to their favourite non-profit organization.

“Essentially, we believe that humour makes really good business sense,” added Ragan.

So let the good times roll.


Case 1: Destinations, a provincial, private-sector employment service with headquarters in Victoria and six regional offices. It puts people on social assistance to work in B.C.’s tourism sector.

The challenge: Maximizing the participation of members of an important brainstorming session.

The solution: Zelda, the fairy godmother. This meeting of regional managers came at an intense time involving contract negotiations. The operations manager, who facilitated the meeting, excused herself briefly to return as Zelda, in full costume with wand, extra-long eyelashes and more. Zelda requested that everyone around the table state what strength they would bring to the day’s brainstorming session. She then proceeded to walk around the table, tapping everyone one by one with her wand, putting a “magic strength spell” on them.

The results: Improved brainstorming participation and outcomes. Zelda relieved stress and allowed participants to concentrate on the tasks at hand. Destinations was successful in obtaining the next contract.

Case 2: Vancouver Community College

The challenge: Make physics fun, keep enrolment up.

The solution: Physics instructor Peter Hopkinson comes to class dressed as Darth Vader or uses a leaf blower to illustrate physics and to make it interesting for his adult students taking high-school upgrades.

The result: Hopkinson is the 2003 recipient of the Teaching Excellence Award, a national award given by the Association of Canadian Community Colleges.

© The Vancouver Sun 2004

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