In an opinion piece from The New York Times, journalist Oliver Burkeman argues against the increasing trend of inserting “fun” into the workplace. Oftentimes, he says, these attempts leave employees emotionally exhausted, forcing them to smile when they don’t feel happy. He also points out that having fun can sometimes detract from productivity.

At Greatist — a place where we hold semi-mandatory viewings of Elf and sing Disney songs at any decibel level — fun is a core part of our company culture. Personally, I can’t imagine working in a place where employees weren’t psyched for team cooking on company retreats and collaborative sweating at modern yoga classes.

But instead of trying to prove Burkeman categorically wrong about the value of workplace fun, I started thinking about when a culture of fun might work, and when it might fail miserably. Younger employees tend to appreciate company fun when it means socializing, while older workers may prefer to separate their personal and professional lives. In an ideal situation, employers would let workers choose the kind of fun they enjoy and that helps them do their jobs better.

What’s Fun Got to Do With It? The Science

According to research, the effect of fun in the workplace depends heavily on employees’ ages. Specifically, millenials (aka “Generation Y,” loosely defined as people born between the early 1980s and early 2000s) tend to like workplace fun more than members of older generations. One survey found that up to 88 percent of millennials want a fun and social work environment, compared to just 60 percent of boomers (people born between approximately 1946 and 1964). That finding makes sense in light of Greatist’s experience, where every in-office staff member is between the ages of 20 and 35, and many of us arrived here fresh out of college or grad school.

In order to figure out why fun seems to attract this age group over others, it’s best to be specific about what workplace “fun” actually means. Burkeman’s examples of fun include things like funny posters and free doughnuts — but it’s possible Generation Y interprets workplace fun as an environment that generally facilitates interpersonal connections.

Researchers have found that employees across the board tend to rate socializing highest of all fun-related activities. For members of Generation Y, these social activities may be especially important. As people marry and have children later, those in their 20s and 30s may lack an established social structure outside the office. In fact, 71 percent of millennials say they want their coworkers to be a “second family.”

But for older workers, who often return home to families at the end of the day, the idea of company-wide fun may seem forced and significantly less appealing. The challenge is that even those younger employees who want to have fun at work may need to learn how to have fun without compromising their performance.

And We’ll Have Fun, Fun, Fun: The Debate

Obviously, the office isn’t supposed to be an eight-hour-long play date — it’s a place where people need to accomplish work. The big question, then, is whether workplace fun makes employees more or less efficient at their jobs. On this topic, the research is fairly mixed. Some scientists say workplace fun predicts high job satisfaction (and those who are happy at work generally tend to be more productive) Is fun for everyone? Personality differences in healthcare providers’ attitudes toward fun. Karl, K.A., Peluchette, J.V., Harland, L. Journal of Health and Human Services Administration 2007 Spring;29(4):409-47. . A study published last month (which Burkeman cites in his op-ed) found that, among workers in the hospitality industry, having fun improves employee retention but reduces productivity. This effect was especially pronounced among younger employees. Burkeman also cites a study that found “gamifying” work (which the authors define as “managerially-imposed ‘fun’”) only makes employees more productive when they’ve agreed to it.

To me, these findings suggest that organized workplace fun will be most effective when a) employees are open to it and b) they’ve learned how to handle it. It’s possible the Gen Y employees included in the study of hospitality workers were perfectly content to come to their friendly workplaces, but hadn’t yet figured out how to balance chatting it up with coworkers and waiting tables efficiently. Perhaps managers with teams comprised largely of younger workers should think not only about how to institute fun and socializing, but also about teaching their employees how to avoid making work an all-day party.

As for those managers with more diverse teams, the task of making work an enjoyable, productive experience for everyone is trickier. Perhaps the best advice is just to see how different people respond to company-organized fun and tailor activities accordingly. For instance, certain activities (such as family picnics or meditation sessions) may appeal more to older workers than younger ones.

The Takeaway

As I read through research and articles about workplace fun, I thought back to my 25th birthday this past September. I was at home, sick with mono, and missing a company happy hour where a real-live barbershop quartet had been invited to serenade one of my coworkers celebrating her two-year anniversary at Greatist. Not wanting me to miss the excitement, the team called me on Facetime and had the quartet sing “Happy Birthday” over the phone. Though I’d spent most of the day sulking alone in my room, for a few minutes I was with my family — my second family — and having a blast.

Having fun at work isn’t always appropriate, and it certainly doesn’t jive with everyone’s work style. But, for current 20- and 30- somethings, the opportunity to forge real relationships at work can be truly meaningful, and make them genuinely look forward to the start of every workday. As long as company managers are equally willing to give employees the chance to learn how to have fun effectively, we may be on track to create a generation of the happiest, most productive employees yet.

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