Viewed through the lens of job crafting, “Banana Time: Job Satisfaction and Informal Interaction,” a classic in the annals of organizational studies, offers clues about how to foster real “fun at work” that can boost employee wellbeing and, with any luck, improve business results.
If you were absent the day they assigned Banana Time in Industrial Sociology class, I highly recommend this unique article. Sociologist Donald Roy’s story, embedding himself in a small group of die press operators, was published in 1959 and is unlike anything else you’ve read in a journal. At times it’s humorous, sarcastic, and self-deprecating. And it’s always empathetic.
Roy didn’t set out specifically to explore fun at work. He primarily was studying how laborers coped with tedious work. He also sought to “penetrate the mysteries of the small group,” recognizing there might be a relationship between surviving monotony — and it’s “twin brother,” fatigue — and the human relations that take place among co-workers.
Roy describes the isolation he and his small cadre of co-workers experienced:
…This was truly a situation of laissez-faire management. There was no interference from staff experts, no hounding by time-study engineers or personnel men hot on the scent of efficiency or good human relations. Nor were there any signs of industrial democracy in the form of safety, recreational, or production committees.
Roy cites forerunners who described humans’ irrepressible impulse to engage in play, which can help “the worker find some meaning in any activity assigned to him.”
Short-Range Production Goals with Achievement Rewards
He shares his experience of this impulse, in the initial days before he interacted with the three other die press operators — “clicker operators,” as Roy called them — in his work area. He cognitively crafted what he called “the game of work”:
‘As soon as I finish a thousand of the green ones, I’ll click some brown ones.’ And, with success in attaining the objective of working with brown materials, a new goal of ‘I’ll get to do the white ones’ might be set. Or the new goal might involve switching dies.
“Thus,” Roy writes, “the game of work might be described as a continuous sequence of short-range production goals with achievement rewards in the form of activity change.”
Ultimately, he acknowledges, “These games were not as interesting in the experiencing as they might seem to be from the telling.”
After his first week, however, Roy realizes that another game — one played daily by his co-workers — is taking place.
Looking Forward to Banana Time
First, he notices a regular pattern of horseplay and teasing. In one example, one of the clicker operators, Ike, would steal a banana from the lunchbox of another, Sammy:
Ike would gulp it down by himself after surreptitiously extracting it from Sammy’s lunch box, kept on a shelf behind Sammy’s work station. Each morning, after making the snatch, Ike would call out, “Banana time!” and proceed to down his prize while Sammy made futile protests and denunciations. The banana was one which Sammy brought for his own consumption at lunch time; he never did get to eat his banana, but kept bringing one for his lunch. At first this daily theft startled and amazed me. Then I grew to look forward to the daily seizure and the verbal interaction which followed.
Roy describes a variety of “time” activities the workers wove into their daily work routine. Many revolved around refreshments, such as peach time, a daily mid-morning ritual in which Sammy shared two peaches with the other press operators. There were also coffee time, Coke time, and many other “times,” including, of course, quitting time.
(Sorry Family Guy fans… No peanut butter and jelly time!)
Team Job Crafting
These playful activities, initiated organically (that is, intrinsically) within the group, are a form of team job crafting. They met specific employee needs like social support and relief from monotony, and were enjoyed by everyone who chose to engage. Contrast organic, worker-crafted fun with activities planned by management or by a fun-at-work committee.
Banana Time and the other “times” are examples of relational (social) crafting. (For an overview of job crafting, including relational, cognitive, and task crafting, see my previous post: I Have Seen the Future of Employee Wellbeing. It’s Name Is Job Crafting.)
Roy observed other kinds of social interaction, as well, and the influence they all had on what we now call the employee experience:
The interaction was there, in constant flow. It captured attention and held interest to make the long day pass. The 12 hours of “click, —move die, click, — move die” became as easy to endure as 8 hours of varied activity. The “beast of boredom” was gentled to the harmlessness of a kitten.
Seven Lessons for Workplace Leaders
It may feel like a stretch, at first, to apply Roy’s 1959 die press operator experience to the modern workplace, but it suggests no less than seven insights relevant to most modern work situations:
- Workers engage in playfulness to remain stimulated.
- Fun delays or cloaks fatigue.
- Workers use gamification to find meaning in their work.
- Playful rituals during the workday are used to mark time and support short-term intrinsic motivation.
- Workplace fun often revolves around food and beverages.
- Playing with others is more meaningful than playing alone.
- Informal interaction between members of a work group is important for job satisfaction.
As for management goals, Roy posed one possibility: “Leavening the boredom of individualized work routines with a concurrent flow of group festivities had a negative effect on turnover.”
He observed that the more he played the less tired he felt, which may have positive implications for productivity, but Roy neither measured productivity nor speculated about it.
One of Roy’s most important observations, in my opinion, is that, given the opportunity, workers craft their own fun, especially via social interaction.
Job Crafting, Gamification, and Play
Arnold Bakker and Marianne van Woerkom, in last year’s article “Flow at Work: a Self-Determination Perspective,” posit that job crafting and “designing work to be playful” are two strategies workers use to satisfy basic needs, which leads to improved job performance. They cite (as Roy did) a well accepted theory that humans have a “natural tendency” for play. And they point to research suggesting that fun at work “leads to higher job satisfaction, morale, pride in work, creativity, service quality, as well as lower burnout and absenteeism.”
Echoing Roy’s experience of cognitive game-playing before he discovered Banana Time (Remember? “As soon as I finish a thousand green ones, I’ll click some brown ones”), Bakker and van Woerkom share testimonials from people who gamified their work, such as one HR manager who said:
When I need to work on a boring, bureaucratic task, I gamify it by building additional tasks into the boring task. One option is to fill out the form using the fewest words possible yet covering all the content that must be addressed. This makes it a writing challenge and so, more interesting.
Bakker and van Woerkom conclude,
Proactively creating conditions at work that foster play – to which we will refer to as “playful work design” could therefore be an effective strategy to increase flow at work.
(Flow at work, the author’s explain, is “a short-term peak experience characterized by absorption, work enjoyment, and intrinsic work motivation.”)
Beyond “Fun” Activities at Work
Bakker and van Woerkom focus on individual gamification, which Roy found to be “not as interesting in the experiencing as it might seem to be from the telling,” rather than socially interactive play. Nevertheless, their research affirms Roy’s finding 50 years ago: workers will find ways to craft fun into their work. And the authors encourage leaders to create conditions that encourage workers to do so.
For today’s manager, the lesson is clear: Ping-pong tables, office scooters, outings, office parades, and dress-up-as-whatever days in the office are all well-and-good, but more important is an environment that supports employees crafting their own fun. (The foremost benefit of social outings, office parties, and other gatherings — especially when accompanied by autonomy designed into the work — may be to provide opportunities to interact in ways that foster future fun and relational job crafting.)
When all is said and done, as we contemplate Roy’s insights, as well as the theories advanced by Bakker and van Woerkom, we may conclude that trying to provide fun at work needn’t be nearly as high a priority as enabling the fun of work.
Thank you to Dmitrijs Kravcenko and team, who introduced me to Donald Roy and Banana Time via their remarkable podcast “Talking About Organizations.” Check it out. Start with the first episode, or jump right in with their discussion of Banana Time.