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Smile! Humor may be what’s been missing at work

March 31, 2021, 5:34 PM UTC
Smile! Humor may be the missing ingredient at work these days.
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Welcome to Worksheet, a newsletter about how people are working smarter in these turbulent times.

Every week, this newsletter will share analysis on the state of work by S. Mitra Kalita, a veteran media executive, author, and journalist.

In this week’s edition, Kalita suggests humor may be an essential ingredient we’ve been missing at work.

So three guys walk into the post-pandemic office—and promptly realize everything has changed. 

Cubicles and offices have been replaced by collaboration spaces and meeting rooms. 

Employees are split between telecommuters on screens and spaced-out, in-office workers. 

Also rewind. Three guys? Not cool. 

Humor, which study after study has shown leads to deeper trust between leaders and workers, as well as greater job satisfaction, will likely be reimagined in the post-COVID workplace, too. But as we prepare for the Great Return, we’d be smart to think about what it looks like and how to make levity a central feature of a company’s culture. 

“The workplace needs laughter,” Harvard Business Review declared in 2014. “Laughter relieves stress and boredom, boosts engagement and well-being, and spurs not only creativity and collaboration but also analytic precision and productivity.”

Nearly three-quarters of workers in an Indeed survey say they miss socializing in the office. That’s sidebar conversations and baby showers, sure, but it’s also banter and office pranks like the time my colleague Paul turned Eric’s workstation into an art installation of monitor arms and errant wires (with a sign saying Banksy had been there). And the cutting comebacks and one-liners, making the recipient wonder if you’re serious or joking—and that is precisely the point. 

“I believe comedy is power. When you make people laugh, you make people listen,” said Lynn Harris, founder and CEO of Gold Comedy, an online platform for women and non-binary people who want to be funny. “It’s a way to punch at power.”

After a year of being democratized, thanks to Zoom calls and everybody’s kids and dogs being everywhere, the workplace can’t just return to old power dynamics. “Even before the pandemic there was a trend, the trend more towards leadership being approachable,” Harris said. “I can’t see that changing that much after the pandemic. There’s only so much a ring light and a collared shirt can do.”

Indeed, the last year’s dependence on technology (along with many other factors) might have sucked some of the joy out of the workplace. Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas together teach a course at Stanford Graduate School of Business on humor. They are also authors of the just-published book Humor, Seriously. I interviewed both by email and asked whether the last year has been less funny. 

“The more technology mediated our communication becomes, the harder it is to bring our humanity and sense of humor to work,” they wrote. “We subconsciously adapt to our medium, and when we’re constantly communicating through technology, it’s easy to sound like a robot.”

Kalita goes on to write about how using humor may be the key to easing back into post-pandemic office life.

Read her full column here.

Wondering what else the future of work holds? Visit Fortune‘s Smarter Working hub presented by Future Forum by Slack.

This week's reads


The legal guide to the pitfalls of making COVID vaccines mandatory at work (HR Director)

Global travel

Air New Zealand says business travel is back, defying concerns over this segment seeing a sluggish recovery as the return to “normal” begins. (Stuff)

Back on track

New Commerce Secretary (and former VC) Gina Raimondo wants the government to invest in women. (Fortune)

Jobless, penniless

California is out of unemployment money, and nobody is doing much about it. (CalMatters)