The staff had been asked to trace the company's motto in mid-air using only their posteriors. It was an exercise in workplace humour, how to lose your inhibitions with colleagues, and it worked. "I couldn't breathe for laughing," says Beth, a 35-year-old manager. "The company's been having a few problems recently, and everyone's been very glum-faced at work, and then this!" She says the atmosphere in the office was cheerful for weeks afterwards as people fondly recalled their ridiculous postures.
Humour and offices traditionally mix as well as lager and liebfraumilch. But companies are starting to realise that a happy workforce is also a motivated workforce. The Happiness Project and The Wilsher Group, two consultancies that encourage humour and fun in the workplace, report that business is booming; they count among their clients such companies as BT, Barclaycard, Sony, Virgin, the Cambridge University Press and The Body Shop.
"Humour works in terms of personal effectiveness and communication," says Ben Renshaw, co-director of the Happiness Project. "It is also useful in handling change, which is a big issue these days." This is not to say that the boss should demand a joke-telling session twice a day, but an atmosphere where people feel free to laugh at each other (and themselves) can improve productivity as well as people's lives.
"My boss realised that some of us had problems making presentations," says Alex, a 27-year-old marketing executive. "Shyness would come out as aggression in response to uncomplimentary comments." His company, a large manufacturer of household products, organised a two-day session where mock presentations were videotaped. Each presenter was then encouraged to watch the video in informal circumstances, over a glass of wine, with a group of friends.
"We really took the mickey out of ourselves, and somehow it made it much easier," he says. "The next time I tried, it didn't seem to matter that much." It helped, he says, that the department head made fun of himself during the exercise. "When we got back to the office we were all tittering about it, and we felt much better about the idea of work. You know, it was less of a drudge."
Dr Mike Lowis, clinical psychologist at University College, Northampton, says humour has four applications in human interaction, all of which can be used positively at work. "It's a social lubricant, easing difficulties in social interaction. Second, it's a tension defuser, a safe way of relieving aggression. Third, it's a memory and teaching aid. Fourth, it's a self- defence mechanism."
The last can come in useful in the high-stress, downsized office of today. "If you feel you don't have the resources to cope with the stress, making light of your situation to yourself is evidence in itself that you aren't being overwhelmed," says Dr Lowis. " When your boss is giving you a dressing-down, for example, you can counter the feeling of powerlessness by imagining him naked, and joking about him to colleagues afterwards."
To encourage a humorous atmosphere in general, staff can be encouraged to play gentle stunts on each other. Mr Lowis recalls the example of bickering corporate directors who were told to dress up in pantomime clothes and enact a children's play, thereby harnessing humour's tension-defusing and creativity-enhancing qualities simultaneously. "They all got along a lot better afterwards," he says. "Humour is creative in itself. It's not logical or rational, it needs to be created."
Jill Edwards runs seminars for people who want to learn how to infuse presentations and everyday scenarios with the right kind of humour. "Don't tell actual jokes, make a simple humourous comment," she says. "If it's a very hot room, for example, begin `Welcome to the (company name) sauna'."
Injecting humour into the workplace does not mean encouraging the office bore to offload his latest round of blonde babe jokes. "It's about creating the right atmosphere," says Simon Wilsher, chief executive of the Wilsher Group. "A lot of humour comes naturally when you teach people to express themselves." One of his clients, a metal manufacturer, encourages staff to stick cartoons, funny faces, toys and witty quotes all over the office. "They're looking to create an innovative culture where every meeting has a lot of fun and humour," he says.
Wilsher also encourages what he calls a culture of "Not-so-badder-itis", where staff, instead of feeling they have to spend all their time problem- solving and defending themselves, are encouraged to get together and share the laughs and experiences of their jobs. In America companies have even set up "Laughter Rooms" where employees go to make jokes.
Like the mythical low-calorie chocolate cake, any corporate fad aimed at increasing happiness should be a no-lose scenario: creativity and employee happiness should both improve. But humour is not welcome everywhere, not suitable for every situation. Guy, a human resources manager for a well- known City company, recalls a recent spell in its New York office. "The workload was huge, and on a Friday afternoon a load more tasks were dumped on my department, to be finished that day. It was clearly going to take all night, and I made some crack about the director mistakenly thinking we'd been employed as slaves. My colleagues looked at me with shocked expressions. In that office you did not make witticisms at the expense of the company. And the company is very successful."
After-dinner speeches and presentations to a roomful of your peers are ideal scenarios for cracking witticisms. "It lets people know you're one of them," says Dr Lowis. But making a joke, even at your own expense, to someone very senior who doesn't know you, is unlikely to advance your career very far. "You have to be careful not to do yourself down too much," says Renshaw.
It is appropriate, in work humour etiquette, for a boss to make a joke about an underling, provided it isn't aimed personally. "You can joke about something as a way of illustrating, gently, that someone has not done it right," says Dr Lowis. "But cruelty should never be on the agenda." Underlings should never, however, make fun of their bosses to their faces. The reason, says Dr Lowis, is that an underling hasn't earned the right to be openly critical of a boss. Best keep those jokes for when he or she is out of earshot.
HA, HA, HA
n Laugh about your boss - when he/she's not there
n Illustrate mistakes by people below you by making fun - gently
n Exchange anecdotes with colleagues (as long as they're genuinely entertaining)
n Make fun of yourself as a way of starting a presentation. Try:
- "I'm going to speak and you're going to listen. If you finish before I do, please put your hand up"
- "When I reviewed this presentation last night, I decided to cut out
anything dull. So in conclusion..."
- "I don't mind speaking to such a small audience. I just want to know whoheard me before and grassed"
n Get the joke book out
n Make fun of the managing director's tie
n Play practical jokes on unsuspecting colleagues
n Ask the boss why she screwed the project up
n Take life too seriously