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Hey, lighten up.

Mirth in the workplace boosts productivity and teamwork.

An experiment is under way at Printing Industries of America, Inc. (PIA), Alexandria, Virginia, testing the theory that humor in the workplace creates enthusiasm and increases productivity.

PIA employs 70 people and represents thousands of printing businesses. In the past few years the association, like the industry, suffered from the recession. At the start of our experiment in 1992, morale was low.

Enter the PIA Mirth Committee, formed to implement the theories of humor guru Peter McLaughlin. Chaired and selected by Dan Robertson, PIA's chief financial officer (no kidding), the committee's first meetings were awkward. McLaughlin himself attended a few meetings and encouraged a looser atmosphere by sharing stories of other companies that encouraged humor in the workplace. The Mirth Committee adopted an announcement date of April 1. Until that date, all humor activities were to be clandestine--stealth mirth.

The first effort, a sign in the elevator that said "No Fun Permitted on Premises," met icy indifference. So did a broadcast voicemail message announcing that "The Surgeon General of the printing industry has determined that Valentine's Day parties may be hazardous to your health."

On April 1, the committee placed a red clown nose on the association's lifesize bronze statue of Ben Franklin. It lasted less than an hour. A staff newsletter announced that PIA President Ray Roper had been sold to Japan to help balance the association's budget. Response, again, was minimal.

The Mirth Committee persevered. On McLaughlin's suggestion, cartoon boxes on each floor displayed amusing clippings from outside sources. Staff reaction ranged from tolerant to hostile; one cartoon was defaced. Gradually, however, they warmed to the idea and commented when postings didn't change on time.

On July 8, 1992, the building manager distributed a routine memo: "This weekend the vendor who installed the cabling in our building will thoroughly clean all of our telephone lines by injecting compressed air into the cables. To control dust and debris that may emanate from your telephone receivers, all staff members are urged to store their telephones in their wastebaskets or to procure special bags from the production department before leaving work on Friday, July 10." More than half the staff asked for the special bags, and the building manager had to get some clear trash can liners to distribute. One woman forgot to procure the bags, worried all weekend, and tried to reach the building manager at home. Over the weekend the Mirth Committee tossed glitter and electrical wire odds and ends into everyone's telephone bag. On Monday morning the staff finally got the message: It was a joke.

Since then the Mirth Committee has sponsored a number of events, including a creative crayoning competition.

On April 1, 1993, the committee replaced the framed meeting courtesy guidelines posters in all the conference rooms with a spoof. The first 10 staff to notice were inducted into the "I Found It" club, complete with secret oath and membership card.

After 18 months, PIA is convinced that the Mirth Committee has had a significant positive impact, although results are difficult to measure. Ray Roper admits he had some initial reservations, but today says, "I feel our employees find their working environment more pleasant than do the vast majority of their peers.

"The bottom line is that productivity and creativity are up, absenteeism and turnover are down, and the member is getting a better return on the dues dollar."

Cliff Weiss is director of publications and a member of the Mirth Committee at Printing Industries of America, Inc., Alexandria, Virginia.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Society of Association Executives
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Good Ideas; humor in the workplace
Author:Weiss, Cliff
Publication:Association Management
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Words:593
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