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Delaware's Fun Department shows that entertainment in the workplace is good for business.

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Clockwise from top: Nick Gianoulis, Mike Barrow, Krystal Spencer, Mark Doughty and Nat Measley. Photograph by Jared CastaldiPicture this: You’re a nurse at a medical office. You’re waiting for your next patient to arrive. Suddenly, with a whoosh, two strangers rush in with a small cart carrying a fish tank filled with water. You have no idea who they are. You’re slightly concerned.

The next thing you know, you and your colleagues are summoned to the back hallway for a fast game of “Will It Float?” The two oddballs­—in this case, Krystal Spencer and Nat Measley­—start dropping weird items into the tank. Plop goes a Three Musketeers candy bar wrapper, a latex glove and a plastic box. Your gang is asked to guess if the objects will float. Answer correctly and you win a $2 bill.

There goes an old stethoscope.

“It’s a sinker,” a staffer says.

Glub. Glub.

“You are correct! Here’s two dollars,” says one of the oddballs.

“Can I keep it?” you say.

“Of course,” he says.

“Wow. I’ve heard about you guys coming in like this, but it’s never happened before on this shift,” says a physician’s assistant, clearly enjoying the odd but entertaining interlude.

Another staffer looks down the hall nervously, hoping it’s not wrong that she’s enjoying this silliness in the midst of an office where sick people require treatment.

Within 10 minutes, several floaters and sinkers make a splash. A few $2 bills change hands. Then, those nonconformists propel the cart back out to the parking lot, leaving most employees with a fun, shared experience. One employee is left shaking his head, wondering what the hay just happened. For him, this was not fun; it was weird.

Weird or not, this idea of bringing fun to the workplace seems to be catching on. The oddballs —Spencer and Measley—are employees of The Fun Department, a company that aims to bring joy to the workplace. Back in the day, Human Resources folks would have called this team building.

To work for the Fun Department, you have to be willing­—and just crazy enough­­—to put yourself out there. These spirited guys and gals work with corporate leaders who send employees off for a day of training someplace. The corporate leaders hope to create better working relationships among staff. The workers who endure the workshops would never, ever classify them as fun—until now, that is.

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The Fun Department arranges “deliveries,” either shorts (five to 30 minutes), mediums (1.5 hours) or longs (luncheons, parties or all-day picnics). These lighthearted episodes, like the fish tank escapade described earlier, are meant to replace the standard, often excruciating team-building exercises. Fun workers find entertaining ways to engage employees in enjoyable activities. The fact that those little bubbles of joy strengthen teams is the bonus.

So, who’s causing the ruckus? The Fun Department employs six active oddballs, er, partners­—with strange titles to match their strange gigs. Nick Gianoulis, the Godfather of Fun, reigns over the group, having honed his skills in sales management and operations. Dave Raymond, the Emperor of Fun and Games, and Mark Doughty, the Lord of the Deal, both worked with the Philadelphia Phillies baseball franchise as Phillie Phanatics. Master of Fun Measley has a theatrical and entertainment background. Amye McDearmon, the First Lady of Fun, survived a career in HR. Adding to the jollification is Ben Leroy, a seasoned musician and pizza entrepreneur who holds the title Good Vibes Coordinator. (We’re not making this up.)

Measley, Gianoulis and Doughty work full time at the Fun Department. “We become part of the client’s corporate culture, and rather than them paying about 1 to 3 percent of a business payroll for off-site training twice a year to keep employees engaged,” he says, “we can make deliveries all year long, with the goal of having fun as fast as possible.”

One of the Fun’s favorite strategies is the Bait and Switch. Employees are called together for what promises to be a boring speaker droning on about a boring topic. Turns out, the undercover funsters were the speakers. Channeling Clark Kent, they tear off their three-piece suits and strip down to their Superman-like T-shirts and jeans.

At a recent ING Direct gig, funsters invited 100 employees to a scavenger hunt. The group was sent out on a six-hour photo search that, reportedly, was “a blast.”

At Dawn Career Institute in Wilmington, the Fun is a regular interruption. Human Resources assistant Katie Burke was forced to recite poetry during one visit. The funsters report that Burke enjoyed her time hanging at the Cart of Fun.

According to Wawa’s public relations executive Colleen Labik, “the Fun Department has helped enhance some of our wellness events with trivia, line dancing, and contests that enable the participation of all attendees and reinforce our wellness message.”

Fun also hosted a Halloween luncheon for employees of Wilmington University.  “There’s nothing like seeing your boss dressed as a pumpkin to start the chuckles,” one staffer said.

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“We spend more time at work than we do with our families and friends,” says Measley, who hosted the WU party in full gladiator regalia.

Not everyone finds the Fun a welcome respite, however. Some employees will sprint to the nearest emergency exit when they see these guys coming. But for those who enjoy workday levity, Fun seems to deliver. Games include Cash Cubicle, which is based on the TV game show “Cash Cab.” For this, an unsuspecting cubicle dweller is given the opportunity to play trivia for cash. 

But again, fun is subjective. One person might like bungee jumping. Someone else might think hanging from a rope is ridiculous. And not everyone loves trivia attacks. When the Fun descends on a building, employees are encouraged to interact with their bosses—or worse, some are forced to stack plastic cups. The majority of employees dig the camaraderie, while others would rather get a bonus and call it a day.

But here’s the thing: The Fun Department is thriving during an economy that necessitates budget cutting—certainly fun cutting. Love ’em or not, these guys are apparently good for business.

“They help to break the customary work routine by injecting fun and infusing teamwork at a competitive level,” says Jorge Echavarria, Dawn’s financial aid associate. “They promote teamwork within the department, allowing us to put aside the work mentality and show our fun spirit.”

Nicole Romano, human resources director at Wilmington University, says “They really get us. And most important, they always keep the big picture and our goals in mind. It’s not just about the great fun, it’s about getting what we want out of it.”

There it is: If you deal with Fun the right way, you get what you want. But you have to know your employees. You must understand the kinds of “fun” they enjoy. If you don’t, forced fun doesn’t always work. 

Wilmington University has been named the 19th best place to work in the country by the Great Place to Work Institute, a global research and consulting firm. The Fun may have a bit to do with that, but then again,  WU has long been considered a great place to work. The Fun sweetens the pie.

Fun folks walk a fine line between staff bonding and disrupting daily routines. Then there’s deciding which employees think workday fun is peachy and those who consider it a royal pain.

“Let’s face it,” says Lord of the Deal Doughty, “not everyone wants to wear the proverbial lamp shade.”

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Nor might they want to stack plastic cups. That’s why the Fun Department offers a variety of activities, and attempts to reach diverse populations. Trivia might be fun for one while it reduces another to tears. Watching a co-worker get ambushed can be joyous, unless you’re the schmuck getting ambushed. 

“We stay sensitive to these issues,” says Doughty. “Everybody can have the shared experience.”

Should the Fun Department be considered a viable tool for corporate training and morale building? Some clients think so. The good manager will know her employees and determine if such jocularity would be welcomed.

Funsters insist that levity can be productive, and their track record seems to back up that philosophy. Staffers say the scheduled merriment is inspiring happier, healthier, more productive work environments. That, they add, boosts  bottom lines and supports corporate culture. And all this for less than the cost of a monthly distribution of donuts. 

The caloric intake is less. And the fun stuff is great, for most. Others still prefer a nice cruller.
 

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