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Employee Motivation

Why (and how) surprise cultivates fun and team connection

It was easy to blame the bagels. Every Monday morning, as a workplace perk, my startup’s office manager would bring in a box of bagels and drop them on the communal kitchen table. Every Monday. Without fail.

And while I did enjoy indulging in the Everything bagel smothered in jalapeño cream cheese, the novelty of it soon wore off. When I suggested mixing it up (eggs and bacon, perhaps?), some of my teammates were appalled. They liked the bagel routine and its reliability. What I craved, though—and what our workplace lacked—was surprise.

Perks like free food, ping-pong tables, and parties are often lauded for making companies a fun place to work. But in the hustle and bustle of trying to entertain employees, crucial points get overlooked: Why is fun essential for a healthy workplace, and what kind of fun do employees crave?

A failure to answer those two questions can lead to workers checking out mentally. Despite efforts to amuse and excite, employees are still largely disengaged. In early 2022, only 32% of employees were engaged, continuing a downward trend that began in 2021 (which marked the first annual decline in a decade!).

Bagel Mondays were a kind gesture that was obviously appreciated by many of my coworkers. But its predictability pointed to a bigger issue: Our employee incentives in general weren’t inspiring playfulness, curiosity, or delight in our workplace. Overall, there was a missed opportunity to be intentional about fostering connection and sparking creativity.

Instead of trying to force fun with overdone tactics, what if you delighted your employees with something fresh? To do that, you need the wonderfully unexpected. Here’s how to sprinkle in surprise in your office—whether virtual, in-person, or a mix of both.

Why fun and surprise are key to happier, more engaged employees.

Anyone who’s ever been responsible for shaping the employee experience has felt the pressure to make work engaging and exciting—no small feat. We know these efforts matter, but it helps to be reminded of just how important they are.  Let’s look at the research on why fun is absolutely necessary for a healthy workplace.

1. Play boosts creativity.  

Play is a generative exercise, transforming one thing into another. Creativity depends on it. As the authors of a TechTrends article write: "Like creativity, play is often novel, surprising, and original." 

What you can do right now to boost creativity: During your next brainstorming session, encourage creativity by using the “yes, and!” structure (a design thinking tool used by Stanford University’s d.school). Each time one person presents an idea, the next person must build upon it by starting with “Yes! And [insert a way to add onto the idea].” This activity stretches the imagination by encouraging each team member to transform what they’ve been given into something greater or different.

2. Play promotes well-being.

In a study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being,​ researchers assigned one of three playfulness interventions to 533 participants. Compared to the control group, all of the intervention groups saw fewer depressive symptoms after playing and even experienced short-term, well-being effects.

What you can do right now to encourage play: In a physical office, try creating a break area stocked with board games or question cards that coworkers can pull from anytime they feel like sparking some impromptu leisure time with a teammate. 

For virtual workplaces, consider immersive online experiences like Mibo, a video conferencing app that places attendees in a virtual world where you can interact with the environment (such as a pool table on the beach). 

3. Fun and laughter reduce stress. 

Science supports that leisure activities improve mood and lower heart rate. Laughter is a stress reliever, too; it soothes your nervous system, encourages muscle relaxation, and even reduces pain. And as stand-up comedian Dean Lewis puts it: “Laughter is created when surprise is present.” 

What you can do right now to use fun to reduce stress: Make a just-for-fun Slack channel, such as #memes or #office-pets. I’m part of a #cats Slack channel, and I cannot tell you how many times seeing someone’s feline friend hogging their laptop or napping in unusual places has brought me a much-needed chuckle.

4. Humor helps us learn. 

In addition to stress relief, laughing is beneficial for learning, encouraging participation and helping people to better recall facts.

What you can do right now to infuse humor at work: Spruce up your presentations with the occasional meme to bring some lighthearted humor. It just might make the content more memorable!

5. Fun boosts employee engagement. 

Researchers from Gebze Technical University found that three specific forms of fun (fun activities, coworker socializing, and manager support for fun) were positively linked to job engagement. 

What you can do right now to encourage fun: The authors of the above study recommended that HR managers promote fun both in formal ways (such as planning team-building activities and recognizing personal milestones) and informal ways (such as encouraging social coffee breaks and walks with coworkers).

All of the elements that make work fun (humor, play, and surprise) contribute to a healthier, more engaged workforce. But if that’s the case, why does it sometimes feel like, despite your best efforts, your attempts at fun are falling flat?

Surprise employees with spot recognition rewards that never get stale.

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The science behind why it’s so hard to make work fun.

Playing games, lavishing employees with praise, and filling the office with free snacks are welcome perks of office life. But unlimited La Croix has its limits when it comes to infusing your culture with playfulness and delight. It has to do with how humans are wired. Thankfully, there’s a lot you can do to help people break free from these tendencies and embrace true fun, which we’ll cover below. 

Hedonic adaptation kicks in. 

When we experience a change, whether negative or positive, we’re wired to eventually return to our baseline happiness. This is known as hedonic adaptation, and it’s a really useful mechanism when we, say, don’t get that promotion we wanted and feel down for a day or two (because we know we’ll bounce back eventually). But hedonic adaptation is a bit of a bummer when we’re trying to delight our employees with perks because, eventually, they’ll grow tired of what they’re used to.

Thankfully, there is a solution to this: novelty.

“We don’t get ‘used to’ positive events when our experiences are novel, or unexpected,” explains Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. “When, on the other hand, a positive experience is repetitive—when you know exactly what to expect—you don’t get the same kick out of it.”

The first couple of Bagel Mondays? New and mildly exciting. The 15th one? Not as much. (Don’t worry, we’ll show you how to infuse novelty into your employee experience below.)

Employees want “deep” fun, but they’re getting “shallow” fun. 

Not all fun is created equal. Rebecca Hinds, Head of Asana Labs, dug into the science of having fun at work, and as she writes for Inc.: “The first key takeaway that emerged from our research is that employees see fun as intimately linked with working on difficult problems.” 

As described by organizational psychologist Adam Grant, there's “shallow fun” (like playing games) and “deep fun” (doing things that are “novel, hard, and important”). While employees might be content to play another round of foosball, they’d be absolutely thrilled to get their hands on tools and use their imaginations as they learn the lost art of blacksmithing.

Another way of framing the different types of fun comes from science journalist Catherine Price: “true fun” versus “fake fun.” True fun, Price writes for The New York Times, has three elements: playfulness, connection, and flow. Fake fun, on the other hand,  (such as watching TV) lacks those three elements. 

Just what is flow? Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined the term, defined flow as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

Immersive experiences that are challenging and enjoyable induce this state of flow. Think learning to fly a plane or trying your hand at a new cooking class—challenging and fun. 

As you brainstorm ways to surprise and delight your employees, try to move more toward the kind of fun that creates connection and stretches the mind.

The good news is you can combat that hedonic adaptation and provide employees with opportunities for deep fun by weaving in the unexpected. Here are a couple of reasons surprise is the secret ingredient to spicing up the employee experience:

  • Surprise combats hedonic adaptation. Habituation happens when incentives become expected. Surprise, on the flip side, happens with the unexpected.
  • Surprise is crucial to creating the challenge required in flow states. Problem-solving is only challenging because it involves unpredicted elements.

Now that you see the science behind true fun at work, let’s look at unique rewards and recognition ideas that spark surprise and delight—regardless of where your teams are located.

5 unique employee appreciation gifts and tips that go beyond perks, praise, and ping-pong tables.

1. Change just one expected variable. 

It’s not the reward itself that becomes boring; it’s the predictability of it. An Emory University study split participants into groups that either received juice squirts at predictable intervals or at unpredictable intervals. Those who received the juice at surprise intervals experienced more release of the feel-good brain chemical dopamine. That means that by changing just one variable, the researchers were able to delight participants.

Apply this to your employee incentives. You don’t have to scrap a perk entirely; just change one variable, such as the time it’s delivered (instead of bagels every Monday, surprise them with bagels on a random day) or the type of reward that’s delivered at a specific time (instead of bagels, surprise them with different treats each Monday).

2. Foster psychological safety.

Because it is a response to the unexpected, surprise can only happen when there is risk involved. A workplace that feels psychologically unsafe will try to eliminate uncertainty and risks as much as possible. In such a workplace, surprise feels like a “bad” thing. Therefore, psychological safety is crucial to creating elements of surprise.

One idea to create psychological safety: Reframe failure. Treating failure as a learning experience, instead of a shameful outcome, is a powerful way to convey to your employees: “It is safe here for you to experiment, grow, and take risks.” One way to reframe failure is to host team retrospectives to go over what went well and what you’ve learned after each project or to include a “lessons learned” section in your all-hands meetings, right after doing shout-outs and highlights.

3. Interrupt the workday with shout-outs (peer-to-peer recognition).

Sprinkling in moments of recognition throughout the workday helps your employees feel seen and appreciated. Whether it’s sending a message in the Slack #shoutouts channel or building in shout-outs at the end of every team stand-up, acknowledging that coworker who helped you book a sales meeting or the manager who supported you to attend a conference is a pleasant surprise that always feels good. You might even consider investing in employee recognition software that can streamline praise.

A screenshot of black text on a white background of a shout out from one coworker to another recognizing their support for a project.
Words of recognition when colleagues show up for and support each other in the workplace go a long way. Here, coworkers share out spot recognition for how our team demonstrates company values which are then posted to a dedicated Slack channel. 

4. Spice things up with spot rewards to recognize a job well done.

Giving recognition on the spot can be more effective than delayed recognition. And because they’re timely and less planned, spot rewards can bring in that element of surprise and delight. 

For example, maybe an employee has been consistently planning ERG events for the past three months (an additional role they don’t get paid for), and you want to reward them. The next time they send an invitation to an ERG event they’ve helped plan, you can send them a spot reward. With an experiential rewards platform, you can send them a link that lets them choose a meaningful experience—from watercolor painting at home to wine tasting in a vineyard. How’s that for surprise and delight?

5. Reward your people with experiences.

Think beyond gift cards and cash. Experiential rewards—a cooking class, spa day, or even a Greek island getaway—are a refreshing take on employee incentives. Because they are novel, challenging, and meaningful, they provide all the ingredients for deep fun. Even if the experience is outside of work, employees will associate it (and the memories, or afterglow, as we refer to the post-experience feeling here at Blueboard) with your company.

The answer to, “How do I surprise my employees?” Try these unique rewards and recognition ideas.

I don’t blame my office manager for trying to make work fun with Bagel Mondays. She was simply leaning on an expected startup perk: free food. But incentives like that don’t translate well in hybrid environments, and employers have so much more to offer their teams. 

Instead of talking employees into another virtual happy hour or corralling them into another escape room—offer experiences beyond the office. The beauty of this is it works whether your team is remote, virtual, or hybrid. Even if coworkers don’t do the experience together, sharing stories of it with teammates cultivates connection. Science shows that stories bond us, even allowing the listener’s brain waves to synchronize with the storyteller. 

By injecting surprise into your employees’ lives, and providing experiential rewards for a job well done, you’ll delight and engage them in meaningful ways that they’ll feel and talk about for years to come.

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