Making IT Fun Again

How a little levity went a long way at Schneider Electric.

Whether it was dressing in pumps and a skirt for the company's Halloween party or distributing bobble heads of himself, Dave Patzwald's IT department knew the change they were yearning for had come.

"I inherited an IT department that was dispirited by rounds of outsourcing and canceled ERP projects. They weren't feeling respected or recognized," he says. "When I was hired three years ago, they pleaded with me: 'Dave, please just make this place fun again.'" And that's what he set out to do.

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Humor Does a World of Good in the Workplace

Patzwald, CIO of Schneider Electric N.A., a provider of energy management solutions, understood the benefits that workplace humor can bring: greater productivity, better camaraderie, happier workers.

And now is a critical time to make humor a priority, says Stuart Robertshaw, retired psychology professor and author of DrHumor.com. "With the bad economy, people need a reason to look forward to coming to work," he says. "Happy people go the extra mile; they're more creative and ultimately produce better products."

Patzwald, who holds an MBA in marketing, also saw an opportunity to rebrand the IT department. "We wanted others to know that you can have fun in IT," he says. To show that, they created a series of funny training videos, including one about company e-mail policies.

Being humorous doesn't come naturally to Patzwald, so he partnered with an old friend—a professional comic—to produce the e-mail video. Before filming, Patzwald held scripting meetings where he and his IT team discussed ideas.

The key to this, he says, was creating an environment where everyone felt safe to express any idea. "Creative people just need to be unleashed," he says. "I had some strange ideas, but if I'm willing to embarrass myself a little bit, then maybe they'll take a chance and put their ideas out there, too." Patzwald also enlisted the help of interns to help script and stage the videos.

Once the video was edited and viewed by other departments, positive e-mails flooded in. "People were seeing IT in a different way," he says. "The video was a hit and they were realizing that these weren't geeky, boring and unfriendly people—they had personalities."

In turn, Patzwald saw significant morale changes in IT. "They were finally feeling like others appreciated them. Even the finance department asked us for creative ideas. That was quite a turnaround," he says.

You don't need a knack for humor to lighten the mood at work, says Jacob Lentz, coauthor of There's No I In Office: 4293 Meaningless Phrases to Keep Your Coworkers Smiling While Avoiding Actual Conversation. "Being self-deprecating shows that you're willing to take one for the team. It makes you human and that makes others more comfortable."

Adding a little fun changed the atmosphere at Schneider. "My team realized it was OK to exercise creativity," says Patzwald. "They gained respect from their coworkers and morale increased. And people still talk about that video."

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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