Unhappy people do not perform well at work. They mope, they argue in meetings, they code with the precision of a snail-taking-its-sweet-ass-time, and then you miss all your deadlines. Fostering a community within your workplace and creating an atmosphere of camaraderie is an excellent way to keep your staff happy. No one is going to be 100% peppy all the time (plus who likes that person anyhow?), but you can do some key things to bring the fun and make your team enthusiastic about their work day.

Humanize the boss

I have had a lot of bosses in my day. Some good, some not-so-good. The best ones were not only mentors who wanted to help you achieve personal greatness, they were approachable people who knew you were human and were actual humans themselves. A bird-boss perched up in a gilded cage, too fragile for criticism, whose feathers fall out at the mention of imperfection isn’t going to be effective. A bull-boss rampaging around destroying all the china shops within range, is also not going to be effective. A god-boss (whether angry-Zeus or know-it-all-Athena) who cannot be talked to unless all words used are borderline worship — also, not super effective.

One of the ways to deter your animal and deity status is to allow yourself to be teased by your staff. At Apple, not only did we tease our two main Directors, we terrorized them on their birthdays. There were yearly office attacks, requiring months of planning and much stealth (plus a few slaps-on-the-wrist from Facilities). This was an incredible bonding opportunity for the team; we got to unleash our creativity, and the non-participants still got to enjoy the outcome.

The Engineering Director was a very good sport as we played on his OCD for cleanliness one year by turning his office into a dump. So the next year we were nice — one of the designers created a pixel map of his face, and we covered his entire office in post-it-notes.

The Director of Design was also amazing. Our greatest feat was to turn her office into a petting zoo, complete with a pony. Of course, we cleaned everything up afterwards.

Foster friendly rivalries

Part of being a human boss entails engaging with your staff. Potentially even trash-talking with your staff, and unintentionally winding up in a never ending series of one-upmanship contests. The Engineering Director and a Senior Engineer would get into them all the time, much to the amusement of the rest of the team. On the best of such occasions, we set up a bike race that we live-tweeted, recorded video captured on a motorcycle, and planned a full award ceremony at the finish line. These friendly rivalries can make your team happy and excited, plus it gives your staff the chance to interact with management in a non-work setting. People can talk more freely when stressed in future meetings and reduce conversational formality, which is a barrier to honest communication.

Take regular breaks

I pioneered Wine Wednesdays with my team. I had been taking artisan bread baking courses and wanted to make much more bread than one person should eat alone, and what goes better with bread than wine? Originally, the project managers would sponsor the wine, but it became popular, so it was eventually sponsored by different people on the team. We gathered up at eleven in the morning in the common area, ate snacks, drank some wine and went to lunch afterwards. Thus creating a relaxing break in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week. We all were better off for it.

Going out for lunches instead of only just having them catered (should your company do that), is also important. As much fun as it is to never see daylight unless it’s through a window, your staff needs to go outdoors during the day. Encourage people to have lives outside the office, and they will be happier when they are entrapped during the crunch times (that you are ensuring are very rare).

Be inclusive of culture and lifestyle

I used to give out stickers about once a month to the entire MobileMe team. I felt everyone was doing a good job, and who doesn’t like stickers? The first time I did this, I was basically introducing myself to everyone. As a project manager, having people on other teams who know and like you is very handy when you’re in charge of cross-functional products. I was handing out sushi stickers and someone mentioned to me that they were vegetarian, so they didn’t like sushi. I found them an avocado roll sticker and noted this for my next round. Second time through, I got happy-looking-cow stickers because a lot of staff had just moved over from India, and those were well received. I also started tweeting “cowstrology” which was my prediction of how the work day would go based on the formation of the cows one could see on the Stanford hill on the shuttle bus ride into work. Little things matter, and people remember when you treat them with respect.

If you have no diversity in gender, sexuality, cultural background or food requirements on your team, then I’m a little frightened for your product. Having a diverse team generally helps you get ground floor input from the people who you want to use your product — which is everyone (should you want to make money). Now, if you have a lot of variation on your team and did not hire clone-wars-style, then you need to make an attempt to be inclusive. Be aware of noun use during your team events. It doesn’t matter if there is only one woman in your entire company, try not to refer to everyone as ‘guys’ and ‘dudes’. Listen to your staff talking at social events and politely try to steer them towards topics that are interesting to everyone. A lot of people don’t even realize they’re being heteronormative in their speech patterns and they need a little education. Being inclusive takes a bit of work for gender and sexuality issues because you’re fighting history, ignorance and people’s bad upbringings. Fight the good fight.

On the other hand, it’s not hard to make sure there are vegan, gluten-free and other allergen-friendly foods at events, so do it. Be religiously sensitive for food preparation if needed. Also, create a non-alcoholic cocktail station for the people who choose not to drink or have a cultural aversion to doing so. Make sure you have a good understanding of what will piss off or potentially kill your employees. There is nothing worse than having to attend a work social function where you can’t eat or drink anything.

The moral of this story

Having some fun and showing your staff you care about them as people will make them happy, and this happiness will trickle down into their work. It’s the double-rainbow of successful people management. Aside from the standard celebration of birthdays, time-off acknowledgement of cultural and religious holidays, and my personal favourite: Canada Day indoctrination parties (you don’t do those?) — there’s a lot you can do to bring the fun. Who’s up for some karaoke tonight?