Making work fun is an ever-growing idea in today’s business landscape. Stories abound of Nerf battles in Google offices. “Fun committee” is a common part of the workplace parlance, while “gamifying” and “fungineering” have leapt from the pages of pop culture to become unironic talking points. A founder of retailer Warby Parker commented, “One of our core values is to inject fun and quirkiness into everything we do.” This would seem to be a universally good thing, as employee morale is vital to a productive business. Nevertheless, there are criticisms for it; a university study found that “manager support for fun had an adverse impact on performance.” How could more fun be bad? When is fun still fun?

The key to successfully “gamifying” a workplace may be found in other basic business principles. Google engineer Steve Yegge criticized the Google Plus social network for acting as a self-contained product rather than a platform for others’ contribution. “The problem is that we are trying to predict what people want and deliver it for them,” he lamented. “You can’t do that. Not really. Not reliably.” Google seems to bear out his argument when they apply it to their own employees; The New York Times explored the company’s office culture and found many fun things that were provided, but not imposed. Lego play areas, employee pets, snacks both of the healthy and sugary variety, and more. Said one manager, “We’re not trying to be mom and dad. Coercion doesn’t work. The choices are there.”

Fun and high morale in the workplace can be enabled, but not prescribed or contrived. A study from the University of Pennsylvania explored the concept of “mandatory fun” (a term pervasive and oxymoronic enough that Weird Al Yankovic himself named a comedy album after it). “The notion of ‘mandatory’ fun is fundamentally about the desire to make work more pleasant for people or to distract them from the unpleasant and taxing aspects of the work, yet it also requires that managers decide what it is that will be pleasurable to the employees.” As with other aspects of employee conduct, it seems that a measure of flexibility and autonomy helps workplace fun go a long way.