October 20, 2020

Remotely Humorous: edX online class improving workplaces through humor

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  • “Remotely Humorous” is a three-part course available on edX focused on using humor and levity to create better workplaces — both in employee satisfaction and in results.
  • Designed by two Stanford lecturers and some of the top writers from Funny or Die and Comedy Central, the course is an adaptation of one of Stanford Graduate School of Business’s most popular courses.
  • Studies show that humor can contribute to more highly connected teams, more creative and effective ideas, more trustworthy leaders, and more persuasive arguments. 
  • The class practices what it preaches and uses a blend of sketch comedy, lecture, and team-building exercises for a fun learning experience.
  • The three-course program is $147, but BI readers can sign up for “Remotely Humorous” for 20% off now until September 2021 with the code “EDXHUMOR” at checkout.
  • Read more: Yale’s most popular class ever is available free online — and the topic is how to be happier in your daily life

Naomi Bagdonas and Connor Diemand-Yauman, two Stanford Graduate School of Business Management lecturers, have created an online course on an unconventional aspect of leadership: levity.

“Remotely Humorous” — a new online specialization offered on edX, the nonprofit education site founded by Harvard and MIT — aims to help leaders create an effective and rewarding company culture, even if it’s currently online.

According to the duo, by using humor, leaders can create more bonded, creative, and effective teams, and they can seem to employees like more authentic, competent, and trustworthy people. And while many understand this intuitively (science just confirms what they already know), they’re less sure how to utilize humor as an effective tool in the workplace. So, in Bagdonas and Diemand-Yauman’s class, that’s most of what students learn.

A course on humor in the workplace isn’t a class about how to construct a tight 10-minute set. Nor is it Improv 101. Instead, students learn about the mindset and conditions for lightheartedness to arise naturally. Bagdonas and Diemand-Yauman talk about the “five enablers” that act as precursors to humor and levity. 

As well as lecturing at Stanford, the pair teaches improv together. Additionally, Bagdonas has coached executives and celebrities before appearances on shows such as SNL and The Today Show, and Diemand-Yauman is the CEO of Philanthropy University, a small company that has a 100% employee approval rating on Great Place to Work. 

But Bagdonas and Diemand-Yauman didn’t just rely on their own impressive backgrounds to develop the content for the class. Not only is the online course adapted from a popular class the two teach at Stanfords GSB with Dr. Jennifer Aaker, but the pair also created a makeshift writers’ room made up of top comedy minds from places like Comedy Central and Funny or Die. The end result is an array of engaging content and learning tools that blends sketch comedy, lecture, and team-building exercises. If the point is that coworkers function better in joyful environments with humor and levity, Bagdonas and Diemand-Yauman practice what they preach in creating what Diemand-Yauman refers to as “Hollywood meets Harvard edu-tainment.” 

Bagdonas expanded on the idea behind the class and the process in an interview with Business Insider. “We need to drop this façade that we need to be serious all the time to accomplish very serious, very important things,” Bagdonas says. “Not only are we teaching about why humor is powerful, but we’re actually doing the thing that we’re teaching and embodying it in the content.” 

  • Conquering Humor Fundamentals

1–2 hours per week for 2 weeks

In the first part of the course, students use professional comedy techniques to discover their sense of humor and how to use it to both bond and increase creativity and positive mental health on virtual teams.

  • Priming Your Remote Team for Humor

1–2 hours per week for 2 weeks

Students learn about the five enablers of humor and use team-building techniques to create the ideal conditions for humor to occur in virtual teams.

  • Making Remote Humor Stick

1–2 hours per week, for 2 weeks

Finally, the class tackles how to use the three facilitators of levity — what the instructors call “legends, rituals, and offers” — to create a long term virtual company culture of “joy, connection, and effectiveness.”

Note: BI readers can sign up for Remotely Humorous: Build Joyful and Resilient Virtual Teams with Humor for 20% off with the code EDXHUMOR at checkout. 

While the content is new, much of the foundational points come from the work Diemand-Yauman and Bagdonas do with executive team clients. And, ultimately, there are key takeaways to be learned that are helpful for pretty much everyone. The class can function as a team-building exercise for remote teams who no longer have the option of an offsite event, or provide useful mental health and interpersonal insight for nearly any career.  

How does humor create a better work environment and more effective teams?

Gallup, the popular analytics and advisory company, wrote in 2018 that the question “Do you have a best friend at work?” was among the most controversial it had asked in its 30 years of employee engagement research. In part because some workers have a clear delineation between work and play, and because some would prefer — and think it best — that their employees “leave their humanness at the door.” 

On the contrary, Bagdonas, Diemand-Yauman, and Gallup research tend to advise the opposite. Humanness — and, more specifically, connection and joy — make workplaces more efficient and satisfying. Members of highly connected teams benefit from feeling that they have meaningful relationships with their colleagues, effectively communicate, and work well together. 

Scientifically, even talking about shared laughter connects people. Researchers found that having partners reminisce together about moments when they laughed together — as opposed to moments that were merely positive or neutral — reported being more satisfied in their relationships.

Gallup also reported that only two out of 10 US employees strongly agreed to having a close friend at work at the time. And, if that ratio increased to six in 10, organizations would see 12 percent higher profit, 7 percent more engaged customers, and 36 percent fewer safety incidents. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how humor, and close bonds, can help improve workplaces. Here are a few other significant ways levity can make teams for effective.

It helps teams bond. “Neurochemically, laughing together gives us more bang for our buck when it comes to interpersonal connection than just about anything else,” Bagdonas, who will publish a book on the subject in 2021, explains. “Our brains release the hormone oxytocin, which makes us more bonded. Whether we’re in person or over screens or six feet apart in lawn chairs in our driveways, it works the same way. What we find for leaders, but also just for anyone in our lives, is that humor is a really effective way to build trust, to build bonds.”

It creates an environment that encourages creativity and positivity, and that can enable better outcomes. One study showed that people performed better on two tasks that require “creative ingenuity” after they’d watched a few minutes of comedy or received a small bag of candy. 

“When we laugh, our brains suppress the release of cortisol. Cortisol is the stress ‘fight or flight’ hormone. When cortisol is high, [it’s like] your fire alarm going off in the background. It’s really hard to be creative in that space,” Bagdonas says. “We know that when people laugh, it unlocks a broader range of connections. It unlocks more creativity, more innovation. People tend to be more risk-taking.”

Psychological studies suggest that laughter has all sorts of positive effects, including enhanced memory, improved judgment and decision making, and more willingness to take risks. “People remember things more when we’re laughing, because our brains flood with dopamine,” Bagdonas adds.

It helps leaders seem more trustworthy and competent. “Behavioral research suggests that humorous leaders are actually viewed as more trustworthy, confident, and competent,” Diemand-Yauman says.

It may help you advance in your career — or get hired somewhere new. A Hodge Cronin and Associates survey of over 700 executives reportedly found that 98 percent of respondents would rather hire someone with a good sense of humor over an equally talented but more serious candidate, and 84 percent thought that people with a sense of humor do better work. In terms of persuasion and negotiation power, research has shown that people will pay more for something if the seller uses humor. 

Why is humor especially important with virtual work and during a pandemic?

In place of company holiday parties and bagel Fridays, there are narrowing options for creating a highly connected company culture while your team is working virtually. And many people in isolation feel disconnected — not just at work. Laughter is a great bang for the proverbial mental health buck. 

“Teams around the world are starved for a sense of connection,” Diemand-Yauman says. “We have far fewer common points of reference; we aren’t sitting next to each other and we aren’t in the same time zones. We don’t have water cooler talk.” 

In the void, laughter can do the heavy lifting. “When we laugh together, we are prompting our brains to fire with the same hormones at the same time, which enables us to trust one another more and to make all of the subsequent, two-dimensional interactions richer,” he explains.

Diemand-Yauman says he understands that trying a joke in front of 50 muted icons on Zoom can be prohibitive, but he’s started playing a laugh track after his own “offers” at levity to neutralize any awkwardness. Ultimately, what matters is that the leader is trying. The threat of a glitch or miscommunication may discourage attempts at humor, but Diemand-Yauman says there are also more opportunities to signal playfulness than ever. And they’re simple: change your Zoom background to a funny photo or send a GIF over Slack. 

And right now may be a particularly good moment to bond. Remote work has removed some of the more standardized boundaries of workplaces. Instead of sterile offices, we find ourselves routinely looking into our coworker’s living spaces and confronted with a fuller picture of their humanity (wandering children, barking dogs, the messiness of everyday life). 

In terms of company culture, remote work can offer its own silver linings, especially if leaders approach it as an opportunity rather than a challenge. 

It seems unlikely that “Remotely Humorous” is the silver bullet that can solve all the woes you may be experiencing either as a virtual team or as a human being at the moment. But, it offers surprisingly substantial help for some of them and it can help people carve out a few more opportunities for joy and connection in their lives and the lives of their coworkers.

In my own experience, talking with Bagdonas and Diemand-Yauman for this article felt different than many interviews I’ve conducted. To be frank, it was fun. And, later, writing this now, I relied upon my notes less than normal. I did, for my part, retain the information better. 

This is not to say that anything particularly magical happened. Instead, I was reminded of the Bill Murray quote: “The more relaxed you are, the better you are at everything — the better you are with your loved ones, the better you are with enemies, the better you are at your job, the better you are with yourself.” 

It’s Bagdonas and Diemand-Yauman’s hope that, after “Remotely Humorous,” you’ll agree. 

You can sign up here for Remotely Humorous: Build Joyful and Resilient Virtual Teams with Humor for 20% off with the code EDXHUMOR at checkout until September 2021

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