December 5, 2020

This online class from edX teaches you how to be funny at work

Workplaces around the world have changed in 2020 in ways that we never anticipated, leaving many colleagues struggling to form virtual bonds with one another and develop camaraderie over Zoom, even as they deal with the emotional toil of this doozy of a year. That’s why the online learning platform edX has created a special professional program that’s designed to energize teams, create more resilient workforces, and bring joy to the virtual workplace—by infusing it with humor.

The program, called Remotely Humorous, consists of three skills-building courses created by a pair of lecturers from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business: Naomi Bagdonas, a media and strategy consultant who moonlights as a stand-up comic, and Connor Diemand-Yauman, the co-CEO of Merit America, a nonprofit that offers professional skills training to people without college degrees.

Bagdonas and Diemand-Yauman took the bones of their Stanford class, which explores the importance of workplace humor through a behavioral science lens, and revamped it by collaborating with writers from renowned comedy institutions like The Onion and Saturday Night Live. The result is a highly entertaining series of video lectures and assessments that walk students through the importance of bringing laughter into the workplace—and the right ways to deploy it.

“Naomi and I have this shared belief that humor is one of the most powerful tools we have,” Diemand-Yauman says. “It can make teams more bonded and effective, and help leaders be more authentic and trustworthy. And it’s especially relevant now.” The shift to remote work, he points out, have left many people feeling particularly isolated and lonely. And during tumultuous times, he says, “we need humor more than ever…. It reveals our humanity, defuses tension, and bonds us in ways that wouldn’t be otherwise possible.”

Remotely Humorous may be lighthearted, but it’s grounded in science. The curriculum is based on research that demonstrates how humor improves both work life and professional growth. A series of studies conducted by researchers from Wharton and Harvard, for example, have found that using humor in the workplace can make someone seem more competent and confident. It can even help them land a job. (A survey of executives conducted by Hodge-Cronin & Associates found that 98% preferred employees with a sense of humor.) A groundbreaking study by psychologist Alice M. Isen found that humor aids people in creative problem solving, in part because laughing makes us more relaxed; when we are in fight or flight mode, we can’t access higher order thinking.

Bagdonas and Diemand-Yauman structured their program in a traditional way, with videos and assessments that are packed with research and evidence-based recommendations. But there’s a twist. “Unlike most other online courses, it’s heavily based on activities,” Bagdonas says. “So you can take it with your team and do the activities together. It’s almost like an intensive culture boot camp—just with slightly fewer trust falls.” (Because all classes on edX are self-paced, you can register on edX and begin taking Remotely Humorous any time you want.)

The lectures themselves, meanwhile, showcase office humor done right. “We had such a blast filming the lectures, which are really more like part lecture, part sketch comedy,” Diemand-Yauman says. “And we didn’t shy away from sharing the joy of creating this project with our learners: each lecture includes some of our favorite bloopers from each take.”

The first course in the program focuses on reigniting your sense of humor at work and learning comedy techniques from the pros. It also goes deep into the neuroscience of humor. The second course is about understanding the cultural enablers of humor in an organization and the conditions that foster an environment where joy comes more easily, and how you can create those conditions.

The third and final course focuses on making a fundamental shift in your teams and organizations to get humor to stick. According to Bagdonas, that involves “leveraging… the legends that have been told and retold about your organization over the years, the rituals that define your work culture today (even the most seemingly ridiculous), and the daily offers [signals that you’re open to humor] that colleagues make to one another,” Bagdonas says.

In creating the course, Bagdonas and Diemand-Yauman committed themselves to living out its values. “Having fun—while creating a product we really believe in—was a crucial part of the process,” Bagdonas says. “And it was also a litmus test to ask, ‘Are we practicing what we’re teaching? Is it working?’ These are questions we were constantly asking ourselves.”

At a time when levity may seem hard to come by, Remotely Humorous not only gives learners permission to laugh and have fun, but also helps us understand how important that is.

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