September 21, 2010


Down with fun: The depressing vogue for having fun at work (Schumpeter, Sep 16th 2010, The Economist)

These days many companies are obsessed with fun. Software firms in Silicon Valley have installed rock-climbing walls in their reception areas and put inflatable animals in their offices. Wal-Mart orders its cashiers to smile at all and sundry. The cult of fun has spread like some disgusting haemorrhagic disease. Acclaris, an American IT company, has a “chief fun officer”. TD Bank, the American arm of Canada’s Toronto Dominion, has a “Wow!” department that dispatches costume-clad teams to “surprise and delight” successful workers. Red Bull, a drinks firm, has installed a slide in its London office.

Fun at work is becoming a business in its own right. Madan Kataria, an Indian who styles himself the “guru of giggling”, sells “laughter yoga” to corporate clients. Fun at Work, a British company, offers you “more hilarity than you can handle”, including replacing your receptionists with “Ab Fab” lookalikes. Chiswick Park, an office development in London, brands itself with the slogan “enjoy-work”, and hosts lunchtime events such as sheep-shearing and geese-herding.

The cult of fun is deepening as well as widening. Google is the acknowledged champion: its offices are blessed with volleyball courts, bicycle paths, a yellow brick road, a model dinosaur, regular games of roller hockey and several professional masseuses. But now two other companies have challenged Google for the jester’s crown—Twitter, a microblogging service, and Zappos, an online shoe-shop. [...]

This cult of fun is driven by three of the most popular management fads of the moment: empowerment, engagement and creativity. Many companies pride themselves on devolving power to front-line workers. But surveys show that only 20% of workers are “fully engaged with their job”. Even fewer are creative. Managers hope that “fun” will magically make workers more engaged and creative. But the problem is that as soon as fun becomes part of a corporate strategy it ceases to be fun and becomes its opposite—at best an empty shell and at worst a tiresome imposition.

The most unpleasant thing about the fashion for fun is that it is mixed with a large dose of coercion. Companies such as Zappos don’t merely celebrate wackiness. They more or less require it. Compulsory fun is nearly always cringe-making. Twitter calls its office a “Twoffice”. Boston Pizza encourages workers to send “golden bananas” to colleagues who are “having fun while being the best”. Behind the “fun” façade there often lurks some crude management thinking: a desire to brand the company as better than its rivals, or a plan to boost productivity through team-building. Twitter even boasts that it has “worked hard to create an environment that spawns productivity and happiness”.

You know what would make work fun? Making management do real work, like in that Undercover Boss show.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 21, 2010 5:53 AM
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