Work and Circuses

Office drones, courtesy of the Utne ReaderDisgruntled employees are a dangerous lot. Just ask the postal service. Or ask the guy who, inspired by equal amounts of frustration and creativity, one day decided to staple a ham sandwich–on a paper plate, no less, with a napkin set rakishly off to one side–to the ceiling over his boss’s desk. Sooner or later, it just needs some kind of outlet.

I thought back to the ham sandwich incident when I read the latest issue of the Utne Reader. Every couple of months, they gather between covers the best of the alternative press, and stories that the mainstream media tend to pass over, and two pieces in this month’s issue cover what they’ve aptly termed the “infantilization” of corporate culture.

 The first, Are We Having Fun Yet? by the Weekly Standard’s Matt Labash, places the blame pretty squarely on consultants, who seem to have decided that we’re not having enough fun at work. Says Labash:

Here’s an abbreviated list of the jollity that will ensue at your place of business if you follow their advice: “joy lists,” koosh balls, office-chair relay races, marshmallow fights, funny caption contests, job interviews conducted in Groucho glasses, wacky Olympics, memos by Frisbee, voice mails in cartoon-character voices, rap songs to convey what’s learned at leadership institutes, “breakathons,” bunny teeth, and asking job prospects to bring show-and-tell items such as “a stuffed Tigger doll symbolizing the interviewee’s energetic and upbeat attitude.”

Must be that “outside the box” thinking of which we’ve heard so much.

No matter how many Hawaiian Shirt Days or games of Parcheesi there are on company time, there’s no disguising the fact that work is work. This isn’t, by itself, a bad thing; we’re taught from very early on, after all, that there’s dignity in making an honest living. If anything, these “funsultants” seem to be a safety valve to keep employees from expressing their dissatisfaction .

If we were going to be honest about this, I think that all this enforced jollity has more to do with papering over employers’ shortcomings than it has to do with any genuine goodwill. Batting around a beach ball for five minutes a day, or putting up a dartboard in the break room, doesn’t go very far to hide the fact that some companies’ mindfulness of the value of human capital is inversely proportionate to the value they place on profits.

This is thrown into even sharper relief by companies that do appreciate both their employees, and their employees’ work. You don’t need consultants to tell people to have fun under those circumstances because a company that values its people generally has a happier, more productive workforce.

Which brings us to the second piece, White Collared, by Julie Hanus. Hanus traces the dissatisfaction that white collar workers feel to a myriad of sources, from outsourcing to the erosion of the traditional social contract between employees and their employers, where each side knew what it could reasonably expect from the other. When those expectations become lopsided–that is, when what an employer expects from its workers is out of all proportion to what it is prepared to offer in return, whether in terms of job security, advancement, or a range of other perks–what you’re left with is an apathetic, underproductive workforce.

What Hanus suggests is simpler, and ultimately less expensive (to say nothing of less demeaning and insulting to workers’ intelligence) than having consultants hold games of Twister on alternate Wednesdays. She writes:

the redeeming power of doing good work, of investing in skills and focusing on craftsmanship—which would require believing in the value of labor and the value of the laborer. Such a shift in mind-set could protect white-collar jobs, even transform domestic white-collar work. After all, the same technology that produced an outsourcing threat could just as easily make widespread telecommuting a reality. As Matt Bai writes in a November 2007 issue of the New York Times, “Why shouldn’t more middle-class workers whose jobs can now be done remotely have the option to structure their own hours and still enjoy the security of a safety net? Why shouldn’t . . . anyone who spends his day staring at a terminal in some sterile environment straight out of Office Space be able to work in shorts and spend more time around the kids?”

So this will, in short, require employers and their employees to meet halfway. But the benefits would seem to be obvious, allowing both sides to exercise creativity, judgment, and a sense of ownership, and in so doing, to even keep their dignity intact. And the sandwiches off their ceilings.

One Reply to “Work and Circuses”

  1. I hadn’t heard of those activities, although we have had talent competitions at my work. Completely voluntary, thankfully. It sounds like what they’re doing is injecting a lot of interruptions and random task switching (http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/2006/03/multitasking_ma.html).

    There are two companies that have knocked it out of the park in terms of treating employees the way they want to be treated (and reaping incredible rewards for it):

    Best Buy (corporate office, not stores):
    http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_50/b4013001.htm

    Google (you can skip over anything technical):
    http://steve-yegge.blogspot.com/2006/09/good-agile-bad-agile_27.html

    The closer you can get your company to those, the better off everyone will be.

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