The tyranny of fun at the workplace

Here’s an enjoyably curmudgeonly Schumpeter post in The Economist on the idea of fun at work gone mad.

The Economist – Down with fun

One of the many pleasures of watching “Mad Men”, a television drama about the advertising industry in the early 1960s, is examining the ways in which office life has changed over the years. One obvious change makes people feel good about themselves: they no longer treat women as second-class citizens. But the other obvious change makes them feel a bit more uneasy: they have lost the art of enjoying themselves at work.

The ad-men in those days enjoyed simple pleasures. They puffed away at their desks. They drank throughout the day. They had affairs with their colleagues. They socialised not in order to bond, but in order to get drunk.

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.

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”.

“Mad Men” reminds people of a world they have lost—a world where bosses did not think that “fun” was a management tool and where employees could happily quaff Scotch at noon. Cheers to that.


  1. Liz

    While I think some of that stuff is just ridiculous (they call it “work” for a reason), I think the idea behind it is good… happy workers are always a good thing.

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