This article examines the popular trend among management academics, consultants, and practitioners of prescribing “cultures of fun” to enhance roductivity. This management approach suggests inter alia that organizations should break with the conventional wisdom of delineating work from play and instead craft an environment of fun and humor. Drawing on a field study of a communications firm, the article demonstrates how managed “fun” involves the symbolic blurring of traditional boundaries that usually distinguish work and nonwork. Typically nonwork experiences associated with family, lifestyle, consumption, and school are evoked to create a more pleasurable atmosphere.
In the study however, this blurring had an unintended effect of fuelling cynicism among some employees. Although this cynicism probably has a number of sources, it is argued that its relationship to boundary management provides some interesting insights about the limitations of contemporary culture management. Keywords: boundaries; culture; cynicism; dignity; fun; humor; power The attempt to foster “cultures of fun” in contemporary workplaces has been a prominent feature of culture management programs ever since the trend gained momentum in the early 1980s.
According to the original culture gurus, including Peters and Waterman (1982), Pascale and Athos (1981), and Deal and Kennedy (1982), managers should revitalize employees by creating a corporate environment that is conducive to fun, humor, and play. What Deal and Kennedy (1982) called “work hard/play hard” cultures aim to supplant the traditional stereotype that depicts work as a serious and Peter Fleming is lecturer in organization studies at the Judge Institute of Management, University of Cambridge. He is currently interested in space and organization, power, and organizational democracy.
In the 1980s, the benefits said to accrue from making work fun were flexibility, competitive advantage, and increased motivation (R. Kanter, 1989; Peters, 1989; Peters & Austrin, 1986). In the 1990s, the message was much the same but with the added emphasis on customer service, innovation, empowerment, and creativity (Barsoux, 1993; Bolman & Deal, 2000; Deal & Key, 1998; Peters, 1992). Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the notion of fun cultures appears to have outlasted the typically brief management fad life cycle (see Abrahamson, 1991), with still much practitioner, consultancy, and scholarly interest in it.
For proponents, the approach has been used to diagnose and treat a diverse set of workplace ills, including poor communication, sluggish innovation, absenteeism, antimanagement sentiment, stress, and lack of creativity. Deal and Kennedy (1999) even suggested that if the “Fun Quotient” is high in a firm, then employees “will be more willing to commit themselves people will pour their hearts and souls into what they do . . . it produces better results for everyone concerned—employers, employees, and society at large” (p. 234).
According to these authors, cultures that promote a childlike frivolity and playfulness are especially important today following the wave of downsizing that beleaguered corporate capitalism in the early 1990s. Perhaps echoing the current interest in corporate spirituality and enchantment (Casey, 2002; Kline & Izzo, 1999), they claimed that managers must now try to counter labor discontent by fundamentally changing the meaning of work among employees and managers alike. This article critically examines a managed culture of fun in a communications organization.
It will be argued that an important aspect of this management approach is the symbolic blurring of the boundary that has traditionally demarcated work and nonwork experiences. This boundary of course has antecedents that can be traced back to the industrial revolution whereby home, lifestyle, recreation, and play were severed from the act of labor by the alienating routines of factory discipline (Thompson, 1968). It will be proposed that the management of fun in contemporary workplaces aims, in part at least, to symbolically evoke typically enjoyable extraemployment experiences inside the organization.
The field study analyzes how employees interpret these initiatives and reveals a relationship between this boundary blurring and a subculture of cynicism. Using a qualitative methodology, the article endeavors to examine this cynicism from the employees’ perspective. Although organizational cynicism has been extensively discussed in the literature (as a personality trait, a psychological defense mechanism, a result of raised and then dashed hopes, etc. ), it has not been done so in terms of managed fun or the symbolic blurring of work boundaries.
The question at the center of this article is the following: Why were some employees so cynical about the prospect of having fun? In demonstrating an association between boundary management and cynicism, we can develop a better understanding of the factors that structure the reception of initiatives like these. Moreover, some basic limitations of contemporary culture management programs are flagged as an important implication of the study.
The article is organized in the following way. In the first section, the notion of fun cultures is discussed and its relationship to boundary management explored. Then a field study is introduced that demonstrates how the symbolic blurring of work and nonwork activities was a notable theme among the cynical employees interviewed. In the discussion section, the dynamics of this cynicism are analyzed in detail, and questions are raised about whether fun can be rationally managed in the same way as other organizational variables. And finally, the political implications of this anagement approach are discussed in relation to power and resistance in organizations.
Fun cultures are not necessarily fun in and of themselves but aim to establish a context in which fun experiences are more likely to occur. A whole raft of variables has been discussed in the practitioner and consultancy literature, including training, leadership, team dynamics, and communication, with most of the evidence being anecdotal in nature. For example, fun cultures were causally linked to incidences of empowerment by Mariotti (1999), Pickard (1997), and Baughman (2001).
Empowered employees find their work more enjoyable because they experience their task activity as an extension of their own volition (also see Boczany, 1985). In this sense, the desire for agency that industrialism consigned to nonwork pursuits can be nurtured inside the workplace. Others have suggested that leadership is an important precondition for pleasure at work (Hemsath & Sivasubramaniam, 2001). According to Peters (1999), managers should not only lead by example (“acting the goose” or “having a laugh”) but also be comfortable with employees expressing their cheeky real selves.
Elsewhere, Peters (1992) demonstrated how the “liberated manager” recognizes that “pleasure is OK. But ‘fun’ is even better,” and he or she will use every opportunity to disseminate this ethos within his or her firm (p. 748). Others have pointed to group cohesion and perceptions of belongingness as significant variables for generating fun experiences at work. The thematic of family and teams for example is derived from social settings outside of the organization and seek to establish informal and trusting relationships (Wetlaufer, 1999).
Popular management writers such as Putzier (2001), Yerkes (2001), and Lundin, Paul, and Christensen (2000) identify group loyalty and bonding as key factors here. Lundin et al. ’s widely read analysis of the Pike Place fishmongers in Seattle found a close-knit community of employees “living their work” as an engrossing vocation rather than a mundane chore they would rather avoid. This extremely personal, intimate, and nonhierarchical system of management reportedly generated a sense of playfulness and enthusiastic “fooling around” that eventually rubbed off on customers.
Signs such as “This is a playground—watchout for adult children” (Lundin et al. , 2000, p. 88) were common features, as were other institutionalized rituals such as joke-of-the-month contests, bright color schemes, and games. As Collinson (1988, 2002) and Martin (2001) demonstrated, humor appears to feature in a good deal of the cultures of fun literature. Whereas the significance of jocularity and play in relation to informal organizational processes was noted as far back as Downloaded from jab
The instrumental potential of workplace humor has now been thoroughly explored in management scholarship (Duncan, 1982; Duncan, Smeltzer, & Leap, 1990; Holmes & Marra, 2002; Malone, 1980). It too has often been approached as a panacea for various organizational problems including subordinate/superordinate tension (Duncan et al. 1990), poor leadership (Avolio, Howell, & Sosik, 1999; Miller, 1996), resistance to change (Dwyer, 1991; Firth, 1998), communication failure (Clouse & Spurgeon, 1995), and stress-induced turnover (Caudron, 1992; Kahn, 1989). Perhaps the best-known proponent of staged corporate humor is Barsoux (1993, 1996). He maintained that management can use joking, laughter, and smiling to develop vibrant and creative organizations. In fact, its applicability is apparently universal, Humor plays a vital role in helping to close the communication gap between leader and followers, helping to extract information, which might not otherwise be volunteered.
It also enhances trust, facilitates change and encourages plurality of vision humor breaks down barriers between people and makes an organization more participative and responsive. It follows that an environment that is amenable to humor will also facilitate organizational learning and renewal. (Barsoux, 1996, p. 500) The underlying paradox here, as in much of the prescriptive literature, is that humor is ultimately a serious business. It is unsurprisingly driven by very sober corporate motives.
The obvious difficultly of institutionalizing an experience that is usually considered spontaneous was intimated by Hudson (2001), an executive for Brady Corporation. She observed that humor and fun can be developed through exercises that may feel spontaneous but are in fact well orchestrated through party events such as “Bradyfest” or the “Lego Program” (in which employees play with Lego blocks like children). As will be discussed shortly, this institutionalized aspect of fun is of utmost importance for analyzing employee perceptions of it.
Fun and Boundaries The move to imbue workplaces with fun, ebullience, and playfulness stands in contrast to the way work has traditionally been conceived. In the precapitalist era, the peasant home was generally a place of both labor and leisure, with complex relationships of fealty and obligation tying them to the commons or manor. As Pollard (1965) and Clegg and Dunkerly (1980) explained, with the advent of capitalism a new spatial politics emerged that demarcated the workplace, initially craft-shops and then the factory, from the domestic sphere.
Work becomes a place of serious officiousness. This segregation was not only spatial of course but temporal too (Perlow, 1998; Thompson, 1967). The rationalization of time into calculable units marked a radical break with the seasonal calendar of feudalism, and particularly pronounced was the division between work time (owned and controlled by the company) and home time (devoted to the more pleasurable pursuits of family, sexuality, leisure, and consumption). Of course, factory rationalization and discipline did also extend into the private lives of workers and vice versa.
This strong, although by no means impermeable, boundary between work and nonwork life is exemplified by the development of the rational-legal bureaucracy, so incisively described by Max Weber (1947, 1948). In illustrating the “rules of separation” in administrative bureaucracies, Weber (1947) stated that there is usually a complete separation of the property belonging to the organization, which is controlled within the sphere of the office, and the personal property of the official, which is available for his [sic] own private use.
There is a corresponding separation of the place in which official functions are carried out, the “office” in the sense of premises, from living quarters. (pp. 331-332) This material division implies a concomitant normative code about how one should behave within the office. The administrative organization is a domain dedicated to the objective discharge of business without regard to persons or personal interests. The resulting dehumanization that Weber regarded as a mixed blessing was viewed as a process of “eliminating from official business love, hatred and all purely personal, irrational, and emotional elements” (Weber, 1948, p. 16).
In the factory, the same work ethic applied. In his renowned ethnography of the Ford Motor Company, Beynon quoted the Ford philosophy prominently displayed on the shopfloor: When we are at work, we ought to be at work. When we are at play we ought to be at play. There is no use trying to mix the two. When the work is done, then the play can come, but not before. (as cited in Collinson, 2002, p. 276) Although it is crucial not to exaggerate this division between work and nonwork in industrial organizations (there is still extensive overlap and traffic), we can nevertheless identify an effort to draw a symbolic boundary.
It is almost possible to detect an element of fear about the corrupting influence of the private sphere (especially in relation to concupiscence and the inappropriate use of company resources). Notwithstanding the abiding importance of this boundary today, it is proposed that the quest to build cultures of fun is, in part at least, characterized by its symbolic displacement. Employees are strongly encouraged to make their work playful and experience emotions of fun by emulating practices normally reserved for nonwork situations.
This is different to culture management simply encroaching on the private lives of employees through overwork or stress (see Kunda, 1992; Perlow, 1998; Scase & Goffee, 1989; Watson, 1994). Here, the inverse seems to be the case: Positive experiences and emotions presumed to be associated with the nonwork sphere (i. e. , relaxation, recreation, fun, etc. ) are actively evoked in organizations rather than suppressed or prohibited. This more holistic approach to human resource management aims for increased existential exposure of employees so that more of themselves is present at work.
Hochschild (1983) too recorded a striking instance of this approach in her analysis of airline attendants. To facilitate their emotional labor, employees were encouraged to use a “living room analogy” and act as if the airplane cabin were their home. Ironically, some workers may eventually find more existential meaning in this environment than at home (Hochschild, 1997). A final example can be found in Semler’s (2004) aptly titled book, The Seven-Day Weekend.
He argued that today’s organizations should shrug off traditional conceptions of employment and imitate pleasurable nonwork experiences to enhance motivation and innovation. The question remains: How do employees make sense of such attempts to imbue their work with fun via boundary manipulation? Cynicism and Resistance to Fun? The prescriptive and practitioner-oriented literature assumes that a managed culture of fun will be received by employees in an overwhelmingly positive manner.
Although much of the evidence is anecdotal in nature, the message is: Workers will express thankful gratitude and loyalty when the strict division between work and nonwork is relaxed. Such a sanguine depiction of course rests uncomfortably beside the broader scholarly literature on culture management, which has been more ambivalent about its effects on employees. For example, Barker (1993, 1999) noted that although the culture program he investigated in an electronics assembly firm did create a sense of commitment, workers also experienced anxiety and chronic stress because of the normative pressures placed on them.
Not only was their behavior monitored but also their feelings and identities, and this created a feeling of claustrophobia and periodic psychic decline (also see Casey, 1995). Kunda’s (1992) fascinating study of “Tech” similarly revealed a strong sense of ambivalence and even cynicism among workers when confronted with company slogans and training seminars. Following Goffman’s (1959) analysis of the dramaturgical self, Kunda observed workers both distancing and embracing their membership roles, creating a deep-seated tension as they endeavored to negotiate conflicting emotions and identities.
The suggestion that workers may experience a degree of cynicism in the workplace is not new, as studies of organizational change and quality management have indicated (Anderson, 1996; Anderson & Bateman, 1997; Dean, Brandes, & Dharwadkar, 1998; Reichers, Wanous, & Austin, 1997; Wanous, Reichers, & Austin, 2000). According to D. Kanter and Mirvis (1989), cynicism is a prevalent response to many “soft-HRM” techniques in American organizations. Some employees simply see through the rhetoric and refuse to buy into what is often called “hype” (also see Fleming & Sewell, 2002; Fleming & Spicer, 2003).
This is especially so if management has a track record of making promises it cannot keep or if the hype is simply unbelievable. There is also evidence that managers too cynically distance themselves from their own roles and rhetoric (Cutler, 2000; Jackall, 1988). In the aforementioned cultures of fun literature, however, cynicism is a distant possibility. For practitioners and consultants, it simply stands to reason that workers will embrace the prospect of a happier and more colorful organization, especially if it evokes associations with nonwork activities such as par-
Sunray deals with communication functions outsourced by banks, airlines, insurance firms, telephone companies, and the like and thus put much emphasis on the customer service skills of employees. The company was founded by James Carr (another pseudonym) in the early 1990s, and he remains the CEO and cultural figurehead.
Sunray was selected for this research project because of its broader reputation in the business community as a high commitment organization that was staffed by extremely motivated employees. The initial objective of the research project was to understand how Sunray managed the culture and record the different ways employees responded. Terms of access were flexible, and the author generated the sample selection.
In accordance with other studies of this type (Barker, 1993; Casey, 1995; Kunda, 1992; etc. ), qualitative data collection methods including interviews, bservation, and document analysis were used to gain an intensive situational understanding of the meaning systems developed by informants (also see Silverman, 2001; Van Maanen, 1998). A sample of 3 human resource managers and 30 employees was selected and interviewed a number of times at various intervals over the 8 months. The size of the sample was limited to 30 employees because of the in-depth nature of the interviews. The sample consisted of 18 women and 15 men. The average age of the telephone agents interviewed was 23.
The initial selection process was randomly drawn from a sampling frame of 10 projects and 40 teams provided by the organization. However, 1 informant introduced the researcher to his cohort of 3 other workers. They became a keen focus in the project and were treated as a nonprobability sample. Following Spradley (1979), an interview schedule was developed that consisted of background questions, framing questions, and focus questions. A high degree of flexibility was retained to allow the conversation to flow in unpredictable directions.
The interview schedule was derived from speculative assumptions regarding possible interpretations of the culture and later modified to target some emergent topics of interest. Telephone agents were interviewed both on-site and outside the firm (homes, cafes, etc. ), the latter yielding data that would not have been as accessible had the interviews been conducted only on-site. This is an important feature of the research design given that the concept of work and nonwork boundaries was a significant theme in the findings.
All transcripts were manually coded and analyzed along a variety of criteria that aimed to identify dominant themes in relation to how the fun culture was received Downloaded from jab. sagepub. com at University of Melbourne Library on August 7, 2010 292 THE JOURNAL OF APPLIED BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE September 2005 by employees. The main coding criteria that became evident during analysis were cynicism, identification, authenticity, boundaries, control, and autonomy. A final note concerns my ethical relationship with informants.
The goal of an intensive empirical investigation is to become as close as possible to the research participants. When those participants are involved in power relationships, certain reflexive protocols are necessary regarding the position of the researcher (Hardy, Phillips, & Clegg, 2001). Establishing a relationship of familiarity and trust is essential to elicit what otherwise may be considered irrelevant or perhaps sensitive information. Again, in light of Spradley’s (1979) technique, I endeavored to be open about the research topic, as this would usefully narrow the data domain.
Very little was covert in this sense, although I made every effort to design the interview schedule and questions in a way that did not simply induce the data I might have unconsciously desired (Cicourel, 1964). Assurances of anonymity and discretion were also made apropos the accessibility and presentation of the data. To better understand perceptions of the culture management program, the author focused on a group of 4 employees for about 6 months. Although off-the-cuff cynicism was recorded in the transcripts of 14 employees, this cohort displayed a more practiced narrative of discontent that implied a ritualistic element.
This sustained focus allowed a more contextual impression of employee concerns, making it easier to identify how self and organization interconnect. The group consisted of 2 men (aged 25 and 27) and 2 women (22 and 26) who lived together. They had been working at Sunray for periods ranging from 5 months to 3 years. Some extremely rich data were obtained from focus groups conducted outside of working hours in an informal and conversational manner. Because of their relevance to the topic of this article, the author has mainly used transcript excerpts from these interviews to explore how cultures of fun, boundaries, and cynicism intersect.
The normal shift of a telephone agent requires them to receive calls from customers for 8 hours, with one 15-minute rest period in the morning and afternoon and a 1/2 hour lunch break. The culture management process at Sunray focuses on the nature of call center work and is primarily directed at telephone agents. Management is generally well intentioned, openly accepting that call center work is exceedingly mundane and monotonous.
The culture is aimed to help employees better cope with this kind of labor process. Janis, a team evelopment manager overseeing the culture program, explains, “Work in a call center can be extremely mundane and monotonous, so we have to make it a rewarding experience in order to be successful. ” And, again, call center work “could be one of the most repetitively boring jobs you could ever do if you choose to view it that way, but we don’t. ” Janis and her team therefore attempt to make working at Sunray a fun experience as well as a source of personal fulfillment.
The most prominent feature of the culture is the slogan, “Remember the 3Fs: Focus, Fun, Fulfillment. This phrase reminds employees to approach their job as an exciting, exhilarating, and exuberant adventure. According to Janis, all employees do internalize this message and incorporate it as an integral part of their own self-worth. She explains, Downloaded from jab. sagepub. com at University of Melbourne Library on August 7, 2010 Fleming / WORKERS’ PLAYTIME? Without the culture the place would be drab, and in most workplaces people can’t wait to leave. But at Sunray they love to work and really get into it.
You know, just the other day I heard someone say “I can’t believe they pay me to have fun! and that is exactly what happens. 293 When an employee embodies the 3Fs, they are said to have the “right attitude. ” This involves a set of performances that communicate a positive personality, a childish playfulness, and a bubbly frame of mind. Importantly however, a genuine expression of these demeanors (rather than mere surface acting) is mandatory at Sunray. This is because competitiveness is said to largely depend on the ability of workers to fully embrace the customer service ethos. Moreover, “Customers can tell when it isn’t for real” (also see Ashforth & Humphrey, 1993). Blurring the Boundaries for Fun
One notable strategy used by management to engender Sunray with a sense of fun is the re-creation of extraemployment motifs within the confines of the workplace. Significant emphasis is placed on generating relationships among people that are analogous to positive nonwork social interactions. As Janis puts it, “We remind telephone agents that their work time can be just as fun as their weekends, evenings or holidays because our philosophy is about being yourself and enjoyment. ” The attempt to recreate the fun experiences of nonwork in the organization setting manifests in a number of forms, which can be categorized as follows. School.
Much of the fun culture at Sunray attempts to emulate what managers believe to be the esprit de corps and playfulness displayed by good friends in a school setting. It is interesting to note that the average age of Sunray telephone agents is 21, a conscious recruitment strategy that selects people who have recently completed high school. The recruitment rationale here is, “Young people find our culture very, very attractive because they can be themselves and know how to have fun. ” With managers and trainers generally older than 35, a definite teacher/student thematic is evident. This is typified in many of the cultural rituals as well.
For example, “Away Days” are held annually and consist of days where everyone travels to a “party” destination to stage what Janis refers to as a “kind of school musical. ” Other aspects of this school theme verge on the silly by imitating primary school and kindergarten themes. Training games involving mini golf and quizzes are frequently employed for sales motivation purposes. In one induction session, workers stood and sung the Muppets’ The Rainbow Connection. Following this training exercise, workers were asked to take home a rainbow-colored pamphlet with a fill-in-the-blanks word puzzle reading, “What are the 3Fs? This school emphasis is also reflected in the physical space of the organization.
The walls are painted yellow and red, the supporting pillars are purple, and the carpets are a vivid blue. These colors are designed to create a mood of verve and fun. Bright icons covering desks and pods proudly announce a team’s client, accentuating the playfulness of working for this particular client firm. For example, the area dealing with an African-based airline project is decorated with green cardboard cutouts of jungle trees and photos of cheetahs and hyenas. In another area, multicolored building blocks spell
Downloaded from jab. sagepub. com at University of Melbourne Library on August 7, 2010 294 THE JOURNAL OF APPLIED BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE September 2005 out the name of a mobile phone company. Also seen here are figures of Big Bird and Grover from the children’s television program, Sesame Street. This gives the call center what one employee called a kindergarten atmosphere because of the juvenile ambience it creates. Family. A team development manager told me that Sunray resembles a happy family insofar as it tries to discard the notion of “formal” work relations and promote a kindred atmosphere instead.
This is especially evident in the team structure of the labor process, which is highly celebrated in the official culture (also see Casey, 1999; Gabriel, 1999). Other examples of the move to replicate a particular version of family abound at Sunray: Training documents continuously refer to the Sunray family, and a masseur roams the warren-like buildings to massage aching necks and backs, showing workers that the company is concerned for their physical health and well-being. When an employee has a birthday, everyone in their team gives him or her a hug and a card.
A team leader told me that some employees go so far as to “bring in their homemade jams and give them to their teammates. ” Given the age difference between employees and management, the family message is somewhat paternalistic, generally involving James Carr assuming the role of a father figure who acts “crazy” and “lovable” to make employees laugh. For example, one employee told me how Mr. Carr, like a drunk uncle, dressed up as Santa Claus one Christmas and walked through the Sunray buildings handing out chocolates to all the staff. Partying.
Management often says Sunray life is similar to a party because of the energy and “good times” that distinguish this firm from other call centers. This party theme is literally evoked in training and motivation exercises. During one session, various teams competed in a relay race in a nearby park. At the end of their sprint, team members quickly drank a large glass of beer. And somewhat analogous to an actual party, the expression of sexuality and flirting are openly evident at Sunray.
The work environment is considered by a number of employees to be a ruitful place to proposition the opposite (or same) sex for a date. Management appears to view this as a healthy feature of the informal culture. It certainly made for a less boring atmosphere. For some employees however, the term meat market (a bar or nightclub where people come to specifically “pick up” dates) is used to designate this aspect of organizational life. Dress code. The relaxed dress code at Sunray is centered on the latest fashion labels and is promoted with the intention of creating a party-like atmosphere in the organization.
The ritual of consumption and shopping is a strong theme of the culture of fun. During the interviews, I felt decidedly unfashionable and drab on many occasions because of the care employees put on their physical appearance. According to one employee, “The idea is to get away from the boring office look and make things fun and happy like we are going out for the night. ” This dress code also extends to “fun” physical appearances among workers such as bright orange hair, visible tattoos, and facial piercing; the comparison to “parties,” “raves,” and “clubbing” is justified in this sense.
The Sunray dress code often overlaps with the school theme. For example, teams have dress-up days where employees must come dressed as a superhero or in Downloaded from jab. sagepub. com at University of Melbourne Library on August 7, 2010 Fleming / WORKERS’ PLAYTIME? 295 pajamas. Sometimes employees are encouraged to wear clothing that reflects a particular theme such as “The Tropics” (floral shirts and sun hats) or “Fashion Models. ” Employee Cynicism The Sunray employees interviewed in this research interpreted the culture of fun program in a variety of different ways.
Some did appear to happily internalize the basic philosophy of the culture. For example, James said, “The fun part of the culture shows they [the company] do care about us and are looking out for us. That’s different to other places. ” However, around half of the 30 employees interviewed displayed some degree of cynicism about the campaign, and one group whom was repeatedly interviewed (i. e. , the cohort mentioned earlier) was sometimes cutting. It is this cynicism that is of interest because it is the opposite response intended by managers.
Why were employees cynical about the attempt to make their work fun? This is undoubtedly a complex issue, and the cynicism observed may have a variety of sources, including the raising and dashing of hopes, past disappointments, and class consciousness. As will be demonstrated however, the symbolic blurring of traditional boundaries was an important feature of this cynicism. Two dimensions can be discerned, condescension and inauthenticity. Condescension. For a number of Sunray employees, being treated like a child was considered condescending.
They thought the school and kindergarten environment gave management a rather patronizing and mawkishly paternalistic flavor. Many of the cynical workers rejected the child/teacher roles implicit in the culture of fun because they wanted to be treated as rational, dignified adults. This was especially evident in the cohort of friends who lived and worked together. Indeed, Kim, Sarah, Michael, and Mark (pseudonyms) had definite views on the subject. Sarah, an agent for an airline company, says the thing she would love to tell her team leader the most is, “I’m not a child and I won’t be spoken to as one!
The idea that the employment setting is analogous to a schoolyard undermined their sense of aplomb and fueled their cynicism. Kim, a telephone agent for an insurance company, explains, Working at Sunray is like working for Playschool [a popular and long-running children’s television program in Australia]. It’s so much like a kindergarten—a plastic, fake kindergarten. The murals on the wall, the telling off if I’m late and the patronizing tone in which I’m spoken to all give it a very childish flavor.
The boundary between work and school (especially for the younger workers) appeared to have important esteem and motivation implications. The use of the school and family narrative to instill fun into the work environment at Sunray underestimated the ways in which the traditional “seriousness” of the employment situation is connected to feelings of dignity. From these data, it is possible to make the surprising inference that the traditional climate of work might not always signify alienation and boredom, an assumption held by most of the fun literature.
Indeed, it may be the case that employees hold on to the boundary between work and nonwork because the traditional employment situation (rational, relatively serious, unpretentious, etc. ) is an Downloaded from jab. sagepub. com at University of Melbourne Library on August 7, 2010 296 THE JOURNAL OF APPLIED BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE September 2005 important source of dignity and self-respect. In its most patronizing form, paternalism erodes this rational sense of self and endeavors to instigate a childlike membership role that simultaneously positions management as benevolent caregivers (Fleming, in press).
On one occasion, I was interviewing the group at home when Michael took out a handbook that included the fill-in-the-blanks exercise referred to earlier. Here are some of the exchanges that ensued among the others: Kim: Yeah, you get a handbook and it says [in a childish tone] “What are the 3Fs? ” and you think [in the same sarcastic tone] “Oh, gee, would they be the 3Fs I saw on the other page? ” It’s very much an adult/child relationship they are trying to instigate here. Mark: [in a sarcastically immature voice] I keep mine with me on my desk all the time.
I might just forget the 3Fs so I can never be without it. Kim: [in a fatherly voice] What about your recognition certificate, son—have you got that? Mark: Of course! Kim: [back to her own voice] I don’t. I lost mine [laughs]. The evocation of family and school fails in this instance because it does not reflect preexisting notions of what work means for employees in terms of their identities as rounded adults. Moreover, the unpleasant aspects of the outside institutions symbolically re-created in the workplace were also not considered by management.
For example, Sarah says she abhorred school, and much of the culture program at Sunray simply reminds her of this past. In relation to the dress code and sexuality, this is what she said about waiting for her friend after work, When I go to meet Mark I wait a block down the road because if I wait outside I get looked at by the Sunray people to see what I’m wearing. I hate it; it’s like being back at high school. They all must wear stylish clothes to [sarcastically and impersonating a subscriber] “fit in. ” Inauthenticity.
Another factor that seems to have contributed to the cynicism among the employees interviewed was a sense of inauthenticity regarding the quest to make work fun by imitating outside experiences and rituals. The failure to faithfully reproduce the complete experiences of family or partying resulted in some viewing the culture program as pretentious and lacking honesty. This perhaps derives from both the rather maudlin depiction of family, school, weekends, and parties by the company and also the perception that management is simply “trying too hard” to re-create these images.
In a focus group session with the aforementioned cohort, Kim and Sarah said that much of the culture program resembled a rather glib charade. Mark and Michael also agreed but were a little less abrasive in their evaluations. I asked the group about what they thought were the aims of the fun program, and Kim said, “It’s all the same thing—it’s all just an unreal image they’re trying to present of the company and I wish they wouldn’t say anything at all. ” For Kim, management should not even try to make work fun in this manner because it appears disingenuous.
Kim and Sarah tended to use words such as plastic, fake, and cheesy to describe the most prominent features of the Sunray culture, arguing that it lacks authenticity (or sincerity) and aims to beguile them into subjectively conforming to the company’s rules. Ironically, among these workers at least, the attempt to achieve identification via a culture of fun had the opposite effect of disidentification. The staged rituals are not Downloaded from jab. sagepub. com at University of Melbourne Library on August 7, 2010 Fleming / WORKERS’ PLAYTIME? 297 the only facets of the organization considered unauthentic.
Employees who enthusiastically subscribe to the culture—rancorously labeled Sunray people by the cynics— are similarly spurned. Kim told me for example that the company encourages people to adopt shallow personalities because these kinds of people fail to notice the disparity between the Sunray rhetoric of family/school/parties and so on and the reality of these social roles. The fashion-conscious dress code is especially seen to represent the pretentiousness of subscribers, as the following dialogue indicates: Mark: People supposedly look at Sunray and see this hip, young, cool crowd.
Sarah: They don’t, they see a bunch of pretentious fashion victims. Sarah finds the pretentiousness of the culture program offensive because of the perceived credibility gap between the dominant representation of the organization (fun, egalitarian, empowering, etc. ) and the reality of work in a call center. She puts it in the following words: I can’t believe a lot of this stuff. I feel like saying, “How dare you stand up there and pretend to be something you are not? ” They pretend to be different but they aren’t and in some ways are worse than other companies because they are not real.
WHY “FUN” MIGHT NOT BE SO FUN AFTER ALL A significant way Sunray attempted to constitute a fun organization was through symbolically blurring the boundary that has traditionally separated work and nonwork life. The cultures of fun gurus mentioned in the first part of the article argue that when workplaces are transformed into fun, celebratory, and even party-like environments, the result will be a more prosperous bottom line. And there is no doubt that many employees enjoyed aspects of this fun culture at Sunray.
But there was dissonance too. The management of work and nonwork boundaries was translated by a number of employees into problems of self (integrity, dignity, self-esteem, self-respect, etc. ), with cynicism being particularly salient. As was mentioned earlier, this cynicism may indeed result from predisposed personality types and past disappointments (Anderson, 1996; D. Kanter & Mirvis, 1989). Or, it might be a way some employees defend their identities from a disreputable form of normative control (Fleming & Spicer, 2003).
This study suggests however that cynicism is partially associated with the symbolic blurring of organizational boundaries. In exploring the significance of this association, a number of issues relating to the contested nature of new work formations are evident. We can begin to conceptually account for the relationship between boundary blurring and cynicism by discussing whether fun can simply be generated in a calculated and staged manner (by say, imitating a weekend party or an enjoyable family experience).
In much of the prescriptive and consultancy literature, there is an assumption that organizational fun, joy, and ebullience can be managed in the same way as more typical variables such as absenteeism, recruitment, or efficiency. This was discussed Downloaded from jab. sagepub. com at University of Melbourne Library on August 7, 2010 298 THE JOURNAL OF APPLIED BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE September 2005 earlier in relation to Barsoux’s (1996) and Hudson’s (2001) suggestion that fun may be institutionalized in the everyday practices of organizations.
As we saw, a good deal of inspiration is gleaned from nonwork experiences and rituals. However, the cynical employees at Sunray found this corporate-sponsored fun different to the fun experienced outside the organization. As far as these workers were concerned, there is something inexplicably unreal about the silliness, merrymaking, and zaniness orchestrated by management. The 3Fs and related rituals are perceived as “cheesy” or “phony,” and this perception persists despite management’s apparent commitment to the culture also.
The parties, games, and antics did not seem to be as authentic as actual parties or actual family get-togethers and so on. There are probably a number of reasons for this enduring perception among the workers interviewed. If we take a humanist stance, it could be argued that humor, enchantment, and exhilaration possess an intractable element that escapes the calculative logic of corporate control. As Max Weber (1930) argued, the reason displayed by prerational frivolity and that of administrative bureaucracy is ultimately incommensurable.
As constellations of meaning that structure the lifeworlds of actors, neither can be entirely reduced to the other. This argument of course has been challenged by those proposing a return to “spirituality” in corporate affairs, but the continuing persistence of employee cynicism in this context does beg the question of whether some kind of dissonance will inevitably result from attempts to enchant rationalized work systems. For Weber (1930), the ineffable element of prerational reason was linked to the uncanny and spontaneity.
At Sunray however, the inimitable feature of fun is more an issue of control and agency. Outside of work, when employees may genuinely have fun and engage in various activities associated with joyful experiences, their sense of volition is undoubtedly high. They do it because they choose to—or perceive that they choose to, which is no doubt a problematic perception encouraged by liberalist ideology. But when these experiences are transferred into the workplace, history cannot be so easily erased from the collective memory of workers. Just as before, the locus of control is still with the company.
The paradox of fun as a serious business was referred to earlier; employees are often obliged to participate in the asinine escapades, and thus their perceptions of agency are not that different from traditional rule-bound workplaces. Only in the former, they are encouraged to “make fools of themselves,” as one employee at Sunray cynically put it. It is not surprising then that much past research has demonstrated how some of the most authentically fun workplaces are ones that workers create themselves, independent of and often against management.
The classic ethnographic accounts of life on the shop floor by Roy (1952, 1958) and Burawoy (1979) for example point to the organic and self-authored nature of lightheartedness and the heightened sense of camaraderie that develops (also see Collinson, 1992). When playful “schmoozing” (Schrank, 1978) is self-initiated in this way however, members of management often find it an affront to their authority and are quietly distrustful, even though it may actually lead to higher productivity, as Gouldner (1955) discovered in relation to “indulgency patterns” (also see Mars, 1984).
Indeed, as Ackroyd and Thompson (1999) and Fleming and Sewell (2002) intimated, self-authored fun may even be interpreted as seditiousness simply because it has not been officially sanctioned. Downloaded from jab. sagepub. com at University of Melbourne Library on August 7, 2010 Fleming / WORKERS’ PLAYTIME? 299 The Sunray case also points to the problems inherent in what we might term management by imitation. Although not all aspects of cultures of fun try to imitate positive nonwork experiences, it does appear to be a prominent theme implicit in the practitioner literature.
The cynicism noted at Sunray casts doubt on the veracity of this cultural mimesis. Employees found the school, family, and party themes for example rather “fake” and “pretentious” because they sat awkwardly beside their preexisting conceptions of what these practices actually involve outside of work. Such a view of the culture program may be the result of management giving a one-sided representation of these nonwork rituals. As Gabriel (1999) argued in relation to the idea of a corporate family, such an approach overlooks the unpleasant and coercive aspects of family life, especially its nuclear variant.
At Sunray, this dynamic was particularly evident apropos the school theme among some employees, who found it a disconcerting reminder of their self-conscious youth. In this respect, the culture architects at Sunray have missed the complexity of the work/nonwork boundary: Not all facets of supposedly fun nonwork experiences are actually fun, and conversely, not all traditional workplaces are totally bereft of meaningful play. Perhaps too much emphasis has been placed on having fun at work. The Sunray example points to the importance of dignity and self-respect as a significant dimension of job satisfaction (Hodson, 2001; Sennett, 2003).
It was noted earlier that the condescension inherent in the Sunray culture of fun undermined employees’ sense of self as rational, capable, and dignified adults. Workers found the high school and kindergarten motifs (e. g. , dressing up in pajamas or singing songs) rather patronizing and degrading because it cast them in inferior and infantile roles. Although this cynicism may indeed allow workers to defend their more dignified selves from the normative controls of the firm (Fleming & Spicer, 2003; Kunda, 1992), the Sunray study adds another level of complexity by framing it in terms of symbolic boundaries.
The symbolic displacement of the work and nonwork boundary via a culture of fun threatened the semiseriousness and rationality that employees use to forge a sense of respect. Following Elsbach and Bhattacharya (2001), the observed cynicism was a form of disidentification that enabled workers to define themselves as dignified adults by highlighting who they were not. To return to the question of why these employees were cynical about the attempts to make their work fun, in cynically seeing through the culture of fun, organizational members were able to retain a mature and rational sense of self.
And because the culture program symbolically blurred the work and nonwork boundary, this consequently appeared as a significant fulcrum of discontent. CONCLUSIONS This article has aimed to shed light on the problem of why employees might be cynical about the currently popular trend of making work fun. It has identified an association between cynicism and the blurring of work/nonwork boundaries. Although not all facets of these culture initiatives only aim to displace this boundary, it does appear to be a noteworthy feature that has received little scholarly attention in scholarship.
By unpacking this relationship, the article hopefully provides a salutary description of Downloaded from jab. sagepub. com at University of Melbourne Library on August 7, 2010 300 THE JOURNAL OF APPLIED BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE September 2005 how holistic and lifestyle-oriented management techniques impact on the lives of workers. The move to make contemporary workplaces more enjoyable is a laudable endeavor (one that may indeed result in a more fulfilling workplace if taken seriously). And there is little doubt that management at Sunray was well intentioned.
But, much of the practitioner and consultancy literature fails to thoroughly engage with questions of dignity, cynicism, and contestation in a satisfactory manner. In light of this issue, and as mentioned earlier, perhaps the secret of organizational fun resides in the organic process of self-management and genuine autonomy, the onus for which would lie with workers as much as those who formally manage them. These findings raise some practical implications. First, what fun means in an organizational context needs to be rethought in terms of its relationship to dignity, integrity, and respect.
The practitioner literature tends to trade in a rather ephemeral notion of fun, and it is no surprise that some workers reject it, especially when it involves weak parodies of nonwork life. A model of practice that considers fun in relation to dignity and respect is required to check depersonalization (Mirvis, 1994). Following Sennett (2003) and Muirhead (2004), this pleasurable dignity may only result from a broader structural environment that is committed to meaningful involvement, equality, and some kind of democratic impulse.
And second, by placing current fun initiatives in a political context, it has been suggested that authentic fun may not only be incongruous with managerial control but gain its very inspiration from being against authority. As we know, culture management programs have traditionally had little truck with dissent (Barker, 1999; Kunda, 1992). But as more nonwork dimensions are symbolically drawn into the sphere of work, dissent is arguably inevitable because the public sphere is traditionally a space of debate. How organizations frame these tensions will perhaps determine the ultimate character of fun at work.