Are We Having Fun Yet?

The infantilization of corporate America

| Mar.-Apr. 2008

This article is part of a package on work culture. For more, read  White Collared .

If you’re a loyal employee like me, you occasionally check your company’s vision statement to make sure that all the t’s in empowerment have been crossed and the i’s in mission have been dotted. But if you come across buzzwords like excellence and leadership, you should know that your corporate culture is sadly behind the curve—those terms are as ’90s as Reebok Pumps, Zima, and Total Quality Management. There’s a new core value on the loose, and it goes by the name of Fun.

Witness the August issue of Inc. magazine, the self-declared “Handbook of the American Entrepreneur.” Emblazoned on its cover was “Fun! It’s the New Core Value.” Beneath that was a photo of Jonathan Bush, CEO of athenahealth, which helps medical practices interact with insurers. Bush was tearing his shirt apart to reveal a Batman costume, the same getup in which he gave a full presentation to a prospective client after making a deal with one of his employees that if the latter lost 70 pounds, the management team would dress as superheroes for a day.

And that’s just the beginning. There are 18 pages of similar stories to instruct and inspire employers to keep their employees happy at all costs, because happy employees make for happy customers. There are rubber chickens, Frisbee tosses, mustache-growing contests, pet psychics, interoffice memos alligator-clipped to toy cars, and ceremonies that honor employees for such accomplishments as having “the most animated hand gestures.” At Aquascape, a water gardening supplier based in St. Charles, Illinois, perks include on-campus wallyball courts, indoor soccer fields, air hockey, Ping-Pong, billiards, yoga and aerobics classes, a company pool and hot tub, and eight themed nap rooms (Native American, Ohio State, etc.) so that employees can sleep (sleep!) at work.

Here at the Weekly Standard, where the clocks stopped around 1957, our office is mercifully free of such managerial fads. About the closest our bosses come to official levity is the “inspirational” poster in the mailroom. My nonjournalism friends aren’t quite as fortunate.

As I contacted them for input on this story, their pain was evident. They are smart, competent, creative people with highly refined senses of humor—fully formed adults. Yet they’re unable to escape the condescending infantilization of their workplaces, the coercive “fun,” the forced march through the land of clenched-teeth joviality that so often takes place under the dreaded guise of “team building.” One pal, who works for a large financial concern, tells me darkly, “My role here is largely ‘gleetivities’ oriented. We’re actually planning a group event that will involve ‘conference bikes.’ It’s a rickshaw-related transportation option focused on tourists. It’s a bike with five seats in a circle. Should be completely ridiculous.”

7/25/2014 8:51:57 AM

We do spend most of our day at work so it is only fair if those sort of facilities were available for us all, With my current job I only get around 4 - 5 hours before I have to sleep and be ready for work again the next morning! We surely don't need to work 8 hours a day do we? Now that the rant is over... That sounds fantastic!

3/4/2008 12:00:00 AM

Thoughts / Questions I had while reading "Are We Having FUN YET?" in the UTNE reader: We (Americans) need to re-think the way that we view work in our lives. Why does working hard = 40+ hour weeks, 8+ hour days? It seems (to generalize) that we center our lives around work and forget about other pursuits that are equally (and sometimes more) important and valuable. I believe that most workers average three productive days per week (as the Microsoft survey pointed out), but I do not think it is because we are spoiled or lazy. I think that most jobs can be done well in that amount of time. The rest of the time is spent avoiding boredom, waiting to go home. Jobs have changed (that is common knowledge). We are not our grandparents. I do not spend 14 hours per day working in a refinery. Jobs are different, people are different, expectations are different. I do not think this is necessarily a bad thing. Maybe it is time for us (Americans) to realize that we need to change the way we work. If we can get our jobs done in 4 hours per day, then we should only work 4 hours per day (also change the way we pay for work and what is considered full time). We could use the rest of the time to pursue intellectual interests, spiritual interests, family , etc. In the long run it seems businesses could only benefit from stimulated and well rounded employees. When we are at work we would be working not wasting time paying bills online, talking to friends, sending personal email. It is time to get rid of the guilt and judgment surrounding our work that comes with being an American. We feel we have to "work hard," and we feel guilty for wanting other things in our lives. We may need to redefine what "hard work" looks like, and add-- work that is done outside of our jobs-- to that equation. Don't give us fun at work as a substitute for what we really want: to go home, to spend time with family (the people we should be having fu