The infantilization of corporate America
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.”
Since the advent of modern management consulting, a chapter that arguably began with the founding of the industry’s 800-pound gorilla, McKinsey & Company, in the 1920s, the business world has cleaved into two halves: those who are paid to work for a living and those who are paid to come to your office, take lots of notes, run up expenses on your dime, and then file reports in impenetrable consultantese describing your shortcomings.
These days, there’s a consultant for everything. In House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time, author and professional consultant-basher Martin Kihn, who himself was a consultant, writes about everything from flag consultants to compost consultants to Satanic consultants who don’t actually worship Lucifer (consultants tend not to believe in anything). So it stands to reason that with the new core value of fun on the ascent, there would be fun consultants, also known as, among other things, funsultants or funcilitators.
A considerable corpus of literature on their discipline is amassing (I use the word literature loosely, to mean a series of often ungrammatical double-spaced sentences put on paper, slapped between festively colored covers, and sold to mouth readers with too much discretionary income). These books are thick with instances of how successful businesspeople keep things loosey-goosey at work. Forget industriousness, talent, and know-how—the wellspring of employees’ satisfaction, creativity, and prosperity is fun. In Mike Veeck’s Fun Is Good, for instance, the cofounder of Hooters restaurants reveals, “I don’t know if we would have survived without humor.” (To the untrained eye it looked like Buffalo Chicken Strips served with large sides of waitresses’ breasts were the secret to his success. But whatever.)
If you thought there were only 301 Ways to Have Fun at Work, as suggested by the smash book that’s been translated into six languages, then you’re shortchanging yourself because, technically, there are 602 ways (see 301 More Ways to Have Fun at Work). Using examples culled from real companies in real office parks throughout America, the authors suggest using fun as “an organizational strategy—a strategic weapon to achieve extraordinary results” by training your people to learn the “fun-damentals” so as “to create fun-atics” (most funsultants appear to be paid by the pun).
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.”
Any Genesis subscriber knows that hard toil was originally conceived as a curse. God broke the news to Adam that he’d be forced to stop lounging naked while snacking on fresh fruit—that meals would now be served by the sweat of his brow—and humankind has looked for loopholes ever since.
A Microsoft survey of more than 38,000 people worldwide found that workers, by their own admission, average only three productive days per week. According to a Salary.com/America Online survey, the average worker admits to squandering 2.09 hours of each 8-hour workday, excluding lunch and breaks, and other estimates have put the number as high as 40 percent of each day. A full 70 percent of Internet porn consumption takes place during office hours.
The remedy: Hire a funsultant like Ronald Culberson, who heads FUNsulting, Etc. (the u’s in his logo are shaped like a smile). Not only does Ron understand the “intrinsic power of combining excellence with humor,” he’s even set up a “humor injections” blog, giving cyberslackers a way to have good, clean, nonsarcastic fun.
You could call “energy expert” Gail Hahn of Funcilitators, who can help you practice “fun shui” or conduct some “out of the box Olympics” for team building, and who is “authorized to lead laughter sessions sanctioned by the World Laughter Tour.” Or perhaps Buford P. Fudd-whacker would be more to your liking. He dresses like a “backwoods, country nerd in red suspenders and polyester pants” and promises your employees some “high-octane country sunshine” with his “wacky inventions and crazy stories about kinfolk and farm animals. But there’s always a point to be made, and he weaves valuable insights, motivational messages, and powerful teaching into his tall tales.” Pass the ’shine, Buford!
If I was the kind of employer who was funhibited enough to have to hire a pro, I’d go with the Fun Department of Newark, Delaware, which endeavors to bring recess to work.
Jayla Boire is the company’s marketing maven (nobody has a traditional title). She and her partner Nick Gianoulis, the godfather of fun, had a reputation among their circle of friends as being fun people. “They’d say ‘Oh my gosh, here they come, it’s the fun department,’” Jayla recalls. The two might do something like stage suitcase races (racing down the street with luggage) at a New Year’s Eve party, and Jayla would always be on the picnic committee. An inveterate griller, Nick, who was a district manager in the electrical wholesaling business, was a member of the Circuit Club, which planned fun activities in their workplace.
Since planning all that internal fun can be a real time goblin if you actually want to, well . . . work, Jayla and Nick started thinking about providing a “turnkey solution” for companies that wanted to fun-up the workplace. They ended up joining forces with two other partners, Dave Raymond, the emperor of fun and games, and Mark Doughty, lord of the deal.
The Fun Department is a full-service shop that boasts an impressive client roster, from DuPont to AstraZeneca to QVC. Services include everything from desk-drop toy delivery (“fun on the run”) to staging Solid Gold danceoffs, paper airplane contests, silly-string wars, human bowling, and a couple dozen other funtivities. They “create consistent, quick, at-work experiences that motivate and invigorate the work environment.” They have “fun for fun’s sake while reducing tension, bolstering creativity, and building relationships.” They have business cards featuring Sparky, a smiling blue-faced logo with crazy, spinning goggle-eyes.
Dave tells me that at AstraZeneca, a pharmaceutical company, the Fun Department took over the company’s seldom-used lactation room, dressed it up as a physician’s office complete with a doctor character and a gum-cracking assistant, and wrote “prescriptions to play” while treating people for “terminal seriousness.” AstraZeneca, it turns out, has a culture of fun, which makes the Fun Department’s job easier. During their initial meeting, the head of human resources told him that they’d just recently filled a coworker’s office with packing peanuts on his birthday. “They get it,” says Dave. “They understand.”
Helping the Fun Department deliver all this levity are the Funsters, on-call hourly-wagers, mostly college students who are fit and vital and look like Abercrombie models, and who wear zany tie-dyed shock-yellow-and-orange T-shirts with Team Fun inscribed on the back. The Funsters go through Funster Boot Camp where they read the Funster training manual and learn the ins and outs of presenting fun, and also the no-no’s.
“No touching,” says Jayla. “We have to be very careful. One of the things we’ve learned is, I’ll be at an event, and some of my colleagues will be in that moment, because they’re trained to be Funsters. So there’s the CEO ripping his shirt off and swinging it over his head. And they’re like, ‘Oh my God, look at that guy!’ And here’s me [yelling] ‘HR! HR!’ ”
It’s early morning and the Funsters are preparing for a gig: getting loose, doing dance moves, engaging in lots of verbal towel-snapping. They are riding high, standing around a television set at a local gym, high-fiving each other after having to wait through all the dreary news to watch CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta do an adulatory piece on their company (publicity = fun; Minneapolis bridge collapse = not fun).
Fired up, they shove off for nearby New Castle, Delaware, where they will attend the Hospital Billing & Collection Service’s second annual “playfair.”
Housed in a nondescript brown-brick building, the company is surrounded by acre after acre of similarly anonymous-looking office parks, places with seemingly identical topiary and opaque names that betray nothing about the kind of business actually being transacted. My pulse quickens as I spy the letters TA on one nearby building, since everyone knows T&A = fun. But a subhead on the signage reveals that they are merely World Leaders in Thermal Analysis and Rheolog. (Not fun.)
I make my way into HBCS’s call center, where telephone operators sit in a drably lit matrix of cubicles, trying to cadge money from sick people and their families in eight-hour shifts, expected by management to hit quotas as one automated call after another rolls in. It looks like a hard, monotonous job.
Several human resources types collect around me and drape a visitor’s badge around my neck. They proudly show off the place. They wear shorts and flip-flops and other casual wear, as it’s something of a beach day for them. Since there’s no beach or ocean nearby, however, funtivities will commence under the theme Playfair Under the Sea. In the hospitality tent on a narrow spit of grass behind the building, there is a lot of maritime décor: seashell fans, buckets of sand, plastic crabs, and starfish.
Inside are wan touches to cheer up the place: a glittery star hanging from the corkboard ceiling above the head of a top performer’s cubicle here, a beach ball or a fish mobile there. On the call floor, Brian Wasilewski, vice president of operations, is crisply dressed, his plaid shorts and brown beach shirt looking as though they’ve been starched. He stresses that while HBCS hired the Fun Department to fun-up their company picnic, the company tries to keep it fun year-round.
During National Healthcare Compliance Week, for instance, the company played Compliance Jeopardy, Wasilewski says. “Basically, we sent out a list of compliance-related questions at the beginning of the week, and anyone who scored a certain amount or higher got to play in the Compliance Jeopardy game.”
Winners went into the training room and played Compliance Jeopardy just like the real game show. Answers had to be in the form of questions. There were Daily Doubles. Gift certificates were awarded. And all the categories revolved around things like privacy information and patient claims. Says one human resources VP: “We try.”
As the funtivities kick off, the Funsters form a dancing gauntlet around the back door, wearing swim caps and snorkels and other water-related funnery. They say cheery things like “Nice hat, girlfriend!” and “Welcome to the fun!” while employees, blinking into the blinding sunlight, smile nervously as a DJ booms “Takin’ Care of Business” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive.
There are “play stations” all over the grounds: an oversized inflated basketball hoop, a ring-toss pit, a Yahtzee game with giant fuzzy dice, a “deep-sea fishing” station, which consists of two baby pools with children’s fishing poles to fish out magnetic rubber duckies that can be redeemed for finger puppets and wind-up toys.
One of the most popular funtivities involves a managers’ face-off, where the bosses must grab a partner and toss water balloons back and forth to each other, wearing pirate patches on one eye to distort depth perception. They must also utter “Argghhhh” before each throw just to further humiliate themselves, cueing the hoi polloi that everyone has “permission to play.”
The culminating funtivity is a two-person cash grab on a Twister-like mat; they stuff as much money into their various pockets, shirtfronts, and orifices as humanly possible. To find out who the lucky candidates are, the Funsters play “hands up/hands down.” It’s a variation on heads or tails, which the Funsters used to play by having everybody grab their heads or tails. But Mark says they had to modify it. “We had a client who was a little challenged by the political incorrectness,” he explains. “[He said], ‘We don’t want our employees to put their hands on their tails, even if it’s their own tails.’ We said we can play heads or hips. And he said no. Sooooo—hands up/hands down.”
One of the finalists in hands up/hands down is in a wheelchair. But after he incorrectly guesses up when the Funsters call down, he is eliminated. You can sense a Funster sigh of relief (people grabbing as much cash as they can = fun; cripple flopping around on the ground trying to grab cash with his teeth = not fun).
The afternoon heat is sweltering, and by the end of the playfair, HBCS’s chief financial officer is in a magnanimous mood and lets everybody go home, though it’s only 3:00 p.m. As a fun-killer, it would bring me some pleasure to report that nobody had any fun. But that wouldn’t be true. People laughed, people lined the dance floor during the Booty Call, people cleared out of the parking lot before the boss could finish his announcement (it was a good party but not that good).
So who’s to say the funsultants are worse than anything else that’s happened to the American corporate drone over the decades? After all the paradigm shifting and diversity training and outsourcing and synergizing and empowering and value adding and globalizing and downsizing and full-frontal lobotomizing, maybe finger puppets are just the logical terminus.
As for the funsultants themselves, they’re truly living the American dream. They’ve beat the system. As Lord of the Deal Mark Doughty explains, “I work very hard not to have a real job.” Is that the work ethic that made America great? Probably not. But who am I to judge? I make a living writing about funsultants.
For insight, I turn to another old friend of mine, much more steeped in business culture than I am. He’s my college buddy Don McKinney, a creative director/advertising hotshot responsible for campaigns like Nissan’s “Shift.” When I ask him what all this means, he strikes an optimistic note: “When you and I were born, there were 2 billion people in the world. Today there are 6 billion. Maybe there are only 2 billion real jobs and all the rest of us are being relegated to bullshit jobs, like fun coaches and creative directors. If we took away all the bullshit jobs, our economy would collapse.”
On the other hand, he e-mails, “It occurs to me how completely spoiled we are as workers. I don’t ever remember my dad or any of his friends having fun at work. Yet as soon as a job turns into an actual job (something my dad would actually call work), we start looking around for the next prettiest girl at the dance.
“Coercive joviality, as you put it, would have gotten your ass kicked in the machine shop, or at the very least it would have been seen as deviant. I would be willing to bet that, compared with the last generation, an overwhelming number of us would be considered support staff in a war. If you’re in marketing, what do you actually do? You’re not making anything. The best that can possibly be said about your output is that you’ve invented a bunch of new words that make your profession just esoteric enough that the lay person (the guy in the machine shop) will pay an extra quarter of a cent on every pack of Doublemint gum to ‘double his pleasure and double his fun.’ ”
Don had some momentum, and I wanted to hear more. But he couldn’t write any more, he said. He had to go. Duty called: “I have an all-day meeting on metrics.”
Matt Labash is a senior writer for the Weekly Standard, a conservative political journal founded in 1995 and published by News America incorporated. This piece originally appeared in the Sept. 17, 2007, issue. Subscriptions: $54/yr. (48 issues) from Box 80501, Boulder, CO 80321; www.weeklystandard.com.