No negative vibes: Organizational fun as a practice of social control

It is quite possible, then, that my employer fully expects me to respond to his bantering in a like manner, and considers my failure to do so a form of negligence. This is, as I say, a matter which has given me much concern. But I must say this business of bantering is not a duty I feel I can ever discharge with enthusiasm. It is all very well, in these changing times, to adapt one’s work to take duties not traditionally within one’s realm; but bantering is of another dimension altogether. For one thing, how would one know for sure that at any given moment a response of the bantering sort is truly what is expected? One need hardly dwell on the catastrophic possibility of uttering a bantering remark only to discover it wholly inappropriate.

(Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day, p.16)

I never thought that during my ethnographic journey in the 2010s in two organizations carrying out big organizational changes I would identify so strongly with an old English butler from the 1950s. A butler struggling to understand how to respond to his new lord of the manor. The new lord masters the making of playful small talk, and the old butler straggles to follow this new form of social interaction. There is something oddly recognizable here. My informants discussed how they felt there was something puzzling about the organizational change seeking to promote ‘fun culture’ in the workplace. Although the directors would tell the employees that the changes would bring more fun into the workplace and free them from their offices, they still felt, at times, less liberated and more awkward. Occasionally, I was also perplexed by the strangeness of some situations which were described as liberating for the employees. What was creating this uneasiness?

This chapter is an attempt to make sense of those aforementioned experiences. I am interested in analysing what kind of assemblages of bodies, materials and spaces the organizational fun culture promotes, and, through ethnographic documentation, the contrary and complex meanings or ‘ideological dilemmas’ (Billig, 1988) this fun culture and its assemblages may produce. The ideological dilemmas perspective underlines the idea that ideologies, whether they are philosophical, political or everyday notions, comprise contrary themes. Thus, the different elements of an assemblage may construct and promote contradictory and inconsistent tendencies. Assemblage thinking emphasizes the intertwined nature of spatiality and power, because it examines why certain orders emerge in specific ways, and how these orders shape socio-materiality and spaces. The perspective underlines that assemblages are always productive. They produce new behaviours, new expressions, new actors and realities (Muller, 2015).

The ethnographic data for this study was gathered from two workplaces that have adopted an activity-based office model. An activity-based office most commonly includes an open-plan office space, meeting rooms and a few separate spaces for work requiring more concentration. An activity-based office rests on the idea that people do not have their own workstation but can choose a fitting workstation depending on their mood and work tasks and even change their place several times a day, when they move on to a new activity. The central idea behind the activity-based office is that productivity will increase through the stimulation of interaction, mobility and communication (Appel-Meulenbroek et al., 2011).

The emphasis on firn, happiness and emotions in general has, from the beginning, been central to the development of the activity-based office concept, although, in the official strategies and documents, it is considered to be more about rational calculations between different work activities. Less than ten years ago, Microsoft launched new business premises in Finland. At first, these premises were called ‘Meeting Spaces'. Later, the office was reconceptualised and renamed as an ‘activity-based office’. The idea was that these new premises would eventually evolve into a global office concept, a paradigm for innovative office design. Instead of fixed workstations, the workplace consisted of different spaces of encounter, with a variety of ambiance alternatives such as ‘beach', ‘inspiration’, ‘nature’, ‘home’ or ‘bistro’. These spaces were presented as places where employees, objects and information move effortlessly, without hierarchies, limits or unnecessary controls. The idea was that employees would identify their task and mood for the day in the morning and choose the space that best fitted their state of mind and jobs. I argue that this kind of office design establishes a form of a ‘therapeutic space’, which mixes rationality and emotionality by creating subjects who are encouraged to act like ‘one-man businesses’, private entrepreneurs who consider their tasks rationally meanwhile always reflecting on their current mood or emotion. The workers may choose to match their mood with the atmosphere of a certain space, but, nevertheless, they are forced to choose, and the chosen space directs the way they may move, communicate and feel. The office produces subjects whose duty is to start each day by contemplating which ambiance is pleasant and suitable for them that day.

The chapter is organized as follows. Firstly, I will explore the existing research and cultural analysis on fun and playfulness in organizations and discuss my empirical and theoretical contribution to the subject. Secondly, I will present my data and the methodology utilized in the chapter. Thirdly, I will analyse the data and finally, discuss my findings.

Offices as therapeutic spaces

In his Manifesto For a Ludic Century, Eric Zimmerman (2015) notes that Tn the last few decades, information has taken a playful turn’, and this change will require new skills, as it is not enough to ‘understand systems in an analytic sense.

We must also learn to be playful in them'. Zimmerman writes mostly about digital games but broadens his scope as he suggests that the playful turn is also intertwined with how we work, communicate, socialize and love. He firmly connects playfulness with the ability to be innovative and creative.

In a somewhat similar vein, in recent decades, the positive psychology movement has highlighted the need to show more interest in studying the positive and playful aspects of human life (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2014). The psychological theory by Csikszentmihalyi which emphasizes the notion of flow has been highly influential. Positive psychologists suggest that working life can be organized around playfulness, thus, creating new innovations and value by stimulating employees’ imagination and adding more fun into working life. For example, Glynn and Webster (1992) have identified a need for more in-depth study of adult playfulness to understand its role in the workplace. Positive psychologists suggest that play and associated positive emotions augment individuals’ intellectual and other personal and social resources (Barnett, 2007; Fredrickson, 1998; Fredrickson et al., 2000), which, at the very least, implies that fostering positive emotions at the workplace might generate more innovative employees. Since the 1980s, management gurus have emphasized that adopting a fun culture at the workplace will promote a playful and pleasurable atmosphere, which will produce more productive and dedicated employees. Interestingly, the idea of organizational fun has gone a long way considering the usually short life cycle of management and business trends (Fleming, 2005). Redman and Mathews (2002) maintain that there is even a ‘well-developed “fun industry” offering would-be funsters with advice, workshops and consultancy on making work more fun', which shows that the business of creating fun is a truly serious business (see Fleming, 2005: 288).

However, organizational fun cultures are not static but in constant flux as are the organizations themselves. Fun cultures have existed even before the fun industry, in the form of joking and workplace humour. Power and resistance have been part of fun culture even before the more official fun cultures emerged. Sexual harassment in the form of innuendo, jokes, so-called ‘girl calendars’ and unwanted touching are ancient forms of ‘fun culture’ that have traditionally suppressed women (Ackroyd & Thompson, 1999). Moreover, the present organizational fun culture may reproduce and reformulate novel forms of control and subjectivities.

The reproduction and reformulation of control and subjectivities is linked with what can be called soft capitalism. The rhetoric of soft capitalism is concerned with playfulness, beauty and emotions (Chugh & Hancock, 2009: 465). This rhetoric identifies that the success of an organization lies in the narratives and creativity rather than with rationality, technologies and cost-benefit calculations even though its practices have a strong utilitarian dimension, and it is basically an attempt, as Heelas (2002: 81-82) notes, to instrumentalize these soft values for economic ends (see also Costea et al., 2005; Peteri, 2017). Furthermore, one form of soft capitalism is to promote new kinds of office environments that materialize and demonstrate the new flexible organization usually by trying to activate emotions and to maximize social interaction and mobility to produce innovations

(Thrift, 2005: 33-45). Kantola (2014: 9-11) calls this ‘enthusiastic individualism’ where playful informality and personal passion have become the new normative emotions of soft capitalism.

The literature concerning soft capitalism has some important resonances with the work of Boltanski and Chiapello (2007) on the new spirit of capitalism and Illouz's (2007, 2008) work on emotional capitalism. All of these emphasize the role of social critique and academic research on reinventing capitalism and organizational cultures. The solution to improving working conditions and removing faceless bureaucracy and the ‘men in grey flannel suits’ is, according to Boltanski and Chiapello, to produce organizations that are more flexible, innovative and mobile. The new spirit expects employees to manage themselves meanwhile their companies can offer them self-help resources. The activity-based office model can be regarded as a form of ‘therapeutic space’ (Gorman, 2017a, 2017b) and ‘organized self-help' that offers material elements inviting happier employees and producing networking opportunities, mobility and playfulness to promote innovations. This involves recognizing space as an active agent that is capable of transforming and shaping our experiences and emotions. This connects with the therapeutic call to maintain positive thoughts about oneself and the co-workers and to keep up positive energy and enthusiastic mentality. Thus, the therapeutic ethos makes emotions central to self-work (Illouz, 2008) and enhances organizational control by controlling and directing employees’ emotions.

Soft capitalism draws its ideas and legitimation from a number of sources. Its themes and vocabularies have become an important part of both the business world and academia. In a similar manner, as demonstrated previously, the culture of fun is not outside academia. In fact, its central mechanism is to ‘playfully’ mix and adopt ideas from a variety of sources: academic literature, popular self-help books, TV series, business media and tabloids. Even though some research has more or less accepted playfulness and happiness as the key elements of innovative organizational life, there is also plenty of research that raises more critical questions and analyses the fun culture and playfulness as providing a means for managerial control (e.g., Alexandersson & Kalonaityte, 2018; Baldry & Hallier, 2010; Costea et al., 2005; Fleming, 2005). Play is part of a wider mm to subjectivity (Costea et al., 2005), and thus, it is important to analyse what it adds to contemporary subjectivity.

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