The ethnographic data
I gathered data from two workplaces (in 2010 and 2014). One is a public organization with more than 2,500 members of staff and the other a private enterprise employing over 7,000 people. The work in these organizations could be characterized as knowledge work as it involves managing and organizing information and producing knowledge in different forms. During my ethnography, I also visited four other organizations that have adopted the activity-based office model. As I went to give talks in open seminars, I met people who invited me to visit their workplaces so that they could show me their new office premises and share their experiences on moving to an activity-based office. These visits are not included in the primary data, but certainly have deepened my analysis, as I have been able to discuss my findings with people who have first-hand experience of the activitybased office model.
The organizations in my data had already adopted the activity-based office model. Although the official strategies concerning the activity-based office do not mention fun culture or playfulness, all the organizations I visited included elements that can be identified as promoting the culture of fun. This might be interpreted as a signal that the elements of fun, at least at the moment, in themselves signify or mark the ‘new’ in office decoration and spatial design, so much so that they have to be included in official strategies without a reference to them. The material has been obtained through interviews, observations, discussions and the gathering of documents. The documents include, for example, the Proposed Government Premises Strategy (2014) and the Government’s Decision in Principle on Premises Strategy (2014) as well as different research reports and brochures on the activity-based office model (e.g., Haapamaki et al., 2011; Nenonen et al., 2012; Nenonen & Niemi, 2013; Sandberg, 2012). I have also collected newspaper and magazine articles that deal with activity-based offices.
The material has been anonymized by changing the names of the workers and removing information that risks identifying the organizations. Workers who could have been compromised by the research have had the opportunity to check the text and make comments on it before publication. Furthermore, some examples of the organizations’ interiors presented in the analysis have been edited. For example, if I describe a wallpaper, its details and theme may have been changed to resemble the original while not being identical with it. However, there are plenty of examples that I could easily use because equivalent elements could be found in all of the organizations I visited and also in the media texts.
During my fieldwork, I enjoyed rereading Lefebvre’s The Production of Space. Lefebvre writes about ‘representations of space’, that refer to existing ways of conceptualizing spaces. These representations are produced and implemented by architects, political decision-makers, officials, planners and engineers. Lefebvre also mentions ‘social engineers’ (Lefebvre, 2015: 38), who would today include consultants, interior designers, and ’change managers’ hired to execute preplanned organizational changes. Lefebvre suggests that analysing representations of space is a specific form of critique, equivalent to literary critique, a critique of space that recognizes dominant representations of space and shows how space is not just a frame or background for action. Human agency, social practices and spatial arrangements are intertwined so closely that they cannot really be understood as separate entities. Each can be understood through the other, as Foucault (2003: 372) notes. According to Lefebvre, a critique of space or ‘spatial imagination’ has to start with a lived space, the embodied users’ experiences of power, tensions and resistance working with and through space (Soja, 1996: 68). These conceptualizations seemed to speak directly about the experiences I had when talking with the employees at their newly decorated office spaces, and they made me realize that I could not just do research on them, but I had to also do it for them.
In the private sector, many office employees have moved from their own workrooms to open-plan offices where they ‘hot-desk’ or use shared workstations. A working lounge, office hoteling and hub-type spaces are also becoming more common. It seems that a spatial shift is taking place in office settings in general. In Finland, Proposed Government Premises Strategy (2014) expresses that all ministries, government agencies and departments will be transformed into activity-based offices by 2020. Many private enterprises have already adopted the same model. Thus, my article is a critique of a certain kind of hegemonic space that is officially recognized and accepted by the Finnish government, even though its first adaptations were found in private companies.
My ethnographic field notes and the critique of space based on them may come at times close to absurd drama or even tragicomedy. Every so often, the fun culture itself might seem like a joke. According to Cate Watson (2015), before modernity put the emphasis on rationality, laughter and humour were actually seen as having a deep philosophical meaning. The absurd and the irrational were considered as inherent parts of human existence and thus humour had an essential role in revealing something that rational means could not. During my fieldwork, there were quite a few occasions where the employees and I laughed at the changes. You could say that we were constructing a hidden form of fun culture, resisting the official one with the employees’ own take on fun. After all, finding humour in difficult situations can sometimes be a liberating force (Mulkay, 1988), and at its best, it provides a means for challenging the status quo and makes people feel more at ease (Nilsen, 1994).
The spatiality of fun
In the data, officially created ‘fun culture’ is evident in the way offices incorporate playfill elements: shared spaces may include board games or a PlayStation. Also, shared areas may have Fatboy beanbags or similar floor-level seating. One of the organizations I studied had seating that resembles huge Lego blocks. The furniture in both organizations was bright coloured. The more traditional chairs in the open office areas echoed hotel lobby furniture. This type of furniture promotes mobility among the employees: puts them on the move, ready to encounter others (Peteri, 2017).
In practice, activity-based offices consist mainly of open-plan spaces without partition screens. In both organizations, big plants were used to provide visual obstruction. Strikingly, bright green was a prominent colour in the decor. In meeting rooms, photographic wallpaper depicting images of a jungle, space ship or motor racing signals playfulness and offers a visual illusion of being in another place or dimension. The office fun culture is also evident in the new names given to different departments. The departments still have doors and walls, albeit made of glass, and the names of specific departments are still on display on the doors. The font is playful, colourful and cartoonish. Often the name does not clearly reveal the function of the department, and it is impossible to discern any single logic from which the names were derived. One name reminded me of a specific children’s fairy tale, another name resembled a management consultancy buzzword and a third one seemed to refer to a certain state of mind.
I met up with Anne first thing in the morning, as she knew the managers would not be in and would not see us talking. We went to see the chill-out area. The area reminded me of my child’s day care, with similar kinds of bright colours, big cushions and board games. Anne noted that nowadays it was very difficult to try to concentrate at work, as the chill-out area was right in the middle of the office space, and the young guys were often playing PlayStation games and being very loud. Some people had complained about the noise, but the managers had said that you either live with it or you leave. She told me that she and a few of her older colleagues had once suggested that they would arrange a lecture and conversations on some topic in the chill-out area. One of the bosses had said that the space is not meant for that kind of activity. (Field notes, September 2010)
While talking with Anne I noticed a laminated poster on the wall of the chill-out area. It stated: ‘Everybody is Welcome here. Everybody Belongs’. The message was written in English making me wonder how welcome non-English speaking people were. Anne and her older colleagues did not feel welcome (although that had nothing to do with their language skills). The material assemblages associated with ‘playbour’ clearly influence how inviting different employees find the workplace. The ideal subject for these spaces seems to be a young man of a certain type. The new materials and furniture in the open-space areas are attractive for youthful bodies that can actually sit down as well as get up again from the Lego blocks or Fatboy beanbags. Wearing a dress or a top with a low neckline also make it trickier to lounge and properly relax on these beanbags. The material assemblages derive artefacts from worlds that are traditionally associated with masculinity (e.g., car racing or PlayStation games). Although emotional expression and aesthetics have traditionally been associated with femininity, they are now perceived as new resources for everyone in the workplace (Adkins, 2005; Swan, 2008). Thus, the new organizational fun culture might appear feminine with its emphasis on aesthetics and expressions of emotions. Instead, however, it may reproduce the old hierarchies in novel ways. Work cultures emphasizing informality often end up creating a ‘laddish culture' (Gill, 2002) without any explicitly stated criteria why the aesthetic staging derives ideas from the world of motor racing rather than from the world of pony stables. This is not clear-cut, of course, as there were, for example, a few women who expressed that they enjoyed PlayStation games, but not at work, not at this chill-out area. It shows that it is not about who likes ponies and who likes PlayStation games, but rather of the assemblage of bodies, materials, spaces and staging.
In the official strategy (Proposed Government Premises Strategy, 2014), the activity-based office is introduced as a flexible environment for different kinds of tasks and people, bearing in mind, for example, ageing workers and increasing multiculturalism. The central idea behind the activity-based office is choosing a
No negative vibes 147 workstation and working area according to current mood and the activity at hand. In the morning, employees find a desk where they can work, and quite often they have to do so again after a meeting or lunch break. Employees seem keen to find a workstation near their closest colleagues, rather than trying to figure out which workstation would fit their activities best. They appear to choose intentionally or unintentionally ignoring the basic premise of the activity-based office.
Some workers described how, over time, they started 'deliberately' forgetting their things on certain desks, even though the directors tried to prevent this and even removed the stuff. In time, this ‘misbehaviour’ (Ackroyd & Thompson, 1999) developed into tacit knowledge about which workstation ‘really’ belonged to whom. Officially, nobody had assigned workstations, but unofficially every employee knew where their colleagues preferred to sit and work. In the other organization, the directors discussed the possibility to use an electronic system to monitor how often employees used a certain workstation. If an employee tried to use the same workstation more than twice a week, the workstation would not allow it. This electronic control would break conventional habits and force people to spend time with people they would not deliberately choose to sit next to. This spatial design seems to imply that innovations are born when unfamiliar people get close to each other, not through historical connections.
The organization of a space is conceived as activity-oriented, rather than taking into account historically developed skills and relationships in the workplace. The organization takes into account emotions, but only the fleeting ones such as moods and feelings, but ignores or even tries to remove more stable and longterm emotions of loyalty, friendship and solidarity between the employees. In both organizations, the directors encouraged staff to destroy all the ‘old stuff’ (papers, folders, books, etc.) and adopt a new line of thinking, which meant working mostly without paper and print media. However, in both organizations, several members of staff took those things home or to their summer cottages without informing the employer. Now that the archived work documents and books have been moved to domestic settings, a large proportion of the employees’ competence and work-related information has moved off the company’s premises. When I talked to the employees, they justified this by saying that the things were not just any old stuff but a very concrete part of their expertise. It seemed evident that they had interpreted the request to get rid of ‘old stuff' as a signal that historical understanding of work processes was not appreciated anymore. The documents consist of information on how their special expertise has developed over time and what the expertise includes. Thus, the new office design seems to reject historical knowledge, materials, relationships and developments.