The ideological dilemmas of play and work

Huizinga (1980) observes fun and pure play in his book Homo Ludens as ‘one of the main bases of civilization’. Huizinga defines play as a voluntary activity. If play is artificially generated or people are ordered to play, it is no longer play. It is just ‘a forcible imitation’ of play (Huizinga, 1980: 5-7). Here, I mightadd, lies one of the most obvious ideological dilemmas of generating fun and playfulness in work organizations. According to Huizinga, play is a free activity that cannot be tamed. Thus, it cannot be turned into business. This does not mean that it cannot inspire attempts to capitalize play and fun (Alexandersson & Kalonaityte, 2018).

While the playful office aims to enrich a certain leisure mentality, it simultaneously decreases spaces where one can concentrate in peace. Thus, the concept of increasing open-space areas promotes the idea that concentration is an individually created state of mind. Although playful offices aim to make people more mobile and social, they also mean that people must be able to find an intensely peaceful place inside their heads so that they rarely need quiet spaces for working.

We were having coffee together. Seven employees and I. Someone suggested we go to a meeting room to talk more privately. The actual coffee room was an open space next to the working area, so you could not really have a private conversation there. Once we had settled, the employees started to reminisce about a meeting where the directors of the company had presented ‘six theses’ which the whole organization was supposed to agree on and commit to. One of the theses was ‘no negative vibes’. One director explained that this slogan was from a reality TV show. According to the director’s story, one of the stars of that show had confessed that there was just too much relationship drama in her life, and she wanted ‘no more negative vibes’. We had a laugh. After a while, one of the employees exclaimed, ‘this activity-based office thing is like an ideology! ’ Several of the workers murmured approvingly or laughed and an older man added that it actually reminded him of his youth; of the Maoism in the seventies. You just had to obey and not question the ideology in any way. The employees agreed that the directors seemed more thin-skinned about this organizational change than of any previous ones. (Field notes, June 2014)

One form of play is the way the managers adopt and mix ideas and slogans from very different sources; TV shows, self-help books, academic literature and tabloids. No negative vibes was adopted from a reality TV show and its emerging new star who had already gained some notorious fame for her colourful private life. Rejecting criticism from the employees by adopting this slogan and turning it into one of the theses produces a dilemma for the employees. The aforementioned thesis is disguised as humour, but the employees are expected to obey the rule all the same. Any criticism is regarded as breaking the rule, but also as a sign that the employee lacks a sense of humour. You disregard the central idea of having fun if you do not ‘play’ along and obey the joke.

Playfulness is linked with the idea of wellness and specifically with happiness and the ethos of self-work; keeping oneself happy at work is a new duty for employees (Costea et al., 2005). Although the traditional boundaries between play and work are modified, they are not reinvented. While the employees need

No negative vibes 149 to work on their proper ‘jobs’ and on their positive selves, they also have to be productive and obey the managers, in this case, by offering no negative vibes.

We sat down in the colourful entrance hall area with the manager. We sat on two blocks that reminded me of jigsaw puzzle pieces. The manager stated that the new organizational change meant that the organization was now a story-telling organization, ‘a narrative organization’, she emphasized with pride in her voice. She explained that this was actually only the beginning of a bigger change. There is no need to inform the employees yet, she pointed out to me. I was bewildered that she told me, an outsider she had only known for a few days, about the upcoming change. I asked how the employees experienced these on-going changes. She sighed and admitted that it was not easy. She explained that people are so old-fashioned, and it is not easy giving up your personal workstation and room. She shared with me a story of a female worker who wanted to keep a picture of her dog on her desk. She imitated their conversation about the employee having to give up the picture and her having to tell the person that nobody in that department had their own workstation and thus, no one could keep their things on the desks. Her voice -when she was imitating herself - was like that of a parent when talking to a toddler. She portrayed the employee and her wishes and motivations as childish. I thought that the story was probably not a real story but rather an exaggeration that tried to emphasize a certain point or an ideal story to demonstrate something. After the story, she told me that the next step would be an authentic nomadic organization, which would complete the plans to increase the mobility and interaction of employees. She told me that she imagined this change as the bound of a giant tiger. (Field notes, September 2014)

The organizational change can also be experienced as exciting and liberating, especially for a manager. From a management viewpoint, the change seems to offer opportunities to take pleasure in experiencing a ‘paradigm change’, the excitement of creating a new organizational culture. In addition, management has the information on how the processes will proceed, which makes it easier to enjoy the change without anxieties. While I talked to the manager, she repeatedly referred to the organizational change as ‘the bound of a tiger’. Only afteiwards, I realized that she had most likely adopted the metaphor from a self-help book on organizational changes (Manka, 2010). The book introduces the metaphor of ‘the bound of a tiger’, which refers to a change that ‘demands creating structures that prevent routines and make room for free interaction' and demands an understanding that ‘we are prisoners of the past and thus blinded’ (Manka, 2010: 283). The book is based on the idea that the past has nothing to teach us - it is just ‘bureaucratic skeletons in the closet’ (Manka, 2010: 280) - and that organizations must embrace radical changes.

The culture of fun and its material and narrative assemblages promote the idea that employees will regain their inner child. However, there is a thin line between childlike behaviour and the right kind of childlike behaviour. In bothorganizations, the management told stories of employees wanting to keep their personal things. The punchline of these stories was that the employees were ‘endearing’ in their desire to ‘mark’ their own place with a photo of a loved one or with piles of paper. In these stories, the managers always mentioned that the piles of papers were old and sometimes even dusty. The tone of the stories was ironical. The employees seemed to have infantile wishes and no genuine understanding of ‘the real world'. The employees were like aboriginals who have to ‘mark’ their territory. The management would start the stories by stating that they understood that change was difficult. Thus, the moral of these stories is that change is fundamentally not about office spaces, but really about people and their need to change.

By interpreting stories as potentially exaggerated, I do not mean that the managers were telling ‘untrue’ stories. Real life events do not organize themselves neatly in a narrative form. Thus, stories are something told, not just a description of how something was lived. In everyday life, we use stories to make sense of the world, as instruments to highlight something or create new information (Carr, 1986). For example, the aforementioned stories could be interpreted as an attempt to invite me to take part in a playful conversation. Hyperbole is sometimes a means to create playfol talk or introduce a play frame. In spite of my view on the narrative, which dispels the difference between real and Active elements in talk, I have to point out the ideological nature of the stories.

By sheer chance or not, the principal characters in these stories were all women. As noted before, the new organizational fon culture might appear feminine with its emphasis on aesthetics and emotions. Instead, however, it may reproduce the old hierarchies in novel ways. Those who revealed that they did not feel comfortable with the organizational fon culture were both men and women. However, the new emotional culture still reproduces stories where the women are the ones constructed as overemotional and even hysterical. As Swan (2008) suggests, men can increase their cultural capital at work by adopting feminized emotional performances in ways that are not possible for women.

Considering the stories told by the managers, women’s position in the culture of fon might also be more fragile. The aforementioned stories may carry on and make use of the old idea that women do not really know how to have fon. Fun often involves humour and jokes (Fine & Corte, 2017), which are highly gendered by nature. For example, recent research has shown that cultural ideas of humour or ‘talk as play’ are based more on a male norm about what is considered fonny. Typically, in social situations, men have preferred more formulaic joking and women share fonny stories of their everyday life to create solidarity (Coates, 2007). Thus, it is more difficult for women to increase their cultural capital by expressing emotions, and with regards to the organizational fon culture, they seem to be in a bigger danger of coming across as humourless or even killjoys (see also Gill, 2016). More formulaic joking is a safer technique when the spatial and material order encourages people to mingle with new people. Sharing stories of your everyday life often demands a certain kind of familiarity with the people the stories are shared with.

Furthermore, the previous passage from the field notes is a good illustration of the ‘linguistic turn’ of the business community (Thrift, 2005). The manager uses metaphors like ‘narrative organization’ and ‘nomadic organization’, which are familiar also from academic texts. Ironically, the manager describes their organization as a story-telling organization in a context where she tells me not to share a piece of information with the employees. Soon afterwards, she shares a story of a woman who wishes to keep a picture of her dog on her desk. A story that I interpreted as potentially not true but rather a narrative that tries to make a point more visible by exaggerating certain features. These narratives allow the managers to exaggerate some features to the point of absurdity. The stories of the pictures of loved ones and ridiculously old, dusty and heavy piles of paper construct the women employees as infantile and the situations as somehow hilarious, yet in conflict with the new culture of fun.

The office premises in both organizations included a lot of open space and many glass walls, and that made some employees more reluctant to talk to me. ‘If I criticize the new order, I’ll get the chop,' commented one employee with whom I ended up talking in a storeroom among old furniture and partition screens. In this shadowy room, we were able to talk peacefully in a safe place. Thus, sometimes, the ‘hidden injuries’ (Sennett, 1972) were very concretely hidden, but taking part in the research was clearly an effort to preserve some sense of dignity. Many of those who took part highlighted that it was important for their story to be told.


I do not want to deny the possibility that a fun organizational culture could exist. I am also prepared to entertain the idea that fun could be consciously created and organized. However, as Fleming (2005) notes, the organizational fun culture needs to be rethought in terms of dignity, democracy and respect. The fun culture I encountered reminded me of situations where parents want their children to play with children their children do not particularly want to play with. As a child, I realized that parents thought that play was the same for every child when in fact it meant so many different things for different children. ‘You go and play with them now’, my mother insisted when I tried to explain that I do not know how to play with them. I went and sometimes we eventually found a form of play that we understood in a similar fashion, but other times it did not work out. I think the possibility of creating a fun culture for adults would demand recognizing that fun still does not mean the same for everyone. To put it bluntly, one man's fun culture is another woman’s #metoo campaign. Fun has to do with hierarchies, gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality and social class, and therefore, a uniform and single fun culture is an impossibility. Even in my ethnographic material, different kinds of fun cultures could be identified; those that legitimized and those that tried to resist the official fun culture.

This chapter has aimed to shed light on how new forms of office decoration and spatial planning connect with the therapeutic ethos that has brought emotions to the core of organizational culture. I have considered the activity-based office model as a form of‘therapeutic space’ (Gorman, 2017a) and organized self-help (Boltanski & Chiapello, 2005) that offers material elements which try to shape happier, more mobile workers ready to network with new people while being more playful and positive. I have shown how the emphasis on positive emotions produces new forms of organizational control. The fun culture encourages subjects to find their ‘inner child’ and to free themselves. This invites the employees to a new landscape where they have to try to recognize and learn what that ‘fun’ actually means. The fun culture infantilizes the employees, and thus, they risk positioning themselves as childish. Once they have embraced their inner child, they have entered a place where they are potentially considered more innovative but have a more fragile position as they no longer have all the chips to gain a place in the adult world.

The new spaces of work may in some ways be more flexible, as promised, but they still produce social relations and power and renew old gender hierarchies (see also Salmenniemi et al. in this book). The fun culture emphasizes aesthetics and emotions, which are traditionally considered as belonging to the feminine sphere. However, the fun itself seems to invite more traditionally masculine fun practices and invites certain kinds of male bodies to enjoy the ‘laid-back’ chillout areas. The rhetoric in official documents, in media texts and managers’ stories is about increasing the freedom of employees. The freedom means that in the mornings you act like a ‘private entrepreneur' who is forced to reflect on which space suits your mood best instead of just walking to your own space, to your own desk. This emotional culture invites subjectivities that define fleeting emotions and ambiances as essential to work but underestimate more long-term emotions.


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