The Magazine

Are We Having Fun Yet?

The infantilization of corporate America.

Sep 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 01 • By MATT LABASH
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Wilmington, Del.

If you're a loyal employee like me, you occasionally check your company's Vision Statement to make sure 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."

Maybe you assumed the fun stopped when the tech bubble burst. Or at least you hoped it did. After all, who could stand to read yet another profile of the ubiquitous IPO-enriched dot-commissar, who'd get the toe of his footie-pajamas (which he wore in his nonhierarchical workspace) caught in the brake of his indoor Razor scooter, causing him to bump into the Pachinko-machine/copier, making him spill his Tazoberry Crème Frappuccino all over the conference-room foosball table? Ahhhh, the boyish hijinks of it all. With the benefit of hindsight, we can all now agree that the real fun was watching dot-com execs ride their Segways to the unemployment line.

But if you thought the fun stopped there, you're sadly mistaken. Like a diseased appendix bursting and spreading infectious bacteria throughout the abdomen, fun is insinuating itself everywhere, into even the un-hippest workplaces. 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, the CEO of athenahealth, which helps medical practices interact with insurers. Bush was tearing his shirt apart to reveal a Batman costume underneath, the same costume 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.

But 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." Perks include on-campus wallyball courts, indoor soccer fields, air hockey, ping pong, billiards, yoga and aerobics classes, company pools and hot tubs, and Native-American themed nap rooms so that employees can sleep (sleep!) at work. And that's all at just one company--Aquascape, a supplier to pond-builders based in St. Charles, Illinois.

The genius of the NBC television show The Office (and the original BBC show from which it derived) is that boss Michael Scott, manager of a failing paper-distribution branch in Scranton, goes well beyond the Dilbert-esque stereotype of the dictator cracking the whip over his cubicle monkeys. Armed with nothing but business-book clichés and a desire to be loved (he is nearly incapable of firing a person, or "counseling them out," in the current parlance), Michael fancies himself a fun guy, an entertainer. His employees don't think he's the least bit funny, yet the Dunder Mifflin office is a stage, and Michael is its headliner.

So you get episodes like "Beach Games," in which Michael, wearing his Sandals Resorts T-shirt, insists that his employees all load up the "Par-taayyyy Bus" for a day at the beach. Except then he announces, to the displeasure of everyone but his suck-up henchman Dwight Schrute (whose most pressing concern is whether he's "assistant regional manager" or "assistant to the regional manager"), that "Today, we are not just spending a day at the beach. We are all participating in mandatory fun activities. Funtivities!" Under the guise of fun, the employees will be subjected to Sumo-wrestling contests and walking over a bed of hot coals to determine who will replace Michael. Dwight, pumping his fist as everyone else groans, says, "I knew it wasn't just a trip to the beach! I hope there will be management parables!" The Office is a sitcom, but it could easily be a reality show.

No slaves to fashion 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. A placid scene of rowers sculling on a glassy lake as their coxswain shouts instructions is disrupted by the caption: "Get to Work--You aren't being paid to believe in the power of your dreams." My non-journalism friends aren't quite as fortunate.