Are We Having Fun Yet?
The infantilization of corporate America.
Sep 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 01 • By MATT LABASH
If you thought there were only 301 Ways to Have Fun at Work, as suggested by the smash book that's been translated into 10 languages, then you're shortchanging yourself, because technically, there are 602 ways, according to the follow-up, 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 or pajamas, wacky Olympics, memos by Frisbee, voicemails 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" or perhaps a "neon-pink mask and snorkel worn to demonstrate a sense of humor, self-deprecating nature, and sense of adventure."
In the interest of not appearing to be a killjoy, I should disclose that I am adamantly pro fun-at-work, if by "fun at work" you mean "sending tasteless emails to friends," "stockpiling office supplies," and "leaving early." And it is hard to argue with the salutary effects of enjoying yourself, even and especially at work. The medical literature, often brandished by funsultants, is unanimous on the health benefits of laughter (though nobody has yet looked into the possible detrimental effects of forced laughter brought on by leadership-institute raps).
Any Genesis subscriber knows that hard toil was originally conceived as a curse, God breaking the news to Adam that he'd be forced to stop lounging naked while snacking on fresh fruit, and that meals would now be served by the sweat of his brow. Mankind has pretty much looked for loopholes ever since. As you learn in Classics 101, the ancient Greek word for work was ponos derived from the same root as the Latin poena, meaning "sorrow." Aristotle regarded work as a wasteful impediment to pursuing virtue. And the Romans were so work-averse that they outsourced all they could to slaves.
A good funsultant, however, doesn't bill fun at the office as a cessation of work, but rather, casts the two as halves of a whole, what Leslie Yerkes, author of Fun Works: Creating Places Where People Love To Work, calls a "Fun/Work Fusion ." How necessary or advisable is it for employers to facilitate fun, and how fun could the fun possibly be that they are facilitating? After all, plenty of surveys show that people are pretty good at fostering their own fun at work and yet still remain a largely unsatisfied lot. (For all employer nods to serving as cruise directors on the Funship Lollipop, a Conference Board survey reports that fewer than half of all Americans are satisfied with their jobs, down from 60 percent 20 years ago.)
A Microsoft survey of 38,000 people worldwide found that workers, by their own admission, only average three productive days per week. A Salary.com/America Online survey found the average worker admitting 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, and perhaps much of the rest of the time is dedicated to crafting Internet parodies, such as this one by one "Robert Moore," who apes the rhetoric of a funsultant, saying employers can make the workplace more fun by having "Tick Days" ("place ticks on the necks of your staff"). Writes Moore:
There's gold in institutionally mandated humor. Humor, when used and managed effectively, can make your employees more productive cogs in your corporate machine. A laughing employee more quickly forgets the worthlessness of his existence and gets on to the daily drudgery. A smiling employee masks his discontent and horror from potential clients. The demons that gnaw achingly painful holes in his or her intestines are forgotten long enough to finalize that sales report.
There is a remedy for cynicism like Moore's: Hire a funsultant. As Alan Briskin, author of The Stirring of the Soul in the Workplace, writes: "Sarcasm is one-sided fun. It is limited and non-universal." Fun isn't just about theory in books. It's about putting clown shoes on the ground.
So you might hire someone like Ronald Culberson, who heads FUNsulting, Etc., "injecting humor into healthcare" (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.
Or you could hire "Energy Expert" Gail Hahn of Funcilitators, who can help you practice "Fun Shui," conduct some "Out of the Box Olympics" for teambuilding, 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!
For my money however, 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 Wilmington, Delaware, which endeavors to bring "recess to work." (Recess was always my best subject.) Last month, I went to see them in action.
I met one of their four principal partners for dinner--Jayla Boire. Her title is Marketing Maven (nobody in the company has a traditional title). She looks like a Marketing Maven too. She is bouncy, perky, tall, and blonde, with sculpted tan legs that start just above her ankles and end right below her clavicle. I wouldn't call them sexy--HR wouldn't approve--but they're fun to look at.
As I get the Montepulciano flowing (wine=fun), Jayla tells me about how she got into the "funnertainment" business. Once a freelance journalist whose favorite story ever was one she wrote on a local coffee shop named Brew Ha Ha, she had a host of marketing jobs before hanging out a shingle with her other straight-marketing company, The Right Idea. Jayla is a hardcore marketer. For fun, she often goes to Target to look at their innovative packaging.
Wilmington is a company town for DuPont, the world's second largest chemical company ("Uncle Dupey," as she calls it), and Jayla worked for them too. She thinks that's when the fun started. I ask her if she had a burning desire to further the cause of polyurethane. She didn't, she says, "though I thought nylon was pretty spiffy, and no woman would argue with lycra." But having to make a chemical company seem interesting to outsiders--she wonders if "that wasn't the beginning of thinking about how you make work fun."
Even before they started the company, Jayla and her partner Nick Gianoulis, whose title is 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." They might do something like stage suitcase races at a New Year's Eve party (racing down the street with suitcases), 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.
But planning all that internal fun can be a real time goblin if you actually want to, well, work. So Jayla and Nick started thinking about providing a "turnkey solution" for companies who 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, who would expertly translate fun theory into fun-filled games.
Dave and Mark also run their own successful mascot company--they are trainers and headhunters for furry creatures who perform at major and minor league baseball games. Raymond Entertainment Group shares office space with the Fun Department, and the Fun Department has its own mascot, a "purple party dude" named Reggie. But Jayla makes clear that the partners don't wish to have the mascot company used as a "brand identifier," even though Dave "knows fun from the inside out." From 1978-1993, he served as the Philadelphia Phillies mascot, the furry green bullhorn-beaked Phillie Phanatic. Thanks partly to Dave, the Phanatic is now in the Mascot Hall of Fame, even if Dave's father once called his son "a green transvestite."
The Fun Department is a full-service fun-shop. They boast an impressive client roster, everyone from DuPont to AstraZeneca to QVC. Jayla says that they might be signing up American Standard, the toilet manufacturer, with whom they have a meeting on September 11 (tragic anniversaries=not fun; potty humor=fun).
The partners "take the work out of your fun" with a "turnkey fun infusion for your business." Services include everything from quick toy drops ("fun on the run") to staging Solid Gold danceoffs, paper airplane contests, silly-string wars, human roulette, 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. "He's the face of fun," says Jayla. "Or of mental illness," I helpfully add.
Dave later tells me that at AstraZeneca, the pharmaceutical company, the Fun Department has even taken over the company's seldom-used lactation room, dressed it up as a doctor'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 HR 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. I'm given a T-shirt--a medium instead of large, since the large is "boxy"--and I'm wearing it as I write. It's cutting off my circulation. But I'm told snug'n'sexy=fun.
The Funsters go through Dave's Fun Boot Camp, and memorize the Funster training manual, where they 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!'"
The zaniness works, says Jayla, because "We're not their bosses." Still, she says, "We're crazy people. [But] we're completely irreverent respectfully, within the constraints of all the HR rules, because there are HR rules. No touching. Anything you think might be offensive." Consequently, the Fun Department deliberates over what games to play.
They reluctantly okayed Balloon Choo Choo, a race where people press balloons between their bodies, then chug away, moving as a team without dropping any. "We thought long and hard about adding that to our repertoire," says Jayla. "Say the balloon drops and somebody bumps into each other from behind. . . . We test every game. We think carefully about what body parts are involved." If Funsters see anything inappropriate, "they have to fill out a form" that would say, for instance: "Matt dropped his balloon and Jayla bumped into him in a way that might be construed as inappropriate." That way, they can say, if a concerned client calls, "Yes, we did notice that, and wrote it down. It happened at 12:05 P.M., and we talked to Matt and Jayla about it and they were okay with it."
Putting on my skeptic's hat, perhaps having never taken it off, I tell Jayla that it's well and good to have fun, but surely everybody doesn't subscribe to their brand of it. My office, for instance, would be a very tough sell. She looks at me wearily. She's dealt with Doubting Thomases before. "We can [bring the fun] for you too. You crotchety old curmudgeons." I tell her I just don't see it, though I would pay to watch her bolster Fred Barnes's morale with finger puppets. She indicates Fred would be an immediate target. "That's our job. We engage them," she says, adding with icy, assassin-like resolve. "Fred's a fun-killer. Our job is to eliminate the fun-killers."
Early the next morning, the Funsters are giddy with anticipation in preparation 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 gathering place/gym, high-five-ing 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). Also, the Inc. magazine fun issue has just come out, and even though they're not in it, Jayla says they consider it a "validation of concept."
Afterwards, they shove off for nearby New Castle, Delaware, where they will bring the fun to HBCS, which stands for Hospital Billing & Collection Service. As a company that boasts of its value-added services utilizing advanced technology, whose experienced technical staff builds rugged interfaces that support financial efforts through the use of industry standards and web-based protocols, and who are proud as all get-out of their HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) compliance with government guidelines and requirements related to standard electronic transaction processes and integrity controls, they don't exactly scream: Barrel of Monkeys. But the Fun Department has come to do the company's second annual "playfair."
Housed in a nondescript brown-brick building, HBCS 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 to spy a look at their call center, where telephone operator after telephone operator sits 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 as if I'm a creature from another planet. 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 their building, there is lots 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. Matt Sanders, a manager, sits in his office, a mini-cowboy hat attached to a headband adorning his head. He has a helium tank on his desk, and is blowing up balloons that he then twists into hat shapes for coworkers. He says such displays let the employees see "our management group is actually human. They enjoy having fun. I think this day is actually critical. . . . Everybody's excited. People I never met before coming and saying, 'Hey Matt, I want a hat.'" For some reason, this makes me want to cry.
On the call floor, Brian Wasilewski, VP of operations, is crisply dressed, his plaid shorts and brown beach shirt looking as though they've been starched. He says though they've hired the Fun Department to fun up their company picnic, they try to keep it fun year round. How so, I ask. Well, he says, during National Healthcare Compliance Week, "We did Compliance Jeopardy. 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. But all the categories revolved around things like privacy information and patient claims. Says one VP of human resources: "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. Most head straight for the buffet line to feast on clams that are bound in mini-fishing nets, which seem to be secured with Gordian knots. When one Funster asks a large black woman how the food is, she says, "I'll let you know if I can ever get to it."
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 trinkets like finger puppets and wind-up toys. There are all sorts of relay games, like the aforementioned racy Balloon Choo Choo. I stand next to Mark Doughty, Lord of the Deal, watching the spectacle. He is wearing a referee's shirt, though he says, "I'm the referee just like in wrestling--the one who didn't see anything. It's not about playing by the rules. It's about them having fun."
As we watch a "Pass the Treasure Key" exercise, in which teams have to wrap yarn around their body parts, then string a key on it, passing the key all the way down the line in the fastest time, I ask Mark what the point of this is, expecting some sort of management parable. He thinks for a second, then says, "I got nuthin'. There's no lessons in this. If a moron asks you to tie yourself up with a rope and pass the key--don't do it." Unlike many other funsultants, to the Fun Department's credit, they go extremely light on the "OD," or organizational development--the cloying morals-of-the-story that usually follow such teambuilding exercises. They think it's much more important to have "fun for fun's sake."
One of the most popular funtivities involves a -manager's 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."
One half of the managerial team that wins is Paul -Kutney. I catch him cheating by flipping up his eye patch, and zero in on him afterwards to blackmail some truth out of him. I suggest to Kutney that what the American worker really wants, more than anything, is to see his boss get hit with something. "If I got hit," he says, "I know people would be out there cheering."
I ask him how he feels about companies formalizing fun. He sees the upside of it, he says. Out here, he's relaxed, he's in shorts, he's eating Italian ice. And in there? I ask. "I'm a prick," he says without pause. "I've got seven people that have to process 1.7 million claims a year. So I have to be a prick." There's not a lot of time for fun and games in his world. "You have to break up the monotony somewhat," he says. So how do you do that now? I ask. "In my group, we don't," he says. "There's only so many hours in a day, and we've got to get so much work done. So everybody has to keep their heads down, and keep going."
The culminating funtivity is a cash grab on a Twister-like mat between two people, in which 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 they 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 CFO is in a magnanimous mood, and lets everybody go home, though it's only 3 P.M. As a fun-killer, it'd bring me some pleasure to report 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 (though "a little beer wouldn't hurt nobody," one Sprite-sipping woman told me), but not that good.
Still, there was a refreshing lack of management parables, and the Funsters, purists to the last, really did seem to want to bring the fun for fun's sake. Fishing rubber duckies out of a baby pool isn't my idea of fun, but I learned something. Call it a management parable, if you will: If you treat people like they're six years old, eventually they'll start responding in kind.
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 TQM'ing 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.
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 emails, "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 anymore, he said. He had to go. Duty called: "I have an all-day meeting on metrics."
Matt Labash is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.