The futility of ‘Fungineering’

The paradox of pleasure is that it must ensue from other activities, and not from direct pursuit, as Victor Frankl said.

Reading a great piece about the pros and cons of ‘fungineering’ in the workplace by Oliver Burkeman, I discovered some useful links and a wry sense of humor:

Countless self-help bloggers offer tips for generating cheer among the cubicles (“Buy donuts for everyone”; “Hang movie posters on your walls, with employees’ faces replacing those of the real movie stars”). It’s all shudderingly reminiscent of David Brent, Ricky Gervais’s wince-inducing character from the British version of “The Office”; or of the owner of the nuclear power plant in “The Simpsons” who considers distracting attention from the risk of lethal meltdowns by holding Funny Hat Days.

Lest my curmudgeonliness be mistaken for misanthropy, let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with happiness at work. Enjoyable jobs are surely preferable to boring or unpleasant ones; moreover, studies suggest that happy employees are more productive ones. But it doesn’t follow that the path to this desirable state of affairs is through deliberate efforts, on the part of managers, to try to generate fun. Indeed, there’s evidence that this approach — which has been labeled, suitably appallingly, “fungineering” — might have precisely the opposite effect, making people miserable and thus reaffirming one of the oldest observations about happiness: When you try too hard to obtain it, you’re almost guaranteed to fail.

A study by management experts at Penn State and other universities, published last month, found that while “fun” activities imposed by bosses might slow employee turnover, they can damage overall productivity. Another concluded that the fashionable tactic of “gamification” — turning work tasks into games, with scores and prizes — reduced the productivity and job satisfaction of those workers who didn’t approve the notion.

Worse still, the pressure to maintain a cheery facade in such workplaces can be stressful and exhausting in itself, a form of what the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild called “emotional labor.” In a 2011 study of workers at an Australian call center, where bosses championed the “3 Fs” (focus, fun and fulfillment), researchers found that many experienced the party atmosphere as a burden, not a boon. Pret a Manger, the British sandwich chain with branches in America, reportedly sends mystery shoppers to its cafes, withholding bonuses from insufficiently exuberant teams.

The ‘reportedly’ link above is to Paul Myerscough’s Short Cuts review (read my comments here), which is an indictment of Orwellian totalitarian be-happy-at-work-or-else at Pret-a-Manger.

Another study concluded that the fashionable tactic of “gamification” — turning work tasks into games, with scores and prizes — reduced the productivity and job satisfaction of those workers who didn’t approve the notion.

Returning to Burkeman, what does he suggest as the right plan of attack for business?

Instead of striving to make work fun, managers should concentrate on creating the conditions in which a variety of personality types, from the excitable to the naturally downbeat, can flourish. That means giving employees as much autonomy as possible, and ensuring that people are treated evenhandedly.

Pleasure is elusive, at work and outside of it. The paradox of pleasure is that it must ensue from other activities, and not from direct pursuit, as Victor Frankl said. Happiness arises from our investment of self in something greater than self. An emergent property, like order arising from apparent chaos in living systems, an exaptation: for certainly, those who approach their work with only the goal of self-satisfaction are unlikely to become happy, or produce great work.

The miscast ‘pursuit of happiness’, then, must be manifested in our work lives as arising from engagement in our own work, and its consequence, its meaning. From this we miraculously can find happiness, but only out of the corner of our eyes, when it isn’t what we are looking for, at all.

Originally published at stoweboyd.com 12 December 2013.

Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

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