Monday, May 17, 2010

The Happy Worker

Another example comes from founder Katherine Hudson of the Brady Corporation who described her company’s introduction of a fun culture through her own experiences of how humour can alleviate bad spells of redundancies and changes implemented.

(Carolyn Hunter)

The Happy Worker Mask designed by the folks at comes with ‘3-step instructions for instant happiness’:
1. Cut along dotted line
2. For ear handles, punch 2 holes and thread rubber band through.
3. Put your Happy Worker mask on and be a happy worker!

Immediately, one is struck by how smart the concept is, how subtly it plays with notions of fulfilment and pleasure in the contemporary workplace, as well as with the mandatory enthusiasm that the professional world demands of most of us at all times. Wearing this mask can be a concise yet powerful statement, along the following lines: I am not happy here, and there is nothing I can do to change that, but I can pretend to be happy – indeed, it is expected of me. So I put on my happy face, but signal at the same time that it is just that: a mask. For this day only, it’s a literal mask, and who knows, underneath it I might allow myself to form a genuine smile; but that smile is not for you to see.

This is, or could be, a joke at the expense of the workplace, the boss, work itself; it is even possible to imagine scenarios in which the mask could be worn as an act of defiance. But it’s probably not the spirit in which it was conceived: if you visit the Happy Worker’s website you quickly realise that there is no explicit critical value in what they do, quite the opposite: everything – the ideas, the products, the services – is marketed to companies as adjunct, useful lubricant to the smooth working of the postmodern workplace: a workplace that is comfortable with the exploitation of labour, people and ideas; with chronic job insecurity: with the lack of prospects and chances of fulfilment. Above all, a workplace that is comfortable, very comfortable, with worker unhappiness, and has stopped pretending that it can be meaningfully alleviated, let alone put an end to. How else do you explain this little instant comic:

Before purchasing one of the company’s Office Toys and Amusements

…and after.

This time the joke is solely at the expense of the worker, whose attempts to ‘personalise’ his cubicle with a bunch of figurines and a smiley-face poster are as transparent as they are pathetic: a series of conformist gestures made to fill an empty space – between the daily grind and one’s hopes and ambitions – whose true gaping breadth would be far too painful to acknowledge.

Yet there is naturally a lot of money to be made by catering to these gestures. Not all of the action figures for the modern cubicle are as clever and delicious to deconstruct as the Happy Worker’s, but if the proliferation of dedicated websites is any indication, they sell quite well. So much so that I wonder if it’s time that we talked more often about an infantilisation of work – rather than just its feminisation – and from a more critical perspective than in the study of business practices alone. In other words, not in terms of whether it’s effective and can make a company more profitable, but rather of what it says about the dominant conceptions of work and society. And here I should declare right away that I don’t regard this infantilisation as a sign that work practices are necessarily being dumbed down, as some critics would have it. There is nothing inherently dumb about the role-playing that goes on in team-building exercises – or at least not dumber than more traditional forms of corporate induction – and you can pack quite a bit of meaning into some of those plastic figurines. I’m more concerned about what the conflation of play and work says about agency and control. Children may live wonderfully creative and imaginative lives, but they rarely seize control or are put in charge of things; their naïve wisdom may be quite effective at exposing the contradictions of the adult world, but we’re still the ones who tell them when it’s time to go to bed. An infantilised workforce doesn’t organise; it is innovative and full of ideas, but incapable of articulating demands or staging an effective rebellion.

An infantilised workforce is also easily placated: with sweets, the odd unscheduled recreational moment and, above all, toys. Don’t think action figures: think gadgets; think the company iPad or iPhone; think the multimedia entertainment that can be packed into your average work commute. And think of where these electronic toys are made, and by whom.

At the same time as the adult Western workforce in the services sector is infantilised, the not yet or barely adult workforce in the rest of the world is made to work the night shift, way past their bedtime. The image above is of operators falling asleep on the job at the KYE systems factory of Dongguan, China, in a unit dedicated to the manufacturing of Microsoft computer accessories.
The mostly female workers, aged 18 to 25, work from 7.45am to 10.55pm, sometimes with 1,000 workers crammed into one 105ft by 105ft room.

They are not allowed to talk or listen to music, are forced to eat substandard meals from the factory cafeterias, have no bathroom breaks during their shifts and must clean the toilets as discipline, according to the [National Labour Committee].

The workers also sleep on site, in factory dormitories, with 14 workers to a room.

They must buy their own mattresses and bedding, or else sleep on 28in-wide plywood boards. They 'shower' with a sponge and a bucket.

And many of the workers, because they are young women, are regularly sexually harassed, the NLC claimed.

The organisation said that one worker was even fined for losing his finger while operating a hole punch press.

This is not the life of children. There is no pretence that these workers could be regaled with happy masks or figurines, and besides assembly line work doesn’t lend itself to being infantilised. On the contrary, think about it: the dormitory, the discipline, the toilet-cleaning, the harassment – the overt model here is army life, the very thing that was once supposed to ‘make a man out of you’. Different social and labour conditions, as well as different levels of assimilation of the principles of capitalism, demand different instruments of control.

So on the one hand, as we have seen, there is the displacement of work: the artful concealment of the toil that goes into making the things that we use, with the added political benefit of Western resentment towards Asians who steal our manufacturing jobs, as opposed to the Western companies that ship them there, and elsewhere. (It wouldn’t surprise you to learn that Happy Worker's figures are made in China, now, would it? A quick look at the travels of Geekman will confirm this hunch.) And on the other hand, back home, there is the equally as artful dissimulation, the pretence that work isn’t work: it’s play, it’s socialising, it’s fun: it blends with your free time, thanks in no small part to the constant humming of electronic gadgets, which are the soundtrack to both.

It is at this time that you look again at the Happy Worker Mask, and realise that it’s like the grin of the Cheshire Cat: just hovering there, the last thing that you see of the worker in the act of disappearing. There, he is gone now, but he looked so very happy.

The quote at the top of the post comes from Carolyn Hunter's Infantilising Work - Play and Humour in 'Fun' Organisations