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


Unknown said...

Never a frown with golden brown.
The Stranglers.
(Your post has stimulated so many thoughts not the least as i stare at my bare bare office room).

stephen said...

This reminds me of Norman Solomon's criticism of Dilbert.

From his book: "The Dilbert phenomenon is part of a process making people more accustomed to a stance of ironic passivity."

I’m more concerned about what the conflation of play and work says about agency and control.

I once had an American manager who complained that he couldn't understand what was wrong with his New Zealand employees: half of them seemed to regard their jobs as just a way to fund their hobbies. Over the 10 years since I heard that, I wonder if that proportion has diminished. But anyway, of course since the ideal employee's life is centred around their work and their company, the company wants to take over their inner life as well as control their external behaviour.

Read after your post, the travels of Geekman are horrible in their blithe indifference.

Unknown said...

I had an American project manager who started to say the same thing to me about Kiwi's...I left that newly American owned company that very day.

Giovanni Tiso said...

half of them seemed to regard their jobs as just a way to fund their hobbies

This has come up before, isn't it? That New Zealanders aren't driven enough to make money, to find perfect, self-contained fulfilment in work and the creation of wealth?

The American corporate culture that you and Merc describe was just making its first appearances during my very brief working stint between the civil service and coming over to New Zealand, and I remember finding utterly baffling, along with my co-workers. It seemed to spread from the call-centres somehow - Paolo Virzì's recent Paolo Virzì's recent film Her Whole Life Ahead does a reasonably good job of exposing that.

Unknown said...

It's funny you mention call centres because the other day I had a surreal confrontation with one regarding why the other human on the line was treating me like some kind of security terrorist (yeah that word)...I ended up by saying in all human tones...look I just want to give you some money OK?
I was reminded just today of the great film The Lives Of Others.
If at first we want to de-humanise we cease questioning our feelings.

Unknown said...

Giovanni Tiso said...

I plan to talk about The Lives of Others and The Conversation soon. (So, maybe before the end of the year, at my rate.) The latter in particular is one of my favourite films.

stephen said...

Call centres, eh?

"This week a former TelstraClear call centre worker, who requested anonymity, said customers often abused staff or cried into the phone.

In a bid to lighten the stressful, high-pressure days, managers initiated activities with staff which involved competitions and playing games.

"I think they were trying to have some time off the phones and something less stressful to do. It would be completely bizarre ... you can see they were trying to find some way to create a positive atmosphere but it wasn't really sensible, it was really childish."

My bolding.

Giovanni Tiso said...

On that note: How Google keeps employees by treating them like kids, by Aaron Swartz.

Unknown said...

The ego keeps its integrity only if it does not identify with one of the opposites, and if it understands how to hold the balance between them. This is possible only if it remains conscious of both at once. However, the necessary insight is made exceedingly difficult not by one's social and political leaders alone, but also by one's religious mentors. They all want decision in favour of one thing, and therefore the utter identification of the individual with a necessarily one-sided "truth." Even if it were a question of some great truth, identification with it would still be a catastrophe, as it arrests all further spiritual development.["On the Nature of the Psyche," CW 8, par. 425.]
Carl Jung

It is in us to initially resist individuation as it usually entails a confrontation with our darker nature.

Unknown said...

er that would be...identification.

Giovanni Tiso said...

You could make the case the in the West we've idenfitied pretty well with the ethos of capital and commerce, no? And that's where Stephen's earlier point about ironic passivity - a device that allows to create a perception of distance, as if the identification was less than complete - comes in.

Mark Fisher covers this ground very compellingly in chapter 2 of Capitalist Realism, making points that I was initially planning to raise in the post. Money quotes:

"Far from undermining capitalist realism, this gestural anti-capitalism actually reinforces it" (p. 12).

And, via Žižek: "Cynical distance is just one way ... to blind ourselves to the structural power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them" (p. 13).

Further to Stephen's mention of Dilbert, he's also provided links to this great cartoon by Tom Tomorrow and an interview with the same which belong with the post so there the links are.

Unknown said...

They be playing with our notions of reciprocity but we be playing with our notions of individualism...

Individualism means deliberately stressing and giving prominence to some supposed peculiarity rather than to collective considerations and obligations. But individuation means precisely the better and more complete fulfilment of the collective qualities of the human being, since adequate consideration of the peculiarity of the individual is more conducive to a better social performance than when the peculiarity is neglected or suppressed. . . . . Since the universal factors always appear only in individual form, a full consideration of them will also produce an individual effect, and one which cannot be surpassed by anything else, least of all by individualism.["The Function of the Unconscious," CW 7, pars. 267f.] Jung

Unknown said...

Before i get all lofty air heady...and at the risk of tangenting...

wv; mushe, hell yeah I AM

che tibby said...

this keeps me sane.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I am going to have to take strong exception to that one. I believe the goal of a just society to be the promotion and protection of the right to work, and for that work to be consistent with the capacity and ambitions of each*. I refuse to think that my work or anybody else's is something we are lucky to have.

(*Unless for some reason one day we decided that we all wanted to be dentists.)

Individualism means deliberately stressing and giving prominence to some supposed peculiarity rather than to collective considerations and obligations...

Now imagine you were saying that wearing a Happy Worker mask.

Unknown said...

I am saying it out loud right now in my bear suit.
Disclaimer, I have the best employers anyone could ever wish for, it's true. I drop in on other companies meetings just to keep my paw in...

preever, waaay before time.

che tibby said...

i can see my attempt to expose "a series of conformist gestures made to fill an empty space – between the daily grind and one’s hopes and ambitions" didn't fly too well.

wv. eyeroph. the knotty bit in the corner that stops them popping out.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I thought you were making the not entirely unreasonable point that the employees of your average downtown Wellington office fare a little better than those of, say, the KYE factory in Dongguan, and that at the end of the day "soul crushing" still beats "actually crushing".

Keri H said...

I've worked in field jobs (tobacco picking - back in the 1960s, where there was no work-accident compensation (I still have a damaged right thumbnail that got caught in a leaf-chain) or any kind of pay parity (females received less than half male wages while doing identical work) and factory jobs (woollen-mills, carpet mills) and the general atmosphere in both set-ups was trust your mates & hate your was difficult in the tobacco fields (because the employers were friendly fellow-humans and the fucking union man hated women) and great in the carpet/woollen mills -because the union was really strong & you never actually met the bosses...
this was in the Dark Ages.
I'm hopeful they dont exist now-

che tibby said...

"I thought you were making the not entirely unreasonable point that..."

maybe not. i'm down with the idea that work should be more than a soul-destroying exercise, but of all the many jobs i've had over the years absolutely none has been able to replace not-work as enjoyment.

consequently the workplace, somewhere i spent over a third of my life is something i do because the alternative - welfare dependency and poverty - is not.

so... i'm right there with all the other kiwis and their hobbies, but differ in that i see my main mission as covertly improving the lives of my colleagues.

mostly by not being a douche.

bob roberts said...

It may not have much bearing on your excellent column, but what you've written has reminded of something I've noticed recently: the way that more and more of our non-work life occupies our work time, due to technology. If you were desk-bound 20 years ago, before texting, before email, before the internet, there was little you could do in your work space that was not work. (Reading the paper? Everyone would notice.) But those readers who work in offices and cubicles will know how many personal emails they get during the day, how much time they spend on Trade Me or Facebook or reading blogs, how many texts they send and reply to, how they spend their days flicking between work and non-work, their work email accout and their gmail. Just as the traditional structure of the working day has changed or disappeared in most non-manual work -- where I work, no one takes lunch breaks, they eat at their desks as they surf the net -- so has the way much work time has spent changed. We deplore the way that phone and internet technology allows work to invade our non-work life but we rarely talk about how non-work appears in our work life.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Was it William Gibson who wrote something to the effect that “the Internet takes time away from work – and that’s great”? I agree that it’s in some ways a positive development, and Web surfing or participating in a discussion forum beats staring at your cubicle wall, which would have been the chief pre-Internet equivalent. But I’m also interested in how this non-work has come to resemble work. Gesturally it’s in fact mostly identical, which is why it’s so easy to conceal it on the job as you note. And I’ve observed in the past how more and more often videogames are actually structured like work. Either way – whether it’s your work that resembles play or your play that resembles work – it’s creating this demand to always be on, as it were, and to be efficient about what you do. Even while you watch television now you can skip the ads at will. And I agree, they were a nuisance, but they were also breaks. Does anybody take breaks anymore?

Unknown said...

Hell yeah ;-)

Giovanni Tiso said...

Don't make me take up surfing, because I will!

Unknown said...

Surf is life.

Unknown said...

Take a break and read this dirge perhaps

Giovanni Tiso said...

Ah, yes. An old favourite.

Unknown said...

And now thanks to the wonders of the interdoink and ma bosses generosity, is this modern sea lovin' version for your break Budget 2010.

Anonymous said...

Just want to say, after another hard week in a toxic working environment, it was a real pleasure to read this thread.

My manager is a hard core Dilbert fan: a couple of years ago, when I showed him my doctor's prescription for two weeks' stress leave, he responded by showing me the latest Dilbert cartoon on his calendar! Puzzled at this, I looked up Dilbert on the Internet and found an interview with Norman Solomon, outlining his criticisms of the Dilbert cartoons. Suddenly it all became clear. Nothing will change. My manager has survived 30-odd years in the job by adopting a stance of ironic passivity, and he was inviting me to do likewise. I will not. I hang on because I'm only a few years away from retirement and I know the work I do makes a contribution. It's enormously encouraging to read your critiques of the changing nature of work. And Tom Tomorrow rocks!

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you, it's very kind of you to say that.

Unknown said...

That's one of the most fab comments ever I have read on the interdoink, or anywhere really.

Megan Clayton said...

Following this meeting we will be
in the consultation period.

It is important to note that no
final decision will have been made

by the employer at this stage.
The employer has a legal obligation

through our collective agreements
to consult with employees and their

representatives over any changes
which may affect staffing levels or

work practices. This includes
providing sufficient information

and time to adequately respond to
the change proposal. The amount of

time required for consultation will
depend on a number of factors: size

and complexity of the changes
proposed; the number of external

and internal stakeholder groups
which need may need to be

consulted; the timing of the change
proposal (e.g. over Christmas or at

peak times of the calendar);
and the number of other change

proposals also under consultation.
The change proposal document will

include a timeline which shows
length of consultation and when a

final decision will be announced.

Megan Clayton said...

The original text from which the above was purloined was written by a colleague of mine.

Giovanni Tiso said...

It's a whole other thing in couplets, though, and the last line is quite brilliant.

You keep us up to date and if we need to storm the castle just say the word, okay? I have a battering ram in the shed which is just gathering dust at the moment.

Anonymous said...

I know this article was written months ago, but I just discovered it and felt compelled to comment. I just got home from a shift at my part-time job (which conveniently takes up just enough hours in the week to not technically, legally speaking, be a full-time job) at a certain department store. All the managers treat us "sales associates" like children. They wear happy-smiley faces and speak in the sorts of tones I don't recall hearing since elementary school. They bribe us with store money (i.e. coupons) for urging customers to sign up for store credit cards. And they expect even part-time workers like myself (most of whom have other, full-time jobs) to live and breathe the company. To practice sales pitches on our off-hours.

The thing is, I can't get too mad at the managers because they've got managers of their own breathing down their necks, plus their "offices" consist of tiny, cluttered desks in dark storage closets. And the managers have managers have managers, everybody up the chain struggling to put on a happy face and move merchandise so they can keep their jobs for another day.

Ugh. Sorry for the novel. It's just that your post (and its comments) makes me feel at once vindicated and even more helpless, because frankly, ironic passivity was all I had. What can you do when you really need the money?

Giovanni Tiso said...

*Many* thanks for that. This I think cannot be stressed enough:

The thing is, I can't get too mad at the managers because they've got managers of their own breathing down their necks, plus their "offices" consist of tiny, cluttered desks in dark storage closets.

It was especially evident in the first job I had in New Zealand that our "team leader" was in fact being exploited far more than we were, and for very little more pay. And then of course beyond that ownership and the shareholders can be rather nebulous figures.

Anonymous said...

The PDF of Carolyn Hunter paper no longer works. Do you have another link to the paper?

Giovanni Tiso said...

Yes, it would appear that it's gone. I do have a copy though so drop me a line if you need it.