I’ve got this possibly slight mad theory about boring things, specifically that it’s useful in life to learn how to embrace them; eating bananas for breakfast, for example, is boring as hell, but undoubtedly good for you, and going jogging is one of the most tedious things you can do with your time, but nevertheless leaves you feeling nicely healthy and smug. And in relation to work, you will always be faced with tasks that bore the hell out of you, but which you have no choice whatsoever whether to do them or not.
Which, combined with something to do with a slightly irrational ex-girlfriend and an unfortunate misunderstanding about money, goes some way towards explaining why for the moment I have ended up teaching Business English. Not something I’m proud of, inevitably, particularly when I read something like this, which makes me wonder how, in the admittedly unlikely event of eventually having to explain what I’ve done with my life to some sort of omniscient being, I will defend myself from accusations of totally wasting my life.
So, I spend all my working hours visiting companies and talking to people about their jobs. Which, although it often pushes my boredom tolerance to the limit, gives me some ideas about the way that people are expected to work these days, particularly in large multinational companies. And it’s a truism to say that people are generally stressed and feel that they have too much to do.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that there are two basic kinds of jobs. One is typified by working on a checkout in a supermarket, behind the counter or in the kitchen of a food or drink chain or in any kind of warehouse or factory environment. Inevitably it is monotonous and poorly-rewarded, has no social status whatsoever, and consists in doing exactly what you are told in return for a generally diminishing hourly wage. Nobody can make jobs like this seem exciting or life-enhancing, and on the whole I think companies have given up trying to do so.
Of course this is not the kind of work that I spend most of my time talking about. The other kind of job is one where people are given are given a certain amount of autonomy and control about how they divide up their time; they are expected to have a detailed understanding of the problems they encounter within their sphere of responsibilities and to spend a lot of their time thinking up creative ‘solutions’. In return for this they receive higher financial rewards and a relatively high level of social status. The structure of their jobs is not about the amount of hours that they spend at work, but how they deal with the range of tasks that they are given. Because their work involves a certain amount of creativity, people often see these jobs as means of achieving some measure of personal fulfillment as it allows them to adopt company challenges as personal ones. Which is why so many people all over the world will do anything to get into these positions, efforts exemplified by graduates who are prepared to work for a year or so for free in order to get their foot in the door.
As I say, the first type of work is clearly being downgraded, while in the second case companies are increasingly keen to make their employees feel an important part of their collective project. Which is one of the reasons why they are keen to furnish them with all manner of convenient devices like Blackberry mobile phones and the like.
It is flattering to think that your particular talents are so important to a company that you must be connected at all times. But the real point I want to make is that the impression I get when visiting people and talking to them in detail about their jobs is that what is happening is that, through the use of mobile devices and the active promotion of a working lifestyle which is based around tasks and not time, the division between work and free time is steadily and deliberately being eroded.
Take the example of a business traveler. When he or she is not asleep in the hotel, every single waking moment is company time. And the nature of so many jobs is such that, whether or not travel is a major part of the job, people feel that thinking about work is a responsibility which accompanies them wherever they go. Being ’empowered’ to do your job in airports, hotels and from home implies not having much of an alternative to seeing yourself as always in the office, and being connected to your workplace via a sexy wireless device can feel like being chained to your desk.
Many companies are increasingly conscious of the pressures staff feel and the potential bitter reaction or burnout that can ensue, which is why they are keen to make them feel that paid work is a source of ultimate personal fulfillment and that the office is a fun place to be. Hence, of course, all the pizzas and paint-balling and so on.
Former-pop-star-turned-intellectual Pat Kane wrote brilliantly about the current work climate in the Observer:
This we know: we’re stressed-out, debt-ridden, exhausted. We have less time for our families than we feel we should have. We take fewer pleasures from our entertainments and consumptions than we expected to take. We feel less connected to our communities than we ever did. In our workplaces, we subject ourselves to routines and duties which at best seem pointless, at worst unethical or immoral. Yet we also feel like hollow citizens, too weary to respond to any political entreaty with anything other than a shrug. In short, we are workers.
And then went on to explain his concept of The Play Ethic:
Welcome to the play ethic. First of all, don’t take ‘play’ to mean anything idle, wasteful or frivolous. The trivialisation of play was the work ethic’s most lasting, and most regrettable achievement. This is ‘play’ as the great philosophers understood it: the experience of being an active, creative and fully autonomous person.
The play ethic is about having the confidence to be spontaneous, creative and empathetic across every area of you life – in relationships, in the community, in your cultural life, as well as paid employment. It’s about placing yourself, your passions and enthusiasms at the centre of your world.
By clearing space for activities that are pleasurable, voluntary and imaginative – that is, for play – you’ll have better memory, sharper reasoning and more optimism about the future. As Brian Sutton-Smith, the dean of Play Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, says, ‘The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression. To play is to act out and be wilful, exultant and committed, as if one is assured of one’s prospects.’
So to call yourself a ‘player’, rather than a ‘worker’, is to immediately widen your conception of who you are and what you might be capable of doing. It is to dedicate yourself to realising your full human potential; to be active, not passive.
The play ethic is what happens when the values of play become the foundation of a whole way of life. It turns us into more militant producers and more discriminating consumers. It causes us to re-prioritise the affairs of our hearts, to upgrade the quality of our emotional and social relationships. It makes us more activist in our politics, but less traditional in their expression. And most of all, the play ethic forces us to think deeply about how we should pursue our pleasures – and how we reconcile that with our social duties.
In addition to writing a very positively reviewed book, his consultancy offers itself to organisations like the Prime Minister’s Office and companies such as Bartle Bogle Hegarty to give what they call ‘playshops’ in which they promote the idea that play is fundamental to both society and the individual, and that ‘the work ethic that has dominated the last three centuries is ill-equipped to deal with’ the way we live and work today. As one detailed review of the book says:
Play has since been viewed as antithetical to the rational and efficient management and control of organisations. Under the forms of mass-production that the ideas of Taylor and the practices of Ford made possible the role of play was variously seen as something that might well be good for working people to engage in, but ‘in their own time’. Playing in the works time was seen as subversive, as wrong, as resistance to the natural order, as misbehaviour, by both sides of the labour process.
The idea, then, is to encourage companies and organizations to realise the ‘interdependence of play, purpose and profit’ and to incorporate ‘play’ in their working processes. An extended but enlightening example of what this might mean is given in the same review:
An excellent example can be gained by viewing a television documentary series called Slave Nation, made by Darcus Howe and shown on Channel 4 in the UK in 2000. In one episode, Howe spends time in a call-centre in Derby, the home of the online bank egg:¦. What follows is a brief description of the opening scenes.
In a building that resembles a warehouse or a factory hundreds of people are gathered into several collective ‘work’ stations, i.e. a number of desks, with computer terminals and tables and chairs, there are also a number of pool tables and table football games in the spaces between. Around the walls of this vast warehouse- like building, are posted league tables, the teams have names that represent sports teams e.g. Team Juventus head the league. There are posters containing figures and statistics, the posters are big they need to enable people from across the floor to see them and see if their team is climbing the league.
The ‘work’ stations themselves appear bedecked in balloons and various brightly coloured posters. The people themselves are dressed casually some in jeans and poloshirts (not a suit in sight), some are in fancy dress, many are wearing funny hats.
‘The places we work in are kitted out with designated chill out areas. So if you need to get away from the grindstone, there’s always somewhere to go and sit. You can even take in a game of pool or table football. On top of that, we have a relaxed, informal dress code – we want to get to get to work feeling comfortable.’ (An employee)
This is the home, or workplace of ‘egg-people’, a term used by staff to describe themselves. Some are ‘egg-couples’, that is ‘egg-people’ who are in a relationship where both work for egg:¦. They spend their days at the call-centre and their evenings at the nearby sports centre, playing football for an ‘egg-team’, or running as members of the egg: running club. Monday to Friday, they spend their time as ‘egg-people’: most hours in a day are spent together, ‘working hard, playing hard’, as they like to put it.
While at work during the day they may be in competition with each other, as members of different teams within the call centre striving to win the monthly sales league (as members of Team Juventus, for example), simultaneously they may be competing against each other at pool or table football, again representing their team, as the company web site states: “You see, it’s not all about work, there’s lots of opportunity to relax as well. So when you start, you’re almost bound to find the kind of fun you like.”
Perhaps a little bit…wacky, no? And if someone, God forbid, doesn’t like football, sees their relationship as nothing to do with the company, or basically does not want to regard themselves as an egg, they might just prefer to have a…job.
Another example they give is nothing to do with the Play Ethic people, but an organisation called the Xplicit Porn School:
We finally offer what might be seen as our most extreme example. In the UK Sunday Times ‘Style’ supplement of 9th January, 2005 was an article entitled, ‘Xplicit Executive Relief’. This article reported on a new team building exercise that involves a team of colleagues working together to produce a pornographic movie scene. The consultancy, a partnership between Impetus Training and The Xplicit Porn School charges corporations up to £5,000 per day, for this the clients are provided with actors and equipment. The ideas and directions come from the individual team members, aided by the consultants.
It’s…difficult for me to see the people I go and teach around Madrid going for that kind of thing. But as they say, it is an extreme example.
All the theory behind this is undoubtedly very interesting and it does offer a useful means of thinking hard about what we mean by work and how it is changing. However, anybody who has worked in an environment like the one at Egg will acknowledge that such a workplace is profoundly irritating to have to spend every day in.
But my problem is not really with the forced and wacky way in which any of these laudable suggestions will inevitably be enacted in actual workplaces. My problem, like I said, is about the disappearing division between work and free time.
The impression that I get is not that people want their work to be more fun. It is simply that they want to work less. And regardless of whatever initiatives companies introduce to make their workers feel part of a team or to encourage them to kick balloons around the office when they’re not too busy or to share pizzas and beer after the working day has finished, the fact remains that the aim of the company is to get their workers to work as hard as possible as much of their time as possible for as little financial reward as possible.
On the metro the other day I saw a woman with a bag from a mobile phone company which said that it offered telephone and Internet ‘solutions’ for you and for ‘your company’. Which left me thinking that we are, in the way that we think about our relationship with our employers, overlooking something very important. Namely, that for all the time and effort that you put in, for all the hours that you lie awake worrying about problems at work, the company that you work for is not yours, it is theirs. And the moment that you walk out of the office at the end of the working day, the time before you is not included in the deal you have made with your employer; it belongs exclusively to you.