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Playing around at the office

The work/play relationship is being encouraged as a way to improve the creative performance of staff - but does it work?

A recent study suggests that the proliferation of gossip is the basis of good office relations and that 'duvet days' (spontaneous days off to stay-in-bed with no good reason) are as good for the employer as the employee. Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, says that 'people should take breaks when they need them, not just when everyone else does'.

These issues were addressed at a recent debate entitled, 'Do we need a Play Ethic?' at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts. The eager audience was composed of super-sporty, twenty-something dot-commers, market-orientated culturati. And me.

From the platform, an inaudible but voluble Pat Kane (once singer for pop band Hue and Cry and now cultural commentator), appealed to UK plc to stop stressful situations and instead to allow adults to 'tap into the child within'. Then, a clear-voiced and succinct Angela McRobbie, professor of communications at Goldsmiths', celebrated the audience as artists. For McRobbie, the dotcom-based BBC2 soap Attachments confirms that entrepreneurial artists - having chosen work that is happy, fun and its own reward - are rolemodels for everyone now.

Corporate golf At least McRobbie noted that the promise of independence and play in small dot-com or cultural workplaces is vitiated by Britain's lack of suitable, adequate and inexpensive office property. But for Kane utopia is right around the block. Work should be play, because play is culture, culture is networking, networking is freedom and freedom is the best condition for working in.

In fact, in his appeal to corporations to relegitimise themselves by allowing today's 'lifestyle militants' to play, Kane pushes at an open door.

Take golf. In both the US and the EU, more and more mini-golf courses are being installed in large office premises - particularly among IT firms, where programmers would rather be seen dead than be caught without a four iron. Management buffs insist that, whatever industry they are in, chief executive officers have much to learn from Tiger Woods. Then there was the World Office Golf Olympics, in which contestants showed how to raise employee morale and motivation by hitting balls into lifts.

How has this acceptance of play at work happened? The story goes that full employment has made workers stronger in the employer/employee relationship. Just as they can demand time off to be good fathers, so they can demand that work be fun and games. Play is identified with creativity, and creativity - as chancellor Gordon Brown told the world just before the fuel crisis - 'is going to be of increasing importance in the twenty-first century when raw materials can be bought from anywhere at any time and economic prosperity depends on ideas, skill and offering what is distinctive'.

But, as McRobbie observed, even workers in the cutest, most playful little 'independent' offices celebrated by New Labour theorists are usually tied into subcontracts that are, in fact, highly dependent on large corporations. More importantly, play is not the same thing as creativity.

Team players Real creativity in business, as in the arts, is hard work.Moreover, real creativity involves not just fun but - as is the case in most games - stress, tension and conflict. One of the leitmotifs of the play ethic at work is the conceit that, through play, the faction-ridden workplaces of today can be transformed into 'win-win' situations. This is quite ridiculous.

However, the hype is easily and gratefully believed. Who, confronted with today's boring office jobs, would not want to 'pretend you're a kid again', as Gary Hamel, the thinking man's management guru, has put it?

Who would not want to work for MIT's Media Lab, where the philosophy with new, toy-like prototypes is 'demo or die': rehearse with them, perform with them, improvise around them? And who would ever want to be a spoil sport when Jeremy Rifkin, the man who once prophesied the end of work, now eulogises play as accepting, generous, joyful and a reaffirmation of the life instinct?

Yet for architects, as part of 'Creative Britain', to join this search for the child within would be to indulge the infantile, the spurious and, ultimately, the superstitious.

Play does not 'unleash' creativity at work. Creativity is not a puppy dog. Architects and business need to grow out of today's fad for play and do some work!

As the Dutch sociologist Johan Huizinga observed more than 60 years ago, a play 'community' generally tends to become permanent even after play has finished. In turning work into play, work/play advocates want us to strive for cohesion with our team-mates not just in the office, but in the locker-room, the pub and beyond.

That is not play; that is insidious social policy. Game over.

James Woudhuysen is director of Seymour Powell Forecasting and professor of innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester

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