FUNGINEERING: the felt necessity on the part of management to create a pleasant atmosphere in the workplace


I listened to a very interesting interview on Boston Public Radio in which Jim and Margery (the hosts) were talking with a professor from Harvard about the changing character of the workplace.   The point around which they were surrounded was the issue of whether a company has a right to insist that its employees be happy.   Is the smile (forced or real) able to be a requirement of employment?   Several people called in to tell stories of having been “let go” when it appeared to someone in management that they weren’t contributing to the “fun” of working there.

The professor used a term I had never heard before.  Fungineering.  If you need to wrap your head around that word, just think of the clips you have seen of Facebook, Twitter, and Apple where we see employees playing basketball, working out in a provided health club, or having contests during the work day.  The concept is that people who enjoy themselves in the work place will be more creative, more enthusiastic, and more devoted to the cause.

There are other applications of the word, as in a supposed field of study in which people explore alternative methods of creating pleasure, and in which “game theory” dominates over science and management methodology.

But in the workplace, as in creative think-tank kinds of places, a high level of credibility may be placed upon the belief that people who are having fun in the workplace are more productive.  Not everyone agrees.

Stowe Boyd,who describes himself as a curmudgeon when it comes to the field of progressive engineering, has this to say about fungineering:

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. “

It’s a good thought, making the point that people contribute to the value of a project in a variety of ways.   Some may do it with great flourish, others with determined attention to details.  I watch a friend preparing a lifetime dream of an illuminated manuscript.   His attention to detail is not something that he does with a big smile on his face.  Rather, he is intense, aware of the importance of his accuracy in plotting out the illluminations that will eventually frame the text.

His contribution is not something that necessarily inspires, or is inspired by, fun.  To the contrary, I am filled with great anxiety when I watch over his shoulder.   My whole body tenses up and a smile would be the last thing to demonstrate my interest in his work.  His contribution is priceless, yet his engagement is not something to be celebrated with a mug of beer or a night at the movies.   He must go to bed with a sense of accomplishment every day, knowing that it will be a year or more before he has finished his designs to the degree that they are applicable to the text.

Another friend, however, is a tattoo artist.   His work is above and beyond the kinds of tattoo illustration one sees on a daily basis.   His work demonstrates creativity and a flourish that excites those of us who watch over his shoulder.  There are lots of smiles, including his when he hits upon something that is really, really good.

The point is that both men are engaged in works of art that have meaning and will be celebrated by sponsors.   They are not appreciated because of their smiles or lack of smiles.   It is their art which is to be celebrated.

There is nothing wrong with fun.  Happiness is to be celebrated and encouraged.  But when it is tied to the requirements of employment, fun stands the chance of diminishing in value.   The fear that an employee is not exhibiting enough pleasure in her work is an artificial standard imposed upon an important life function.

Fungineering may have its place in the world of enterprise.   But it is also too easily confused with visible pleasure in one’s work.   Smiles are just what they are:  smiles.   Pleasure and accomplishment are demonstrated in a variety of ways by a variety of employees.


Image Credit: ICS

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