Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Working FUNdamentals

The Working FUNdamentals

The concept of fun is nothing new. The notion of fun has been discussed widely within computer gaming and HCI/CHI and is one of the key concerns of many designers and software engineers.

I consider things from a slightly different perspective. Work and fun should be compatible and encouraged. I would argue that the workplace has become sterile and a place devoid of emotion in which employees mimic computer programmes and success judged through spurious targets, processes and procedures not the effectiveness of a working team.

I have been fortunate to work in many places and found the workplaces very different. In some places, the building itself encourages work, through light and space and the ability for people to interact informally. Others discourage work, and creativity, through poor offices, cramped workspaces, poor lighting, little or no privacy and discouraging informal interactions. I recall one place I worked where they encouraged and were to make mandatory “hotdesking” which is where you come into the office and take the first available desk to sit and work at. This is, of course, very impersonal and very poor for staff morale amongst other things.

When all my places of work are broken down, the quality that distinguishes the good from the bad is the environment and whether I had fun. How much fun was it coming to work? Was the work actually fun? Was fun encouraged or discouraged?

Watching an obituary to Steve Jobs on the TV made me realise that for all the hype about how he changed computing, what he did do was add fun. He thought about ‘form over function’ and somehow fun was part of the design process.

In the design of new technology for people, is often easy to determine what a person needs on a higher rational level, but the hardest part is trying to add the buy-in component, which I would argue is fun.

By fun, I do not mean sitting at your desk collapsed in laughter. This is not necessarily intrinsically bad, but might be momentarily non-productive. I mean that working in a fun lighthearted environment allows people to personally achieve and grow as individuals whilst identifying with being part of a productive and fun team.

Prince II and Six Sigma are both similar management training tools/packages that teach people about targets, processes, procedures and documentation. What they fail to teach is fun and interaction. They teach black and white and avoid the grey. Therefore, the workplace is similar to many computer programmes, like the one I am using to write this - functional and sterile. Typing with one finger is not my idea of fun, but at least I have haptic feedback, which adds some elements of amusement to the otherwise mind-numbingly boring task. The fun is that someone might read this and think “he has a point there”.

To illustrate things let us compare two different jobs (in a very superficial way, as I am fully aware of some excellent SCWs), a hairdresser and a social care worker. The hairdresser has targets, standards, processes and procedures but due to every person’s head being slightly different and each customer requiring individual attention they make their name by the way they cut, their inventiveness and skill and attention to detail and these are all considerations for the customer. As a customer, the hairdresser will interact and actually listen to you, make sure you are comfortable and that what they are doing is to your satisfaction.

How is this different from a social care worker (SCW)? Well in almost every way. The SCW has very limited time per customer and has a list of targets within that allotted time following set down procedures and protocols. Whereas once there was time for discussions and time for the SCW to be concerned about the person, this has changed as targets, time and procedures are the main elements of the care. They can perform their tasks, tick/check the boxes and already running late leave, without due care for the customer or their feelings. The means that the function of someone whose primary role is to care actually in reality has less ability to care due to the target / procedural / process job functions they have to perform. Anyone reading this must agree that this rings true and also makes no sense. (I am fully aware that some SCW are people with a great sense of humour and really enjoy their work and their customers are more than satisfied with their job, but these are people who go above and beyond the tick boxes to actually ensure that the person they care for is actually cared for – in a normal workplace this would be frowned on as non conforming to the procedures and disciplinary action could ensue.)

It seems crazy that a hairdresser has freedom of expression and is allowed/encouraged to act on their own initiative and use their own skills and judgements where as the remainder of society is slowly following the target driven, procedural hegemony that stifles creativity, stops individualism and stamps out fun. Work and fun are not incompatible, in almost every job I have done, I have always strived to make the work, no matter how boring, fun. The difficulty with today’s tick/check box culture of work is that they are making humans into unemotional and unfeeling machines. We are not! We should address how we view our own work practices and not collude with this tyranny placed upon us by those with no imagination or who are too fearful for their own jobs to stand up.

Therefore, in conclusion, management of people need to look to computer system designers to relearn the process of making work fun again. FUNdamentally an enjoyable workplace out performs a stagnant humourless environment. In addition, as a side thought, the UK seems to be losing its embedded humour as the law outlaws the funny in order that we are encouraged to live sterile insular lives. I am reminded of Maya Angelou who stated the purpose of life is not to survive, but to thrive. Perhaps we should listen to her and add fun where it has been removed.