Thursday, November 15, 2007

Obligatory Fun

When I was in high school, we invented the notion of "obligatory fun". Obligatory fun drills occurred whenever the nuns provided us with some little break in the routine. All that was required of us in return was that we feign enthusiasm, which sometimes we were hard put to do.

On one memorable Friday afternoon, we were called to the auditorium for a surprise showing of a film. This happened occasionally, and the one thing you could be pretty sure of was that the choice of film would be abysmal - something that the Notre Dame Academy girls of an earlier era would have jumped for joy to see, but which we just rolled our eyes for.

On this Friday, the entertainment was a corn-ball musical starring Mario Lanza - no doubt chosen because Mario was a Catholic.

Mario Lanza!

This was at a time when the student body was pretty well split along the lines of Beatles, Stones, and Bob Dylan.

Mario Lanza!

Well, at least it wasn't a religious clunker like "Embezzled Heaven," another one I recall as a black and white movie that turned into color when the action moved to the Vatican and they showed Pope Pius XII being carried around on his sedan chair.

On our return to homeroom, Sister Josephine informed us that we were a bunch of ingrates, that in the day a Mario Lanza film would have been welcomed with wild cheering, a standing ovation. From here on out, we were warned, we'd be well served if we showed some enthusiasm.

Thus, we coined the term obligatory fun to cover all those occasions that were someone else's idea of a good time. Smile, gush, applause, cheer. We were nice enough girls to oblige.

Years later, I saw obligatory fun in action at a Boston Pops summer concert down on the Esplanade by the Charles River.

Sitting on the blanket next to where I was camped out were a young couple and their little girl, who appeared to be about two years old. During one of the songs, the mother was trying with no luck to get her kid to clap along.

"Clap, honey," she kept saying, becoming more and more agitated as her little one refused to get with the program. After numerous exhortations, the mother grabbed the little girl by the arm and hissed at her, "Clap or I'll clap your ass."

Obligatory fun in action. Have a good time, or else.

Which, of course, we've all seen in the corporate world when someone or other - generally a someone or other as far removed from understanding what will "work" to boost the spirits of employees as, say, that old technicolor pope on his chair - decides that something must be done for morale.

Now, it doesn't matter what you do to improve morale, there will always be cynics who sneer, but, let's face it, most of us don't mind having our morale raised - as long as it's done in an authentic way, the morale-raising event is something that genuinely appeals to a reasonable proportion of the employees whose morale is being raised, and as long as those involved in doling out the morale are really engaged. (Or are such good actors, we believe that they are.)

On my last Christmas Eve at Wang, they replaced what had been a genuinely fun and well-received tradition - morning parties to which everyone could bring their kids, followed by the afternoon off - with a "new" tradition: turkey dinner served up by senior executives. And no afternoon off. (Instead, there was a stern memo sent out reminding everyone that if they left early they had to take a half a vacation day. And a Merry Christmas to you, too.)

I thought of all this after a friend told me about a nice tradition in his workplace that had deteriorated into something that actually became even worse than obligatory fun.

His company had been holding monthly gatherings to celebrate everyone who had a birthday that month. Yes, they were no doubt trying to put an end to all the time-wasting individual birthday celebrations that, in fact, may have made some birthday boys and girls feel excluded. Still, they would get a nice cake, invite everyone in the group into a conference room, sing Happy Birthday to those whose month it was, and generally make everybody happy - especially those who got end-cuts of sheet cake with lots of greasy, sugary frosting.

Well, someone new was charged with keeping up the Birthday-of-the-Month tradition, and she wasn't all that happy with it. For her, something that had clearly become obligatory was just no fun.

Thus, on Birthday Cake Day, in early afternoon, an e-mail went out:

"The September birthday cake has been delivered. It's in Conference Room B. Feel free to take a piece."

Okay. A piece of sheet cake is generally welcome in the workplace, and I'm sure that people piled out of their offices and cubes and helped themselves. But so much for the tradition of getting the team together for a little mini-break, a small chance to socialize, an opportunity to get to know the guy two cubes down a little bit better.

So much for a morale boosting opportunity.

Maybe it's all for the best.

Because, let's face the fact that there's really nothing that works to improve morale as success in the business: exceeding the numbers, finishing the project, getting a new client... All the sheet cakes in the world can't substitute for really good news.


Anonymous said...

How excellent! I received this email this week - we're a firm of about 100 cubicle rats:

From: XYZ
Sent: Tuesday, November 13, 2007 12:52 PM
To: Boston Distribution List
Subject: November Birthday Cake

The November birthday cake as arrived. Please help yourselves to a piece cake.


katrog said...

In my year at NDA we called it "compulsory fun." It sometimes involved activities on weekends or after school--what should have been our own time.

As for corporate cake, I'm surprised it still exists--that they just don't send virtual cake or cake icons. :)