Bosses blind to horrors of 'fun days'

THEY are the sort of activities favoured by The Office's David Brent that have taken the corporate world by storm.

A number of firms in Scotland run paintballing days, boot camps and murder mystery evenings for managers who are convinced they will help create an enthusiastic workforce and bolster employees' teamwork and communication skills.

But experts now say that rather than improving morale in the office, such motivational techniques often leave workers cynical, alienated and angry.

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Later this year, the University of St Andrews will host a conference of organisational theorists and philosophers from around the world. They will cast a critical eye over corporate team-building exercises that are now so prevalent in many businesses. Dr Nick Butler, one of the organisers, told Scotland on Sunday that, while the idea of introducing team events into office environments appears a harmless and positive idea, the effects can be detrimental.

"The idea of 'play' seems to have immediately positive connotations," he said. "Activities like team-building exercises, dress-down Fridays, decorating workstations and management humour suggest there is creativity in the workplace and remind people of recreational and leisure time.

"But the ironic thing is that once the idea of fun is formally institutionalised from above, it can lead to employees becoming resentful. They feel patronised and condescended, and it breeds anger and frustration. They are exercises that have been well satirised in The Office.

"Many people feel as if they are being infantilised. They are working in environments where the walls are painted in bright, primary colours and teams are named after animals. It's all reminiscent of a pre-school nursery."

Butler, a lecturer in strategy and organisation studies at St Andrews, cited moves by several international organisations to implement play in the workplace.

They include Google's European headquarters in Zurich, which has fire station-style poles and slides between floors, a games room and a "chill-out" aquarium.

He also pointed to a management training service offered by the toy company Lego, in which a consultant offers a firm exercises using the coloured blocks to express their feelings.

"These things have symbolic meaning. They suggest stimulation, that a company is dynamic, unusual and flexible. But they can become wearing very quickly. After all, it's still work," he said.

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"Authentic play is something that cannot be institutionalised or objectified."

Butler said that in some cases exercises introduced by company executives have backfired.

"At one workplace, the management brought in mini-scooters to an open-plan office. The idea was to emphasise movement and flexibility.

"It did encourage communication between people, but of course inevitably the workers just spent their time having races up and down corridors and the managers took the scooters away. The concept was subverted."

John Strachan, the founder and managing director of Maximillion, one of Scotland's largest events management companies, said he was aware of some participants who initially seemed resentful about participating in team-building exercises.

"There is a degree of negativity among some people, especially in the public sector, when people are starting an event," he said. "They maybe have work piling up and would prefer to make inroads in their in-tray.

"But 99 times out of 100, their body language changes in the first ten minutes, and they start to engage with the task."

The Edinburgh-based firm, which caters predominantly to the corporate sector, has devised a host of activities.

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These include Bag Beat, in which a team is encouraged to perform a musical piece using nothing more than shopping bags and bin liners; Eden, in which teams compete to build the largest sustainable community, and a version of television game show It's A Knockout!.

Strachan said that in some cases, organisations and companies were "unsure" what they wanted out of a team-building event, but that his firm played a "diagnostic" role in helping management find out what was needed.

He added that there has been a "definite migration" away from outdoor events, which "had the potential to marginalise people", towards indoor events. "Team-building of the past has been characterised by going outside, getting wet, cold, and miserable.

"It was usually driven by a manager who's an outdoorsy person who likes abseiling off cliffs, and decides he'll make his team do the same.

"In Scotland, it's still characterised by farmers who have a few quad bikes they rent out.

"But we have a lot more inclusive events, such as drumming, cooking and bespoke challenges.

"Organisations that don't embrace fun as part of their daily regime have something fundamentally wrong.

"If people are working in a fun environment, they will perform better."