Living to Work or Working to Live_ work life balance and the darker side of work as a lifestyle package

When we design workplaces as lifestyle packages… who are they for?

This think piece considers the implications of offering workplaces as total lifestyle solutions. When we design these spaces, who are they actually for? Do we need to consider diversity and inclusion? How does this impact corporate culture and work life balance? And… are we working to live, or living to work? 

 

Conversations about work-life balance are even more relevant now, with the advent of agile workplaces, flexible working and co-working spaces. What’s more, in a rapidly changing market, workers now expect to have lots of flexibility – at work, but also in choosing and having lots of different jobs in our lifetimes. University graduates, for example, are now are expected to have four different jobs in their first decade of work alone. Gone are the days of classical company loyalty, and the idea of a ‘job for life’. This means uncertain times for workers, but also for organisations, who are having to fight harder to recruit and retain top talent.

Selling a lifestyle
One key trend in this attempt to attract and keep talent is the re-branding of work as a lifestyle package. Since we are now expecting fulfilment (and even fun) from our work, workplaces are trying to rise to that challenge by offering ping pong tables, free beer, on-site gyms and on-site yoga classes. With the rise of ‘wellbeing’ in the workplace agenda, many of us are investing in perks, wellbeing courses and employee benefits. But work as a ‘lifestyle package’ which makes work look like leisure – think Googles campuses in particular – arguably go one step further. In offering working model that looks more and more like leisure, what are we losing, if anything? Was the old model of work being separate to leisure; separate to the rest of our lives so desperately flawed? And, more to the point… does it actually work? Does the fun, lifestyle-oriented workplace deliver results?

Gamification at work
The ‘gamification’ of work – that is, taking enjoyable aspects of games like fun, play and challenge and applying them to real-world business processes – is something that analysts have predicted as a key growth area in business management. The logic is pretty simple: the more fun something is, the more people are likely to engage. But the positive impacts touted in books like Play at Work: How Games Inspire Breakthrough Thinking, such as higher engagement, company loyalty, better co-worker relationships and higher innovation, are entirely dependent on how these strategies are implemented and whether employees actually buy into them.

There are also clear differences in terms of sector. Older sectors (think banking, law and so on) might find it harder to align ‘fun’ tactics to their business goals – and on top of that there is staunch criticism of the gamification of work in general. Research by management professor Peter Fleming even found that introducing organised ‘fun’ into the workplace with the aim of enhancing corporate motives “had the unintended effect of fuelling cynicism among some employees”. He also found that some workers even experienced chronic stress and anxiety because of the normative pressures placed on them to display their enjoyment and join in enthusiastically – but this, admittedly, was observed in a US call-centre where induction sessions included workers standing up to sing the Muppets song The Rainbow Connection.

Many workers would benefit from a happier, more colourful, more relaxed working environment. And whilst fun has not been traditionally associated with the workplace (especially not in the Fordist model, where talking to co-workers was seen as a waste of precious time) there are benefits to having fun at work, particularly where creativity is crucial to your business. But this fun is perhaps best if it’s organic. And if you do want to introduce more fun to your workplace it needs to be aligned with your business goals, with your workforce’s preferences, and – ideally – not involve anything related to the Muppets.

‘Bro’ culture
There have also been gendered criticisms of workplaces that sell a lifestyle package. This is because the ‘lifestyle package’ on offer might not be inclusive; and in particular, might be skewed towards the exclusion of women and non-binary people. To give a simple example, an office with free beer, ping pong tables and no childcare facilities isn’t likely to fulfil the needs or wants of a new mother returning to work. Bro culture, instead, is commonly associated with using ‘partying hard’ to motivate workers and bond them together (think The Wolf of Wall Street) or repeatedly hiring people like yourself for the sake of ‘culture fit’ – a now widely discredited term.

Google, also the pin-up for fun lifestyle-oriented offices, has been the subject of numerous scandals of late. The leaked memo from former software engineer James Demore is anti-diversity at best, and extremely sexist and racist at worst. Loretta Lee, who worked at Google for eight years, also filed a law suit last year against the Silicon Valley giant for sexual harassment and gender discrimination. This has lead to a slew of headlines like ‘Bro Culture is Poisioning Silicon Valley’ and it’s fascinating to see how Google and other tech giants have responded to these high-profile cases.

The push-back against exclusionary workplace cultures is now stronger than ever, and this is partly what has buoyed the controversial female-only workspace The Wing into the headlines time after time. More moderate, perhaps, are the mixed-gender (but female-oriented) workplaces which are also popping up across cities globally. The Riveter, founded by Amy Nelson is one such example, and as she puts it, hinges on the idea that “if co-working is the future, it shouldn’t look like a frat house”.

The fact that tech companies and start-ups are emblematic of both the ‘lifestyle package’ model of work, the ‘fun workplace’ and bro-culture is an interesting phenomena. Is this a coincidence; or is it that the breaking down of the more formal boundaries in the workplace is allowing organisations to turn into the organisational equivalent of a frat-party?

In a word, no… not exactly. But what is for certain is that the ‘lifestyle’ offered in many tech companies and start-ups might be only geared towards certain types of people. And that is a problem. Organisations that offer lifestyle-oriented workspaces and perks should be offering an inclusive lifestyle that works for minorities, women, working parents, non-binary people and older workers; not just for ‘bros’ or CEOs. We’re already seeing new workspaces and cultures challenging that by championing diversity, but for many, there’s a lot of catching up to do to make sure that these ‘new’ workplaces don’t just reproduce (or even worsen) the same exclusionary relationships we’ve seen in the past.

More from us…

 

About Baker Stuart
We are an independent specialist consultancy providing a comprehensive range of innovative workplace strategy, workplace management and change, project and programme management services. Thinking about optimising your organisation? Get in touch with us here.

This work by BakerStuart Limited is copyright and is licensed for use under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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Baker Stuart

About Baker Stuart: We are an independent specialist consultancy providing a comprehensive range of innovative workplace strategy, workplace management and change, move management, project management and programme management services. Thinking about optimising your organisation? Get in touch with us here.

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