Work Hard – Play Hard

There is indeed a ‘corporate culture’ named like this. Trusting Wikipedia on this:

In their 1984  [sic!] book, Corporate Cultures, Deal and Kennedy identified a particular corporate culture which they called the ‘work hard/play hard culture’:

“Fun and action are the rule here, and employees take few risks, all with quick feedback; to succeed, the culture encourages them to maintain a high level of relatively low-risk activity.

The book is called a classic in business literature by an amazon reviewer; so I am not surprised Work Hard/Play Hard  is one of four quadrants – based on the combination of risk and feedback. If you really want to know: The high risk / intense feedback culture is called the Tough-Guy Macho Culture.

Why I am really interested in this: Work Hard – Play Hard is also a sublime German documentary I have just watched accidentally.

Here is the trailer, with English subtitles, that captures the atmosphere quite well. I could only find the full video  in German or French although the links to film festivals (below) imply that a version with English subtitles does exist.

It is not a Michael Moore movie. There is no voice from the off that will explain anything. It is people and buildings, speaking for themselves. Aesthetic buildings and sleek design, however not as vibrant and colored as you might expect from articles on, say, Google’s offices.

If this was a fictional movie, you would expect it to be set in a parallel world with a dark secret tied to technology:

All alleged human beings would be artificial life forms or clones created by the last survivors of a cyberpunk apocalypse – who happened to haven’t saved anything but their MBA courses’ lecture notes before their embarked on their lifeboat-spaceship and left the earth to found a new civilization. Or the protagonists might also be ants that have acquired some level of intelligence – so we see The Fly in a reversed version – but they struggle to find a real narrative or myth for their culture, just as Data wants to become a human being by tinkering with the emotion chip.

Their world remains grayed out and a diluted holodeck-like copy, and as a disengaged observer you tried to find the fault in the matrix. At least you believe you are disengaged – watching TV in your minimalist concrete-and-glass hotel, relaxing during your business trip and checking your smartphone.

I found the role of background sounds most intriguing – low and perfectly normal sounds like phones and keyboards, but disturbing like HAL’s voice and the phone at the agency in 24 – all mixed with slightly unpleasant ‘music’ that sounds what I expect tinnitus to be like.

But I better leave it to the professionals – the following reviews are spot-on:

Work Hard – Play Hard is a well-conceived and aesthetically refined contribution to the debate about the future of work in postindustrial society: Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ meets psychological science fiction in a reality where many spend half of their waking lives [Copenhagen International Documentary Festival 2011 – Link broken*]

A measured and brilliantly crafted documentary, Work Hard, Play Hard is a remarkably assured debut film from Carmen Losmann. Focusing on changing perceptions of the workplace the film mixes a clinically precise tone with a social conscience and some dark satire. [Helsinki International Film Festival 2012, quoting Laurence Boyce, Screen Daily*]

[*] Links broken

9 Comments Add yours

  1. M. Hatzel says:

    This week I fininshed reading a book called _The Power of Why_ by Canadian journalist/business reporter Amanda Lang. The first part of the book was tedious, but by the seond half I couldn’t keep my thoughts from it. I kept finding connections between her writing on innovation and business and our on-line conversations, so to return here and to find your post has left me feeling even more curious about this conversation (which sometimes feel a little random–how did we get here?–but also inevitable). Layered on this, a friend returned a book of mine, and randomly flipping it open as I waited for my daughter the other day, I reread a passage on Csikszentmkhalyi’s research on flow. I marked the spot, feeling I’d want to come back to it, to think more about it, esp. the thought that flow occurs when people “become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself.”
    It doesn’t feel insignificant that questions of home are connected to this conversation, as are creativity and aesthetics. (Heidegger?)

    1. elkement says:

      You are right – this post (this documentary) is connected with our ongoing discussion and the main topics you cover in your blog. The odd thing with modern workplaces are their ambiguities: On the one hand employees should feel at home – as indicated by living-room-style furniture, on the other hand shared desks (‘hot desking’) prevents you from placing any personal items on your desk to mark it as your territory.
      Probably it needs an artist (such as the director of this movie) to make these ambiguities more obvious through images – rather than trying to describe and analyze them.
      As you mention independence of the social environment – this is probably a key ambiguity: The workplace gives you the feeling of total independence, but ties you to some specific social environment – both is more pronounced than what you experienced at ‘old school 9-to-5 workplaces’.

  2. Looks like a scary movie to me. But it does bring up some important ideas. Work, work ethic, work culture … all interesting. The problem begins, I think, when we find ourselves working for other people who have interests, other than our own, in their minds. Can anyone really work their best in support of the goals of others? It gets complicated. Your employer makes your goal the weekly paycheck … right … let’s be honest. Perhaps it is only possible to be your best when you are vested entirely in the outcome of what you do? All this other ‘stuff’ comes into play when you find yourself working in support of others. What a depressing though. D

    1. elkement says:

      The movie was really scary, but or because the creepy stuff was so subtle. It confirmed my personal findings – or bias probably. This artificial and grey environment was exactly what I experienced the “global corporate world” to be, at least if you peel off the layer of marketing messages and statements on corporate values etc.
      In a sense, you do not seem to work for other *people*, rather for a *system*. If you talk to each of the individuals privately, many would agree on the serious issues of the system. But in a scary way a group of people is transformed into some anonymous and new entity. Quite kafkaesque, as the Skynet machines in Terminator becoming conscious (OK, I watch too many movies). The people depicted in the movie were all shown when fully acting as part of the system. It would have been less scary if some home stories on their real lives would have been added.

  3. bert0001 says:

    I used to work on a freelance basis for intecbrussels as a teacher. I was nearly always in the flow when working there. When I changed me contract, into a permanent employee, I had to do so many boring tasks, and could not organise my own work anymore, that I quit after two months. Same students, no more flow.
    It is the organization and your colleagues that make or break everything.

    1. elkement says:

      This is a good example! The documentary gives proof of corporations trying hard to stir “creativity” and “flow” and whatnot, and employees “should feel at home”(*) and “brain storm innovative ideas while having coffee”. Which does work on principle, but not when you are forced to and – as you say – when “creativity” is killed by mind-numbing bureaucracy and “following the processes”.
      The organization sometimes seem to have a life of its own: Even when all individuals are nice human beings, the “system has some unexpected emergent properties” ;-)
      (*) But not too much: A workplace designer in the movie elaborated on the choice of interior design: The shared desk space should look like a living-room, bit brown shades must not be used because people would feel too much at home and would not be productive enough.

      1. bert0001 says:

        I’m most productive at home … (when kids are out). HR begins at the top. I think when the top makes to many petty rules, nothing works anymore. Giving general guidelines works better. Listening works better than proclaiming. Interference, is exactly that, interference.
        And when a company grows from a group of friends (less than 5) at that moment communication is the most important, and selection of new people must really be done like an interior decorator would place a painting on a coloured wall.

        1. elkement says:

          These companies growing (rapidly) from groups of friends are interesting indeed. I watched some of those grow – sometimes beyond and obviously critical size that “demanded” them to become a “serious company”, implement compliance and processes, and hire external consultants. Typically not for the better. The behavior / the identity of the company might come to a tipping point with a single – wrong – hiring decision. I often found these stories so cliché – as taken right out of a Dilbert cartoon (Catbert, the evil HR director).

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