Child's play and corporate culture

Last updated, 15 May 2012

Child’s Play and Corporate Culture

by Carolyn Hunter

Play always connects value spheres and mediates important boundaries in social activities and personal existence in all human societies; it is the occasion of collective and individual eruptions of passion, of exuberance and anger, of resistance and agitation, of effervescence and candour (Costea et al, 2005: 140).

There has been a well-documented intensification of managing culture within organisations towards the end of the last century and more recently attention has been given to the growth of ‘fun’ corporate cultures. Contemporary management authors have continued to emphasise play as a theme central to post-Taylorist styles of management, namely that workplaces should be made ‘meaningful’ through employees finding enjoyment at work (e.g. Barsoux, 1993). These authors prescribe that organisations should aim to not only gain compliance but to encourage employees to feel positive emotions about their work and the company. As such, the attempts to manage play in organisations as a form of control also reflect the management of emotions, materiality and identity in organisational life.

Within the development of ‘Work Hard/Play Hard Cultures’ (Deal and Kennedy, 1982) there has been the encouragement of ‘play’ at work. ‘Fun’ cultures focus on the experiences of the employees and as such are those which “are not necessarily fun in and of themselves but aim to establish a context in which fun experiences are more likely to occur” (Fleming, 2005: 287). Fun corporate cultures can be analysed as a set of practices, both discursively and materially expressed, concerning the way work can be conceptualised around strategically ‘fun’ practices such as humour, games and traditional extra-organisational leisure activities like drinking (Fleming and Sturdy, 2009). Warren and Fineman (2007: 92) note “fun programmes at work add a particular dimension of control and morality to the kinds of fun or mirth that employees ought to experience.” This element of control in fun organisations uses play as an enticement for employees to engage with organisational goals and values.

Play, while often appearing as a simplistic concept in management texts, is a complex phenomenon which involves public and private spheres, pertaining to an individual’s sense of self and to their relations with others. Fun-at-work thus is more than simply an approach to work, but can be an aim to view life through a play ethic (Kane, 2005) where play informs our interactions and mindset within work, creating an integration of the non-serious arena of play into the seriousness of work. These discourses may appeal morally as emancipating and empowering for employees by allowing employees to express their ‘real’ selves in a creative, enjoyable and playful manner. Pat Kane (2005) provides a theory of a ‘play ethic’ which he discusses in relation to providing creativity to many aspects of life, including art, culture, politics and work. His discussion of the application of the play ethic to work remains ambiguous, however, for while he supports applying it from an ideological perspective, he describes current efforts of integrating it into work as falling short, as more lip service rather than a real change. 

Culture management programmes advocating play often use child metaphors in describing their corporate cultures. Play, it seems, often refers to child play, rather than adult play. Fleming (2005) noted this trend in his study of Sunray, where employers utilised a ‘school’ theme through student-teacher relationships, activities mirroring primary school or kindergarten puzzle books and away days to ‘party’ destinations. Also he noted how this school theme is expressed in the physicality of the organisation, through the colour schemes chosen for the walls designed to “create a mood of verve and fun” and large cut outs of jungle trees, multi-coloured building blocks of letters and children’s television characters providing a “juvenile ambience” (Fleming, 2005: 294). The management specifically chose objects to decorate the building, the dress and identity of the employees, and the use of party tools all of which reflected the child play ambience and had the result of the building resembling a play pen.

Indeed Dale and Burrell note the power relations within fun corporate designs, in how “play – the ludic – has become co-opted into workplace redesign with very definite organizational goals in mind” (Dale and Burrell, 2008: 129). The cartoons and general use of space within the organisation they studied appeared to recreate the power differences that already exist between workers and the company, where management get to organise the space to construct particular ideas about who uses it and how. Work begins to appear as if it is play, while in reality it remained work. As a result the authors stated the use of tapping into creativeness towards organisational goals is more ‘productive play’, or play used in order to be more industrious, rather than as an emancipation from power relations. Reinforcing the current power relations, employees ultimately performed playful behaviours which align their own goals to those of management. 

This point about the organisation of materiality and space as around child’s play can also be seen in Warren and Fineman’s study, where the company aims to celebrate ‘the childishness in us all’ (2007: 92). They note “the infantile turn we see in many of these initiatives sits oddly with the image of grown-ups at work” (2007: 95, emphasis added) which resulted in some participants rejecting the fun elements. The employees were asked to ‘play’ with Lego in the play area, which resembled a children’s nursery, while being filmed for a local TV programme. A selection of those interviewed felt that these practices in particular belittled the status of employees as professional people, especially in combination with the public promotion of the corporate culture as fun play. Part of the tension arose from the discrepancy between discourses of professionals and the discourses of child’s play: that while employees appreciated the company and managers making an effort to introduce a more entertaining workplace, this raised significant problems for their sense of worth as professionals. The relationship between play and work, therefore, reflects the complex power dynamics of organisations and of corporate culture in particular, focusing not only on the experience of having fun but also the management of employees’ sense of self, their emotions and the materiality of the organisation.



Barsoux, J. (1993) Funny Business: Humour, Management and Business Culture. London: Cassell Publications.

Costea, B., Crump, N. and Holm, J. (2005) ‘Dionysus at work? The ethos of play and the ethos of management’ Culture and Organization, 11(2), 139-151.

Dale, K. and Burrell, G. (2008) The Space of Organisation, The Organisation of Space: Power, Identity Materiality at Work. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Deal, K, and Kennedy, A. (1982) Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Fleming, P. (2005). ‘Workers' Playtime?: Boundaries and Cynicism in a "Culture of Fun" Program.’ Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 41, 285-303.

Fleming, P., and Sturdy, A. (2009). ‘Bringing everyday life back into the workplace: Just be yourself!’ In P. Hancock, & M. Tyler, The Management of Everyday Life. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kane, P. (2005) The Play Ethic: A Manifesto for a Different Way of Living. London: MacMillan.

 Warren, S. and Fineman, S. (2007) ‘'Don't get me wrong, it's fun here, but...’: ambivalence and paradox in a 'fun' work environment’ in Westwood, R. and Rhodes, C. (eds) Humour, Work and Organization. London: Routledge.