Doing away with the “away day”

by Mark Cole and John Higgins

The vitality of play

Watching my eight-year-old on a play date never fails to remind me about just how creative is the human mind and how productive it is when we connect with others.

The children all come together without a plan. There will perhaps be a little push and pull in terms of the dynamics but there tends to be space for all of the voices in the group. Power resides in this to and fro, of course – human beings cannot escape this as it resides in all of our relations – but it isn’t formalised, and it retains a reasonable level of fluidity.

The shape and direction of the play emerges from the interaction of those involved. I would hazard a guess that no one turns up to the play date with a clear sense in their head about what is going to happen. It simply happens as the children come together. Any attempt to impose structure on this interaction and improvisation would surely drain the joy and productiveness from the play date.

Play date or away day?

Meanwhile, in corporate life, adults are compelled to endure the ubiquitous away day. It is an intrinsic part of the warp and weft of work these days for a variety of reasons. And the senior leaders that commission these events and – more importantly – the so-called facilitators who design and deliver them do all they can to make these sessions feel like play dates…but appearances are misleading.

They treat people as children by encouraging them to play games. They clutter their programmes with foolish exercises that nobody in the room is allowed to refuse to take part in, which reminds one of the tedium and powerlessness of school. (I heard recently of one team event that used a handout that had been developed for use with primary school children, although unsurprisingly this fact went unacknowledged at the time.)

People’s feelings are reduced to crude Likert scales…but these aren’t just expressed as numbers. The infantilisation that undergirds the away day demands that the scale is expressed in an “amusing” way, such as asking the participants to choose from a selection of pictures of pieces of toast, from lightly browned to seriously burnt.

Throughout the day, participants are plied with sugary and fatty foods, whether they be pastries offered by the venue, the box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts that the facilitator or manager “thoughtfully” brings in, the packs of Haribo that are blithely tossed around, or the bowls of mint sweets that sit on the circular tables around which people sit.

Participants are asked to bring things with them into the space, such as emotionally significant artefacts or items of clothing. In that sense, the “away day” is a liminal space between home and work. But many of us prefer a clear distinction and boundary between those two domains. And, of course, anyone who doesn’t want to be absorbed into all of this insulting absurdity is quickly othered as a “spoilsport” or is pathologized as being “grumpy”.

In the shadows, one can see the outline of what could be called the “fascism of fun”.

A different modality of power

Power persists…but it always finds ways to present itself differently. The away day is a new way in which power is experienced in the workplace. I doubt my father ever had to sit in a dreary meeting room or a subterranean space in a hotel in order to play games with his workmates; I can imagine his reaction if he had been.

But, these days, participation in the enforced jollity of the team event is seen to be an intrinsic part of working life. Gradually, this practice has inveigled itself into the very fabric of global business…but we have to concede this is a very recent development and it is one that forms part of the wider apparatus of power that we experience now in organisational life. It is worth teasing out two elements worthy of note in this regard.

Defining corporate normalcy

In Radical Organisation Development, as part of a discussion of the concept of the away day, the relatively recent emergence of the idea of the “team” in a business setting is discussed (pp96-109). This term invokes the idea of collective effort for the greater good. It echoes sporting endeavour and a sense that people would always aim to be a good “team player”. This is how the term is ideologised so that people behave in ways that are acceptable to the corporation without having to be closely supervised by a layer of management.

The good corporate citizen subsumes themselves in the work team – and that team holds one another to account. This leads to the idea that the team is the fiercest and most ubiquitous manager in the workplace.

Power can also be traced in terms of the normalisation that is implicit in the notion: being part of the team and giving it your all echoes the collectivism that writers on the topic of mutual aid have suggested arise out of human society, especially at times of crisis. But it merely echoes it, simply mobilising this notion so as to put a gloss on a more dubious outcome of compelling complicity and docility.

This naturalisation of the team means that it is seen as normal that one would want to be in a team and doing one’s very best in that context. And, by that action, those who do not match that model of normalcy are thereby Othered. They represent a problem in corporate life – and must be made to recognise that so that they willingly return to – or finally agree to enter – the fold.

Constraining spontaneity and proscribing conversation

The away day is a painstakingly staged event. The corporate leader deems it a necessary thing to happen and the facilitator – whether internal or external to the organisation – sets to work designing a structure for the event.

In so many instances in my experience, the manager is proceeding on the basis that there is something wrong with the team. Depressingly, I am mindful of the fact that, in a good many of such instances, that manager then absents themselves from the experience, a self-servingly distorted view of the experience of group dynamics: “There’s something wrong with this team of which I declare myself manager and leader…but I am adamant that I am not implicated in that, so I do not need to be part of the ‘away day’ that I am compelling everyone else to endure.”

The common place view is that an away day will in some way remedy whatever the manager considers to be the issue, an erroneous and unevidenced view that derives from one of the six myths constraining modern management about which John Higgins and I recently spoke, namely that “all is fixable”.

NSFW!

We end up with a programme for the day, studded with various points of supposed light-heartedness – an icebreaker that mimics the organic circulation of a cocktail party but with the expectation that everyone will have to disclose something amusing; a physical exercise such as the tired old activity of getting groups to come together to build the tallest tower out of spaghetti and marshmallow; production of a poster using craft materials or snippets cut from magazines – but which is actually tightly managed. That control serves to squeeze out the potential for spontaneity and oftentimes to derail it immediately should it appear.

It is a scripted event…and not a script of the cast’s choosing. The spaces where dialogue could emerge and an adult-to-adult exchange might arise are denied by the tyranny of the programme. People in the away day are actively encouraged to speak…but only if they say what the manager and their co-conspirator expect in terms of the commissioning and design of the day.

Beyond the way in which power inhabits the fabric of the away day, this tight control of how things are expected to proceed denies the possibility of dialogue. This serves to close off the potential for collective intelligence to be applied in the face of myriad intractable problems that we face in corporate life and our wider society.

Worse still than the social engineering that is involved in crafting and delivering away days that pretend that they will fix a problem with a team is the presumption that the activity will be such fun that it will draw people in a team together. For example, Lego is self-evidently a child’s toy but has parlayed itself into the corporate away day, a (money spinning) device in business life that declares that it engenders “serious play”.

The only use for Lego on an away day is to shake it out all over the floor and make the facilitator walk barefoot back and forth on it…

The triumph of managerialism

Despite having been eclipsed over the recent period by ideas of “leadership”, management continues to occupy a dominant place in our thinking about the workplace. This leads some writers to speak about managerialism as an assemblage of ideas and practices that define ways of being in corporate settings and also serve to act ideologically.

Hence, Thomas Klikauer (2013), offers the following attempt at a definition: ‘Managerialism combines management knowledge and ideology to establish itself systemically in organisations while depriving owners, employees (…) and civil society (…) of all decision-making powers. Managerialism justifies the application of managerial techniques to all areas of society on the grounds of superior ideology, expert training, and the exclusive possession of managerial knowledge necessary to efficiently run corporations and societies.’ (p2)

But this leads Peter Bloom to observe a paradox at the heart of managerialism. Ideologically, it rests upon the notion of freedom, something enjoyed in principle by the manager (and their right to manage); the worker (regarding their supposed position in the labour market), and the consumer in respect to the market. Marx, of course, draws our attention to the way in which the worker creates products and is paid a wage in return – which they then use to buy the products that they have been so intimately involved in making, a process that generates profit but engenders alienation.

However, while managerialism builds itself on the notion of freedom (and, in turn, inserts itself into the productive process, so contributes directly to the alienation experienced by people in the course of their work), it ‘…also speaks to the regulation of human existence – particularly for the purpose of maximising profit. It is more often than not linked to capitalist values of efficiency and profitability. It evokes an image of employees working like machines on an assembly line or as drones in an office cubicle.’ (Bloom, p57)

This creates a space where the writer Martin Parker is able to declare himself in his book of this title to be “against management”, despite the fact that we find managerialism hidden in plain sight and so familiar to us that we end up leaving it unquestioned. He explains this position by arguing that we assume that the ideas and techniques that have grown up under the rubric of management are essential to the progress we demand socially through our control of both the natural world and human nature. Additionally, it calls upon notions of both efficiency and democracy, contrasting itself with autocratic practices from earlier historical periods and on the basis that it its underpinnings are in some way scientific. (pp2-4)

Other writers have gone further and observed that the reach of managerialism now extends beyond the economic and the social – and can be discerned in the personal. For example, Philip Hancock (2009) argues that, ‘…management represents an increasingly pervasive and, indeed, colonizing rationality; one that is having a ubiquitous influence on the content of a range of socio-cultural resources which themselves can be said to play a not insignificant role in the structuring of the landscape of everyday life.’ (p16)

This analysis can be taken even further, when we consider how we have been managerialised as human subjects. For example, the idea of entrepreneurialism has bled across from the business world to our lifeworlds. As Bröckling suggests, ‘The figure of the entrepreneurial self is concentrated in both a normative model of the human and a multitude of contemporary technologies of self and social technologies of […] society whose common aim is to organize life around the entrepreneurial model of behaviour.’ (p21)

These commentaries suggest that managerialism has now transcended the boundaries of business and can be found in the warp and weft of our everyday lives. But it is also suggested that managerialism’s presence in a social and personal context now loops back into the workplace, with the constant insistence that we bring our whole selves to work, a practice which Fleming & Sturdy (2009) describe as identity focused management control. When told to “be ourselves” at work, we are being invited to bring elements of our personhood into the workspace so that that can be commoditised and operationalised in the service of managers.

All of which is a preamble to the assertion that the away day is the space wherein this effect is most noticeable. The self that we are exhorted to bring has to be one that wants to have fun, to experience work as a place that does not look like a factory or an office, when that is precisely what it is – and always will be in a capitalist society. And the facilitators of those spaces are complicit in this – and are as irksome as an excitable Students’ Union Entertainments Officer.

The totalitarian nature of this regime of enforced jollity, something that conspires to erode the membrane that many seek to maintain between their work and personal lives, can be seen to be woven into the day-to-day conduct of the workplace and the so-called “teams” in which we work.

John reports speaking to someone recently about the intrusiveness of the view of the world that underpins “awaydayism”. She told a story of being very openly upbraided for choosing not to subscribe to the collective way in which her workplace encouraged people to mark the comings and goings, high days and holidays, of the people therein. The open plan pillory that she endured combined a lecture – why things are done this way – and a moralising sermon, wherein she was told in precise terms what it was she needed to do to make amends for not engaging in the way that was deemed acceptable.

A reminder, perhaps, of the fact that the “team” is the fiercest manager of all… (McKinlay & Taylor, 2018: p84) and that fun is defined and overseen by that fierce manager.

The modern malaise of corporate leadership

If we now look to the modern manifestation of managerialism, namely the idea of leadership, we can see another facet of this casting of the workplace as a kindergarten. Those who presume to lead are earnestly advised that the way to communicate with their “followers” – a term that should cause any human agent in possession of a free will to flinch – is through stories.

These followers cannot be trusted to understand the rarefied data that the “leader” is privy to in respect to their role. (It might be said that their role is simply defined by access to this material, which is why they are so secretive about it.) Instead, leaders are trained to spin a yarn, to tell simplified (and often intentionally personalised) stories in lieu of sharing data with their employees.

Once again, people at work are crudely infantilised by the actions of those who have been gifted the role of “being in charge”. It comes down to this: you can’t be trusted to make sense of what I have access to…so I will tell you a fairy tale about it, which will be simplistic and supposedly reassuring.

The leader-follower notion, presumed to be so cosy and without tension, can also be seen to echo the parent-child relationship. It suggests that the follower is in thrall to the leader and will unthinkingly accept all that they suggest. Contestation or resistance in such a situation is simply seen to be the action of a wayward son or daughter, ungratefully opting to push back on the unquestioned authority of the parent. And, in a time where corporate and political leaders seem to have finally shrugged off the last vestiges of ethics in their practice, we hear the parental voice once again, telling us, “Don’t do as I do, do as I tell you”.

Supporting adults in dialogue

The away day distracts us from the simple human act of coming together in conversation and the important potential of that. In corporate life, so much communication is formalised and scripted, with no meeting acceptable without an agenda and/or a planned output or outcome. Unfortunately, the tightly structured and infantilised nature of the away day squeezes the humanity out of a group of people coming together. It is a modern-day version of bread and circuses, the provision of a “corporate entertainment” that draws our attention away from the issues that are important to us and lures us into a realm of game-playing and forced frivolity.

Increasingly, we are seeing corporate and global challenges that need to be thought about seriously and discussed openly. Rooms full of people playing games sanctioned by the corporate powers-that-be and delivered unquestioningly by their compatriots from the field of organisation development do not create a genuine sense of mutuality or create the circumstances for the sort of collective intelligence on which humankind must rely.

The artist Paul Klee described the act of drawing as taking a line for a walk; true dialogue is about following where the exchange takes you, letting one’s thinking off the leash and allowing to it to run wherever it wants. It’s harder work than lining up in a conference room in the bowels of a hotel on the basis of who’s worked longest for the company or cutting pictures out of magazines to create some sort of montage.

Some may derive a genuine pleasure from this corporate entertainment. Many may see it as a marvellous way of being at work without having to be doing their work, a welcome respite from the drudgery of what they are told to do by the leaders in exchange for their salary.

However, the candy-floss quality of the away day – a flush of sweetness followed by the return of hunger for something more solid – cannot be allowed to substitute for the nourishment that would derive from actually being in dialogue with others in a free-flowing and truly humanistic way.

Embracing the STAY AWAY DAY

It seems it’s way past time when collectively we should as adults respond to the invite to yet another away day by making it a Stay Away Day. By staying away from the away day, we will reconnect with our human agency by coming together and finding power in collective action.

Let the manager and the facilitator sit blankly in the room on their own, with the piles of felt pens and post-its in front of them. And let the Stay Away Day be a space and time when people come together to talk without anticipating what might come from that conversation.

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