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30 Nov 2015

Research: Service Work, an Opportunity to Enchant or Be Enchanted ?

GAZI ISLAM Professeur Associé au département Homme, Organisations et Société de GEM

Companies that employ service workers each have their own vision of how to manage low-wage working environments. From uniforms to idealized images of the workplace, HR departments are  always on the lookout for the best way provide low-wage workers with a minimum of satisfaction and meaning in their jobs. This latest study examines a new evolution in the management of workplace environments. Meet the « enchanting workplace ». 
This article by Gazi Islam is the subject of the 18th  GEM LAB Executive Summaries.

From the article

Enchanting work: Experiencing service work at an enlightened retail chain
Organization Studies November 2015 vol. 36 no. 11 1555-1576, doi: 10.1177/0170840615593588
Endrissat, N. , Islam, G. & Noppeney, C. , 2015

Gazi Islam, an Associate Professor at Grenoble Ecole de Management, began his exploration of this issue with his co-authors by examining the various evolutions in service work. From the standardized approach with uniforms and efficiency, known as McDonaldization, to the Disneyfication or idealization of the workplace, service-sector organizations have always struggled to provide low-level employees with enough meaning to create employee engagement.

Mixing the arts and social activism for an enchanting effect

The standardization and monotony of supermarket work practices are generally considered to be the epitome of a disenchanted world. However, the authors of this latest study interviewed 47 employees (managers, store artists and other team members) at one of the largest organic supermarket chains in North America whose HR policies deviate from the norm.

In their study, the authors highlighted that this organic supermarket chain has attempted to reframe basic service work as voluntary, expressive and artistic. In concrete terms, the chain encourages employees to organize art exhibits and concerts in the store. Alternative looks, such as tattoos are also welcomed as long as they are not offensive. An HR policy that favors artistic and expressive actions is also coupled with the fact that the chain is one of the largest recruiters of fine arts graduates.

Symbolic actions to create a positive environment

Professional service jobs generally include a certain amount of creative expression and autonomy. By encouraging creative expression in the workplace, the researchers found that managers could provide the appearance of creativity and autonomy for lowwage workers as well. To understand this approach, the researchers propose the concept of enchanting work. Instead of simply idealizing the workplace, this enchantment aims to simulate an authentic experience, a real community of activists and artists.

A win-win situation

The enchantment of the workplace serves not only to make service work more palatable for employees, but it also means that worker value is not just in packaging or other menial tasks. The creation of an expressive and artistic community also serves as a marketing tool for the chain. By giving each store an authentic feel, the company also « enchants » its customers.

As with anything, there are always two-sides to a coin. The researchers found that in such an environment, employees' work experiences fell under three broad types. Many were simply enchanted and delighted with the environment. Others were cynically enchanted : While they did not see the environment as authentic, they still had a positive outlook and tried to « make the best of the situation. » Finally, the third reaction was more negative and certain employees felt drained by the constantly « enchanting » work environment. However, the researchers highlighted that such discontent was generally overshadowed and discouraged by the store's pervasive air of positivity.

Key Points

  • The enchanting workplace encourages creative and expressive acts by employees.
  • An enchanting environment creates employee engagement without the need for meaning.
  • HR policies that create an authentic enchanting workplace also serve as a marketing tool to «enchant» customers.
Mara Saviotti