mwah. Big Thinking

Big Thinking

The wolf in a black t-shirt?

We were interested and entertained observers when Amazon, the global behemoth many report may end the likes of Myer and David Jones, opened a gigantic rainforest for employees at its US Headquarters.

Part of the amusement came as we read the article in mwah. HQ and glanced at the very loved 5 or 6 plants dotted around our peaceful innercity warehouse office; another part from the rather obvious – that a company named Amazon recreated a version of its namesake in the urban sprawl of Seattle 2018.

We were determined to park our cynicism as we looked at another significant global organisation (with ensuing huge valuation and thirst to perform) potentially seeking to offset the pressure of expectation shouldered by its people by doing something front page spectacular.

It sure is an impressive bow to architecture and the somewhat unappreciated pursuit of horticulture. But the Amazonians can’t be critiqued too harshly for doing something complex, they are ‘the disruptors ‘after all.

If you had $4 billion USD to spend on an urban campus wouldn’t you build 3 glass domes across 70,000 feet, climate controlled to 72 degrees Fahrenheit and 60% humidity planted to the hilt with lush rainforest miracles for people to stroll through or run a meeting in? It may just be an unfortunate coincidence that one day soon you may have to explain the Amazon rainforest reference to the Gen Futures working there one day when the namesake natural environment is gone – but for now, who doesn’t love a Sunday afternoon walk through Flower Power x 10,000….

Let’s get serious though.

We’ve read lots of the research on workplaces – from the fields of psychology, architecture and built environment that show the range of benefits that come from giving people a great space to work in.

The concepts are being explored constantly, from workplace studies to academia, as we all seek the holy grail of workplace wellness. There is certainly merit to a lot of the ideas.

Remember the Hawthorne studies of the 1920s (that rainforest sure better be well-lit to boost worker productivity) or the two-factor motivator hygiene theory of Herzberg in the 1960s (rainforest – whatever, work conditions are only a dissatisfaction factor, and are independent of the things that actually satisfy people!)

Some of the more recent work from the likes of Amabile, on physical workspace and creativity, has found support for the idea that the environment has a role to play – but fostering creativity also hangs on having the right leader, who matches people to the right assignments and gives them freedom on how they get those assignments done.

And what about happiness? A recent poll in the UK suggests Expedia has the happiest workers. They have some of the coolest offices – but unsurprisingly, the best scores in the poll came for ‘culture’ and ‘career opportunities’ – not for the hammock or ball pit.

Whether or not technology companies expressing themselves through urban campuses, motherships, villages – adorned with free meals and snacks, bikes, gyms etc. are directly attributable to great engagement or financial outperformance is hard to say but the trend of the quirky and unusual seems to here to stay.

At least it makes them memorable.

Some of the smaller tech companies like Scopely stand out with wild offerings, apparently your $11,000 sign-on bonus comes in a briefcase (bundles of cash are wrapped in bacon), a year’s supply of Dos Equis (Mexican) beer, a custom-made tuxedo and an oil painting of yourself.

Is this cool, whacky? Would working in a rainforest wearing a custom made tuxe really improve your work to code a complex algorithm? Maybe.

We believe having a solid, comfortable work environment is important, as is a sense of belonging where you work, alongside some really decent people, with an excellent boss, as you deliver purposeful work.

These are the things that really matter.

Plus, let’s call a spade a spade, there are very few times, and very few people, who can get through a 6 pack or two of Dos Equis and be match fit the next day.

Call us pragmatic, but we challenge the hype unless the foundations are right – Purpose, Relationships, and Freedom around how we work*. We would rather arrive at or leave from the office at a time reasonable enough to take a walk at the local (real) beach or (real) park, or go on a holiday to a (real) rainforest.

That got us wondering – is the press on flash offices and offerings simply a way of wowing us with the good to distract us from some tougher stuff?

As it turns out, a number of those that were once inside some huge tech companies from the early days may ‘click like’ on that.

We learnt this week of the campaign labelled “The Truth About Tech”, funded by Common Sense Media Group and the Centre for Humane Technology led by Tristan Harris, former in-house ethicist from Google.

This goes to questions raised from a range of groups, forums and fields on the algorithms used, the mental health considerations at play for children and adults alike, and the premise that social media and networks may well be fragmenting and destroying the very social fabrics they originally intended to help keep knitted together.

That’s big. And a bit scary.

With the potential for big ethical and cultural dilemmas to float over work like a storm cloud, does wearing a custom tuxedo walking the dog through a rainforest protect us from the chances of a storm?

To us, lavish, out of this world offices, work perks and at times big ethical questions bring a sense of déjà vu, have we not seen and heard this before?

It sounds a lot like Wall Street during the height of its powers. And it turns out we weren’t the first to think that.

At its most indulgent, Wall Street gave the world questionable products and services, far removed from their original intent, to drive jaw-dropping cash bonuses and cultural norms that included drug-fuelled parties, lobster nights, helicopter rides and other markers that most would deem just ‘bad’. There were some pretty complex ways to operate too.

With access to big cashflows now seen at some of the global technology companies, it’s worth glancing at secretly big pay checks (the big cash bonuses are gone but check the equity and options lines in those contracts that take off like a bushfire) and the line between revolutionary products and services and new societal problems – there are many parallels. Oh, and the tax structures have been wild in technology too…

We love the potential technology brings to human advancement and the improvements that can be made to the world of work. We watch with a keen and vested interest as humans and as HR professionals. We have lots of friends ‘in tech’, and we love them dearly. And we are thrilled to work alongside them for the good of the universe.

We get that positive social change and advancement can be a delicate walk along the edge of a sword – to get it really right you can often be close to teetering on the edge of getting it really wrong.

There’s something in that about stretching thinking to make big change happen, that allows us to empathise with both sides.

We will certainly be watching this space.

(Image Credit: Ferdy Remijn)

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