Skinny Jeans & Orange Couches

Schadenfreudian as it may be, I don’t think I’m alone when I’m sometimes secretly pleased to see a spate of articles about tech companies not getting it right. After all, no company ever gets it ALL right, so surely a whole industry can’t get it ALL right.  The cool factor of the new tech environment doesn’t compensate for destructive company cultures of overworked and stressed employees

It doesn’t seem like long ago that Amazon was lampooned for their ‘hyper-competitive’, even ‘gladitorial’, culture. There were claims the CEO used some charmingly high EQ skills asking an engineer “are you wasting my life?”. Even people who left Amazon were quoted as receiving threatening legal letters. All very dramatic. Not very ‘new’ in terms of great leadership or culture.

Then the co-founder of Facebook, Dustin Moskovitz, came out with this profound declaration – (and I quote in full) –

“It is with deep sadness that I observe the current culture of intensity in the tech industry,” Moskovitz wrote in a essay titled Work Hard, Live Well. Its sub-headline: 

"Amazon isn’t the only company burning out their employees with unsustainable expectations. Let’s break the cycle.”

“My intellectual conclusion is that these companies are both destroying the personal lives of their employees and getting nothing in return,” he writes, citing the example of a recent Asana candidate who described a rival company’s practice of offering company dinners late so workers would stay on into the night. “I wish I had lived my life differently,” he laments.

“This kind of attitude not only hurts young workers who are willing to ‘step up’ to the expectation, but facilitates ageism and sexism by indirectly discriminating against people who cannot maintain that kind of schedule.”

Working in the Digital Economy

Moskovitz is not a tech-hating hack, nor is he bruised by age. He is ranked by Forbes as the 59th richest person in the US with a personal net worth of $US8.9 billion. He is just 32 years old.

In 2016, Douglas Rushkoff added “Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus” into the mix, asking whether “we are running a 21st century digital economy on a 13th Century printing-press era operating system”?. 

And, I suspect at least some of this criticism and challenge may be well placed. Maybe we should consider that tech companies, cool as they may be, are not the only place to look for a great new way of working.

Personally, fifteen years ago I was also really excited by news story after news story of the new tech culture – remote work, games rooms, cool couches, open spaces and crazily flexible hours to suit your life. Nirvana had arrived!

I waited patiently for it to hit Corporate, and it did, in the form of orange couches, funky smart boards and people wearing jeans. And it brought with it my personal favourite – activity based working (or ABW for short).

My first experience of ABW

My first experience of ABW was when I was living in The Netherlands in the early 00’s. It was very cool. Purple couches, shower curtains pulled around meeting ‘spots’, lavatories labelled as “Jorg” and ‘Aneike’ instead of Male and Female. Massive focus on collaboration – we did “how to collaborate” sessions and talked about introversion and extroversion – how to think loudly and work quietly.  We felt cooler with the knowledge. We loved it!

Then I travelled around the world and gradually saw ABW arrive in many workspaces, although perhaps a little different than initially intended. The couches were still orange and purple, but they masked the problem that there were wasn’t enough desks. People started arriving earlier and earlier, and as one working Mum put it to me “if I arrive at 9.01am, I’m stuffed and sitting in the cafeteria all day”. She wasn’t being funny. It was true. Unbound by 9 am to 5 pm, hours stretched out into the dark of pre-dawn mornings, and well past the late sunset of summer nights. Without a permanent colleague sitting next to you, no one noticed how many hours you were clocking up.

I remember coming into the office one day and a member of the IT team was coming out. It was 6am and she’s worked all night (again). She didn’t look hipster and cool. She looked bloody exhausted.

Cost of ‘productivity’ 

As companies put more and more pressure on costs in the name of ‘productivity’, the IT teams looks as understaffed and overworked as the rest of us, even with a hipster beard and skinny jeans; whether or not they’re playing ping pong during a break. ‘Remote work’ has become the new way to catch up when you get home after your seventy hour work week in the office. The corner office has been moved into the corner of the ABW ‘space’. The hierarchy hasn’t been replaced by empowered teams, or by normal employees with a greater agency over how their work is done. Instead, we’ve switched around a few job titles and tightened up the metrics to ensure ‘accountability’, as opposed to having a conversation.

Finding the Balance

So, are Amazon and Facebook disasters? No. I’m sure they’re not that bad at all. There are lots of good stories of both, from people who like the culture or are fit and flexible enough to do the twenty hours straight without a backache. In fact, tech companies are often pretty much the same as everyone else. Long hours. Competitive cultures. Obsessed by the customer, but often blind to their employees or the lives their employees lead or would like to lead.

So, skinny jeans can be more comfortable, particularly in stretch fabric, Chuck Taylor’s are a great universal shoe, and orange is a fine colour for a couch. If it’s well designed for ergonomic comfort. None of them make for a new way of working. If we want that, we’re going to have to look a little harder. So pass me an Indian Pale Ale (that’s an IPA for all you hipsters playing along), and let’s get this sorted.