When Casual Corporate Culture Backfires

Posted on December 4, 2014

Can a corporate culture be so casual that work gets performed by accident?   Can front-line employees view their executives so casually they view them as peers and respect for authority becomes optional?

One of the trends I’ve observed in the Technology sector since the dot-com boom of the late 1990’s is how some workplace environments have become recreational zones.  Having been around the computer gaming industry in the 1990’s, this became a commonplace practice to attract programmer talent.  Stepping inside the offices of Electronic Arts, Activision or Eidos meant walking into an office building on the outside, but experiencing a Dave & Buster’s arcade experience on the inside.  You forgot you were in a real business — and that was the goal.  Executives figured out that if they made work fun (think skateboarding in the hallways) and supplied enough caffeine (cappuccino machines and Red Bull) they could not only attract talent, but get them to work insane hours and not realize it.  It was like some sort of Hawthorne Effect experiment.

More technology companies began adopting this approach in the 2000’s and it became en vogue for office culture to resemble a cafe or arcade.  The problem is that serious work generally doesn’t get done in either of them.

The culture changes didn’t stop at interior office design as employee perks (led by Google) ranged from on-site child care, entertainment, boondoggle retreats, and sabbaticals.  Next up was to remove hard wall offices in favor of the open cube concept because we didn’t want single contributors to feel offended that executives got their own office (despite their need for confidentiality).  Open cubes then evolved into shared desktops (think picnic benches) where people sat together in work groups.  The thinking was that if everyone in the corporation from Vice Presidents to secretaries sat in the same digs, the organization would experience some sort of unity and sense of “we’re all in this together” that would bolster employee retention and productivity.

A walk through Dell, Rackspace, or similar companies gives you the impression you are standing in a cavernous shopping mall full of cubes. That’s because you are.  These companies actually bought shopping malls to turn into a workspace where thousands of cubes are only interrupted by ping pong tables and (you guessed it), machines dispensing caffeine.

Are We Making it Too Comfortable to Actually Work?

What may have started off as a well-intended HR undertaking in workplace psychology may have produced some serious unintended consequences.  I have personally experienced these side affects while working for, and/or advising multiple technology companies.  I am going to offer 3 observations that suggest when we make it too comfortable in the office to get work done, work doesn’t get done:

  1. Overly casual attire – I enjoy being comfortable like the next guy, but have found that when I put on professional office attire, it contributes to putting me in a frame of mind to actually engage in professional office work activity.  When the workplace attire is too casual and comfortable, concentration becomes more difficult as the body wants to relax.
  2. Too many perks – I enjoy espresso in the office, nice decor, and green space like the next guy.  However, an abundance of distractions ranging from ping pong tables to climbing walls and reflection ponds are going to naturally compete for the attention span of employees.  The lure of walking away from one’s desk every hour to watch TV, observe co-workers playing video games, or just shooting the breeze for 20 minutes at the espresso bar is a productivity killer.
  3. Removal of visual cues of authority in the office: the idea of everyone sitting in the same types of chairs, desks, and having all the same privileges regardless of job level creates a blurred sense of authority. This socialistic approach where “everyone wears grey and stands in the same food line” serves to consolidate the workforce into a homogeneous talent pool.  Further, open concepts that remove private offices serve to place the company’s confidential information at risk as phone conversations are easily overheard (or recorded) and access to computer systems becomes easier.  Beyond these aspects, the blurring of lines of authority creates a situation where employees can view directives from executives as “requests” to meet a deadline.  Because lower level workers view the senior level authority figures as peers, they lose the sense of respect for authority and obligation of duty to fulfill the directions given.  Instead, a directive from a casually dressed VP sitting at an open table gets processed by the often younger employee as a request to which their response is “I’ll try” or “if I can get to it.”  Ironically, it then actually becomes unpopular for the VP to enforce accountability.

I believe that the most effective workplace culture respects individuals and seeks to help each employee explore/maximize their potential — but at the end of the day, the organization can’t lose sight of the fact that they are a business.






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