Work Environments

I realized the other day that I’m not sure I could work in a “normal” work environment or that I even really understand one anymore on a gut level.

I’ve worked in tech for 13 years now, since a year after I graduated college. The shit job I had at an occult bookstore I had in the year between college and tech doesn’t really count as a “normal” work environment to contrast against. I mean, the boss used to close the store early on occasion to lock the doors, go in the back room, and light up a joint. The only thing I have to show for that job, other than a few books that I still own and a dislike of crazy people, is a few friends and/or ex-lovers that I met while working there…

I see representations of the work environments that a lot of people work within and I’ve seen hints of it, especially in the year that I was at MobiTV. Lightless offices full of beige cubicles occupied by people in white shirts, occasionally even ties and dress shoes. Think of the opening scenes of the Matrix where Mr. Anderson is at work. The kind of environments full of bad feng shui that convince people to take a coffee break up to an upper deck and leap off in order to alleviate boredom/stress/ennui/despair-at-life.

Generally speaking, most tech jobs are much different, especially in the boom years where companies are striving with great diligence to convince employees not to go elsewhere for more cash/options/food like the little mercenaries that most smart industrial workers really are… (My grandfather worked for the same company from almost the time he graduated college until retirement, with only a government job for a year or two in between at the beginning. I believe his reward was a nice watch and a pension.) This is especially true in the Bay Area, where tech is king, whether people like it or not.

Rather than the arrangement described above (well, honestly, a lot of places are still cubicle farms), it is much more common to see tech workers, ill kept and in flip-flops, cavorting around in shorts with their free Red Bull fighting with nerf (tm) weapons or playing with their wii (tm). At my current job (which is, admittedly, owned by a non-profit foundation), this came to me when I wandered through the downstairs on the way out the other night. At nearly 7:00 PM, a group of coworkers and interns were sitting on the giant couches in front of the projection tv playing a sports game on the Xbox 360 that lives in the area. This was the first time I’d seen the wii unplugged in weeks. Normally, they are playing tennis on it in groups of four.

Looking at these young guys (early 20s) with their free drinks playing games, having a good time, reminded me far more of the break areas back in college than it did of your typical pitiless mercantile master of a corporation. I am certain that the creators of the space in the company would be quite glad with the comparison as well.

We’re next door (down the block in either direction) to Google, which I have visited on occasion. It has been commented on in a blog recently (no, I don’t remember where) about how Google takes college graduates, who have been living in the dorms for years, and gives them a cool place to work where they are fed free food in a cafeteria, dentists and other professional services are brought in and, basically, the people can continue to live just like they did in college in the dorms except they actually find their own apartments or group houses. Their needs are met in a “fun” and “playful” atmosphere which, in many ways, seeks to artificially extend the college experience well into later adulthood.

Now, I kind of roll my eyes at this and think of crass motives on the part of founders of companies but, really, if you reflect on it, it isn’t a bad deal or a bad environment, all things considered. Compare this to working in a financial company, like a bank or a brokerage, or in a service industry and you get the idea that it is nice to be coddled and given a playful environment instead of wanting to hang yourself by your regulation necktie (except on Fridays, when you’d have to use your shoelaces unless you’re wearing loafers – in which case, you are truly fucked).

Of course, one possible downside to this is the sheer unreality of the whole thing. Compare this pampered existence (or at least shielded one in a over the top friendly environment) with the reality of worklife for most of the globe and the contrast and ginormous (now a word!) gap is quite striking. What happens when Timmy the Googler gets laid off (of course not!) or just burned out and finds out at age 30-something that the world isn’t the nice ride he’s been given up to that point. The level of privilege could cause problems for some.

That said, at the end of the day, I know what kind of environment I’d rather work in if I’m working for someone other than myself.