I sometimes wonder what a visitor from a typical mid-20th century work culture would think if he or she were to land in many companies today. Everything would look different – no typing pool, more conference rooms, people walking around in casual clothes and maybe even a foosball table and some beanbag chairs. Layer on the the influx of personal technology and the changes in expected gender roles and you would have a disorienting experience.
If I were to bring you into a tech company office environment today and you saw some employees playing ping-pong or foosball, while others were enjoying their espressos at bar-height counters while talking about some business idea, you might think it would be a cool place to work. The problem is that while some companies like that are in fact great places to work, we can’t be sure based upon office decor alone.
In his fantastic book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Effective Groups, author Daniel Coyle does a good job explaining the difference environments that work and those that don’t. In short, there are two types of fun: deep fun and shallow fun. From Coyle:
“Shallow fun is playing games. Deep fun is when you give people real control over their experience: give them a budget to redesign the conference rooms, or hold a hackathon. Groups that do this thrive because they are connecting in a deeper way that creates ownership. They also, studies show, make four times the profit compared to companies that focus only on shallower modes of engagement.”
Among those of us in the tech world who visit a lot of companies it is common to joke about visiting a large, highly-regulated, bureaucratic behemoth and have the meeting on the “cool” floor in their building where they feature a faux-tech company vibe. When asked “so how was the meeting?”, the reply might be “great – we had it on their bean-bag and coffee bar floor”. But we know that many of these companies are far from the “deep fun” that Coyle is talking about.
Great software developers don’t want to work at a bank or old-time manufacturer even though the chairs are avant-garde.. Banks, for example, have come to realize this and thus occassionally use corporate acquisitions to get the talent they need, giving them two years (a normal lock-up period) to suck all the creativity from the brains of the new employees before they depart for the next thing. Not exactly inspiring.
As you think about your own culture, know that the foosball table by itself doesn’t confer an effective culture. An effective culture is earned through engagement, participation, shared vision, and a host of tell-tale signals that Coyle captures well in his book.