Are we working or playing?

Recently I’ve been talking to companies that want me to improve staff productivity. The opening conversation tends to be about the same: they pitch me on their company and what a “great place to work” it is. They brag about how smart the people are, how much fun everyone has, and how it’s more like a family that a bunch of co-workers. They describe all the perks like massages, video games, beer-on-tap, coffee bars, and how much everyone loves them. “Sounds like you have it all together,” I say after hearing all of this. “Well,” they reply, “I just wish we could get a bit more out of them.”

After a while I get them to admit that what they want more of is what other industries call “work”. They usually cringe at the sound of the word, and begin their journey through the stages of grief:

  • Denial – “People do work – and work hard! We play hard but we work hard too!”
  • Anger – “It’s _____’s fault people don’t want to work! We should have fixed ____ sooner!”
  • Bargaining – “We just need better leadership, then we won’t have to change anything.”
  • Depression – “This is impossible, we’ll never get them to work.”
  • Acceptance – “I guess we created an environment that encourages them to play, and not work.”

Yep, that’s it: you created a playground where people come into the office to play – that is, if you require them to come into the office at all.

I get it. It’s extremely hard to attract and retain talent in this market, which has companies going above and beyond to make their work environment as attractive as possible – especially on the surface so that candidates can be impressed when they get the office tour. The problem with this approach is you want people to come and work for your company, not play at your company. If you set the expectation that they can play more at your company that at another company, you may get them on your payroll but you’ll be breaking their expectations if you require them to do any work. You sold them a playground, and now you want them to work? That’s called a bait-and-switch, and that’s exactly what it would be.

“We’ll never be able to attract talent unless we have all these perks”, they then say. The issue with this line of reasoning is that creating a playground is relatively cheap. A modest investment will get you most of the colorful and shiny toys you need to look like a fun place to work. Because of that, though, it’s also easy for your competitors to buy the same colorful and shiny toys. If you want to play that game, it’s going to be a race to the bottom until the office is nothing but a non-stop foam party in a ball-pit filled with candy.

To help understand why “perks” are not the right way to think about attracting candidates, consider these two scenarios:

In the first scenario, a candidate is walked through an office, which has all the perks anyone could every want:

  • An open, brightly lit beautiful office space.
  • Comfortable couches and chairs with people kicked back in comfortable clothes chatting and laughing with their co-workers.
  • A barista, beer keg, and a fridge stocked with free snacks and beverages.
  • An Xbox and PlayStation permanently hooked up to a 70 inch TV surrounded by bean-bags.
  • A massage chair with a masseuse on standby.
  • Ping-pong, foosball, and air hockey tables.
  • Lots of stuffed animals and retro toys scattered around.
  • Christmas lights. Lots and lots of Christmas lights.

“So, what does your company do?” the candidate asks. Excitedly the tour guide says, “Everyone here is 100% dedicated to revolutionizing the way in which people access the things they need to manage their lives. It’s challenging work, but everyone here works hard and plays hard, and is 100% committed to the company’s success!” While being demoed the company’s app, the candidate discovers a collaborative to-do list with chat features and custom emojis. “That’s just our first version – the next version is gonna be AWESOME!” they say, “that’s what you’ll be working on!”

In our second scenario, the candidate’s phone navigates them to an industrial part of town littered with derelict abandoned buildings. After circling the block a few times, by process of elimination they figure out which steel door to knock on. After a several knocks, eventually someone swings open the door excitedly expecting a package. Once they figure out there is no package, they inform you that their bathrooms are not open to the public. “I think I’m here for an interview?” the candidate says, confused. “Oh!” The person says,  “Sorry, sorry, come on in.” Across the dirty concrete floor are people hunched over folding tables littered with electronics equipment and PC laptops running Linux that have seen better days. Without turning around someone yells “Is that the new power supply?” “No,” they reply, “someone’s here for an interview.”

“Oh, shit!” another person says and springs up from their work bench, jogs across the former garage while picking bits of wire off their sweater, and extends a dirty hand for a handshake. “I’m so sorry – we’re having an issue right now that we’re trying to fix and lost track of time – come and meet the team.” As the candidate is introduced to everyone, it’s clear that they are exhausted and frustrated, but are trying their best to be friendly. “So, what’s the issue you were working on?” the candidate asks. People then immediately jump into a heated debate on how to best explain the issue and what potentially could be causing it. The candidate says, “I’ve seen similar issues before in my own projects, do you mind if I give it a try?” The group looks shocked, but someone gives up their workstation and the candidate sits down and starts to work the issue. Everyone gathers around, watching and giving pointers where the candidate didn’t understand how their specific system worked. After about an hour, the issue is mostly resolved, and everyone collapses in their chairs still exhausted but relieved. The person with the dirty handshake says, “you totally have the job – what was your name again?”

Contemporary industry practices indicate that the candidate would clearly choose the first scenario, and would never even consider the second. After all, the first scenario was shiny and fun, but the second scenario was dirty and looked like hard work. I don’t agree with this line of thinking, and believe the candidate would choose the second. I can never know for sure, as this is only a thought experiment, but I hold the belief that people want to engage deeply with meaningful work, surrounded by people who want to do the same.

Work feels good. When we work hard we feel fulfilled and that our life has purpose. When we don’t work, we feel empty and that our life has no meaning. Being paid to play makes us feel superficial, shallow, and lazy. This has the effect of lowering our self-esteem, which in turn can lead to depression despite being surrounded by the trappings that are supposed to make us happy. Working hard teaches us lifelong lessons about ourselves, and tests the limits of what we are capable off. When we go home, we are tired but with a bit of rest we will be refreshed and ready for the challenges tomorrow will bring. When we play, eventually the toys will stop being fun, and no amount of imported artisan craft beer will fill the hole that humans can only fill through meaningful work.

So what advice do I give a company that is not getting work done in the playground of their own creation? I tell them to get rid of the playground. “People will leave!!!” Sure they will – you’re pulling a bait and switch. I then tell them to create a product that provides meaningful work, “This is our product – we can’t change it!” Of course you can’t – investors and customers have expectations based on your current product, and you can’t just reinvent the company overnight without consequences. I then politely inform them that I do not have the skill to help them, and that they will need to seek help elsewhere. Having experience means I know my limitations, and I can no more convert a playground to a work environment than I can an amusement park into a library.

As a final word, I do have some advice for people who are currently working in a playground, but are feeling a empty and depressed: leave and find someplace where you can engage deeply with meaningful work. If you’ve only worked in playgrounds you’ll find a real workplace shocking and unfamiliar, and you’ll want to quit. You’ll feel useless, and that you aren’t making a contribution. That feeling is accurate: you are useless, and you are not making a contribution because you are only now starting to learn how to work. That’s going to take time but if you stick with it, eventually you’ll progress from being a novice to an expert, and will figure out the optimal circumstances under which you can do your best work. At that point, you will be in a position to contribute something truly meaningful that history will remember. I cannot think of a more noble aspiration, but it begins with humbling and sometimes humiliating hard work.

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