When I worked at my last Silicon Valley tech startup I was diagnosed with Vitamin D deficiency by my doctor.
Me: "Well how do I fix it?"
Doc: "Go outside."
There is a debate on simmer about the perceived death of the 40-hour work week. I'd like to sprinkle a bit of paprika in the stew and call out these so-called employee "perks" as a deliberate attempt to keep butts in seats and give companies the biggest bang for their buck from each employee.
Funny thing is, my doctor mentioned to me that he was startled to see so many young people suffering from the same vitamin deficiency. He would often conduct queries and found that, overwhelmingly, those with this deficiency worked in tech startups and behemoth early stage companies. So I think it's time to shine a light on what I see as a not-so-accidental manipulation of culture that is focused on company metrics and profitability under the guise of being employee-centric and the "funnest place to work in the history of ever.".
Having worked in the dot com 1.0 heydays of finance and tech, I saw this new culture shift take shape right before my eyes. Movies like The Wolf of Wall Street were shockingly accurate portrayals of scenarios in my day-to-day. One theme throughout that era was this unwritten/unsaid expectation that you never leave the office before your boss does. In fact, a majority of my co-workers' bottom right file drawers contained a lightweight sleeping bag and a rolled pillow for those 2 to 3 nights per week they'd be required to pull all-nighters in order for the team to succeed. That mentality borne in the '90s is engrained into many of the CEOs who now head companies in dot com 2.0. Companies have adopted a more PC version of The Wolf of Wall Street in the cultures they've curated but the underlying expectation is still the same. Work until you tap out. Grab a kombucha, a Red Bull, 2 bags of chips and get your ass back to work.
I've participated in numerous videos touting a company's culture. I'm Black and gay, so I'm always on the hook for the diversity piece. While others had to play their part to make our company culture appear to rival Disney theme parks' as the greatest place on earth. And we were largely successful in attracting the right type of Millennials with the right pedigree and education. I'd watch them join the company and feel a little sad seeing them arrive with the excitement and gusto of a first grader on the first day of school. As each hour would progress I'd watch the smile begin to fade, the gait slow, and the tale-tell "WTF did I just do?" look take over their face. The realization would eventually set in that they'd been duped by the video of the smiling, 40-something, Black, gay dude doing multiple, hands-free cartwheels in succession and all of the "best place ever" testimonials littered throughout the video. And then their real job actually begins. Right after the free, welcome lunch with the other forlorn-faced newbies wondering the same, "WTF?"
So here's the thing. Let's call it what it is. This isn't culture or even curation of culture. This is a blatant attempt to squeeze as much juice from the turnip as it will yield. I don't necessarily see it as sinister. But to cloak it in the BS of live/work balance, and employee-centric perks programs that truly aren't centered around an employee's well being actually makes it so. To be clear, culture isn't created or cultivated. It's as organic as falling in love. It's something that you set the stage for with hopes that it will manifest in the way you'd hoped...or damned close.
Companies that are truly employee-centric BACK OFF. They're not wooing people with fancy food programs or progressive minimalist office design. Companies that get it are investing that money into their employees' education and development, consistently driving home their company's mission statement and values, and allowing their employees the opportunity to do their best work with a supportive cast around them. Most importantly, they realize the value of and respect an employee's time away from work. When employees are allowed to live and actually have a weekend or truly take a vacation, they tend to be more focused, productive and happy in their jobs. Research also shows that they stay in position longer at their companies even when taking home 10-30% less pay than their startup counterparts working 60+ hours a week, gaining the "Freshman 15" from all the free food.
This epidemic of perks-driven servitude is continuing to churn out a bunch of nonconfident, under-socialized, burnt out, Vitamin D deficient young adults who are working 60+ hours a week simply because that's the "culture" and where the majority of their friends now are. At work. Because all of their other friends peaced them out ages ago because they got sick of being canceled on and neglected.
So how do we fix it?
Personally, I think it will take a bit of a revolution. And one that is started on an individual basis. I believe the one thing that we fail to remember is that we were hired for a specific role for which we were the best candidate. Our skills sets and demeanor determined that we were competent and likely not an ax murderer, so we were given the permission to join the company. When I teach elite Executive Assistants in my classes around the world I always remind them of this simple phrase: IT'S ABOUT THE WORK. Companies have created so much smoke and mirrors in their hiring practices and culture that they, too, need to realize that IT'S ABOUT THE WORK. All efforts on the part of the company should be to enhance the ability to do the work as comprehensively and efficiently as possible. That's it. Sure, be nice. Have a little fun. But all of these coffee bars, DJ sets at lunch, and nap rooms...c'mon now!
Employees have the superpower of choice. Both at work and in their own lives. Choosing to come to work prepared, pre-caffeinated, and ready to crush it is 100% a choice. Tuning out the guy with the unicorn head on, cracking jokes for 40 minutes and focusing on completing a critical project in record time is 100% a choice. And packing up your bags at 5:30pm knowing that you've crushed it (and can prove it) while walking through your open plan office of people wondering "Where TF are you going?" is 100% a choice. AND your right as an employee who consistently produces stellar work.
Just like no one is going to simply hand you a promotion, no one is going to grant you the permission to have a life. Especially in today's work environment. You must take what is yours and control what you have control of. Unabashedly. People may frown and make assumptions about your dedication. But as long as you're able to produce the caliber of work for which you were hired that consistently exceeds expectation, you're likely on your way home on time every night and first in line for the promotion that the 60-hours+ dude who spends at least 2 hours per day at the coffee bar alchemizing the perfect cup swears he's going to get. In short, be both incredibly smart and fearlessly protective with your time. Not falling victim to the "stay late" peer pressure is how we will all begin to shift the culture tide back to the shores of humanity and away from the deep seas of insanity.
Pass on the free lunch and go outside. Better yet, bring empty food containers from home, fill them up with free food and go outside and have lunch under a tree. Or meet a friend for lunch and talk about anything other than what you spend the day coding. No one, to my knowledge, willfully subscribed to handing over their lives and relationships to work at the best place in the history of ever. You were vetted from many and hired specifically to DO A JOB. Do it to the very best of your abilities in the shortest time possible and beat a path outta there. On time. Every night. And encourage your workmates to do the same. Drag them kicking and screaming out of the building if you must. But let's recognize "the game" for what it is and start playing it better vs. continually being played. This generation's success and your individual health and happiness depend on it.