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December 31, 2006

« Mini-me McMansions | Main | New geography of breakthrough science »

Google_2 The real legacy of the '60s is not Woodstock (or even Greenwich Village in its halcyon hippie days), it's Silicon Valley's style of  free-spirited, laid-back, blurred-boundaries, around-the-clock work. 

Now,  Google 's new downtown campus is bringing the no-collar workplace to the veritable  belly of finance capitalism, New York City, whose high-rise towers filled with those men in gray-flannel suits defined the epicenter of '50s-style organization man corporate culture.  According to the New York Times:

"The campus-like workspace is antithetical to the office culture of most New York businesses. It is a vision of a workplace utopia as conceived by rich, young, single engineers in Silicon Valley, transplanted to Manhattan. The New York tradition of leaving the office to network over lunch or an evening cocktail party has no place at Google, where employees are encouraged to socialize among themselves. There are groups of Gayglers, Newglers and Bikeglers (who bike to work together) ...For a Thank God It’s Almost Friday gathering on Dec. 14, Laura Garrett, a sales operations specialist, organized an art show. “Being a Googler and being part of Chelsea, I wanted to do something that was more downtownish than a typical Google event,” said Ms. Garrett, a blonde wearing Marc Jacobs heels. Williamsburg artists created the work on display, for prices from $225 to $8,000  ...The Empire State Building glowed red and green in the background as if color-coordinated to the Googleplex’s interiors rather than Christmas. By 6:30 p.m., Steve Saviano, 22, a software engineer, was hanging out with his fellow Googlers at a table littered with empty beer and wine bottles. "This is academic life all over again,” Mr. Saviano said. “But I’m getting paid. This is a 100 percent better option than graduate school.”

The rest is here (Hat tip: Rana/ Tim Gulden).

Three things crossed my mind as I read the story and scanned its pictures, which interestingly enough appeared in the fashion and style section and not the business section.

  • (1) You can't pump creative work out of people, assembly-line style.  Motivating this kind of mental work requires a new kind of  workplace, one that appears to be nurturing,  attuned to individuality, and "fun"-  a trend I dubbed "soft-control" in Rise.
  • (2) It's a mistake to see this stuff as all frills and perks. Companies are doing it because it is increasingly required to attract top talent.  Offering a stimulating environment, flexible work hours, and the ability to be "yourself" is an effective and relatively "cheap" way of competing against, say, investment banks and hedge-funds.
  • (3)  Scanning the photos, I was struck by the similarity between these new work-spaces and college dorm rooms, where so many of these high-tech companies come from, or even the play-spaces of middle age teenagers. Could it be that the demographic trends toward postponed marriage, extended single years and what Ethan Watters dubbed the "urban tribe" are being projected into the work-place?

Question: What does this re-framing of work as part "play" mean for the way we define our work and ourselves, and for our society? Your thoughts.


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mark safranski

"What does this re-framing of work as part "play" mean for the way we define our work and ourselves, and for our society?"

Partly, it is a return to the preindustrial mode of life where there was no clear delineation between "work" and " home" or " private life". It will be more creativity and at times more stress, but overall, probably be much better for employees.

OTOH we shouldn't overestimate the extent to which this is going to happen, which will involve knowledge workers who can " work" wherever there is an internet connection. Millions are still going to have to get up in the morning and " go to work".

Moreover, middle-level management is going to wage guerilla war against this trend because it cuts into their ability to exercise pointless and economically counterproductive - but very ego-satisfying - control over employees time and mode of work. Greater comfort and autonomy for employees is a diminishment of managerial status and power. Something of greater psychological importance to this group than the distant and abstract corporate bottom line.


Mark-- I could not agree with your superb points about middle-management more! You nail it. These are exactly the same kind of people who not only sabotage corporate change efforts but community change efforts as well - the community types are, if anything, even worse. I always like what Jane Jacobs called them - the "squelchers" - that's exactly what they are.

mark safranski

Thank you very much. Unless middle level managers become focused value-adders in their own right, instead of glorified hall monitors, they're a drag on creativity, productivity and information flow. We need to find better uses for these people.

Your academic background seems to have been heavily influenced by economists, so I imagine you've read Thorstein Veblen. He had a lot of insights into the cultural/social noneconomic behaviors that are submerged in our ostensibly economic ones. Kind of forgotten these days but Veblen's due for a revival of interest.

sean fizzy

middle management has always been a pain in my ass. i think that the key is to allow employees some freedom to do non-work related activities while on the clock. creativity is a very personal possession, and handing out ideas to slave drivers has never appealed to me. as long as I can remember i have been most productive when i have been the least managed.
for some employers this was not really possible, as they were looking for quantity as opposed to quality, but at other places, with a larger staff all working in the same way, there was enough freedom and enough nurturing that i got to really push myself creatively.
i am still pretty young, so i am very excited to see what this all turns in to in the next 10 years when i will really be engulfed in my career.

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