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Bond or Bust: This 'design oasis' was created at JuiceDesign for its employees to be able to work and play together. Thanks to model Craig and to Brett and Matt of www.juicedesign.com, whose office was used in these shots.

DotCom Deliverance

Dotcoms are revolutionizing the workplace with office pool tables, on-site masseuses, skydives and ski junkets. But some say the formula is just a variation on an old theme: their money, your life.

By Tomas Matza

YOU'RE IN AN AIRPLANE a few thousand feet up, getting ready to make the big jump. Through fogged goggles you can make out the silhouette of your boss backlit by the great blue yonder, his suit vigorously flapping in the wind. This guy single-handedly came up with a billion-dollar idea, attracted the capital to make it float and launched your company. But right now he's gripping the plane's doorway, looking like a cat about to be stuffed into a pet taxi. Even more unfortunate, in a moment of uncontrolled panic, he has wet his jumpsuit.

Behold, the dotcom employee retreat.

Ski trips. Afternoon barbecues. Water-skiing excursions. And, yes, sky-diving. Never before has informal socializing been such a key part of office protocol on an industry-wide scale. Other perks like in-house pool and pingpong tables, group dinners, bean-bag conference rooms, on-staff masseuses and nap rooms suggest that the foundations beneath traditional starched-white-collar business practices are shifting. And it's happening in a way that is at once appeasing and alarming.

In the mumbo-jumbo rhetoric of corporate culture, these employee trips and activities are hailed as effective ways to promote teamwork and trust. And on some level, witnessing a boss lose bladder control along with fellow workers can add a bit of closeness to worker relationships. Furthermore, once on terra firma, discussing how drool flies up out of the corners of one's mouth during high-speed falling can result in a kind of camaraderie. Encouraging co-workers to get to know each other--and higher-ups--outside the office is meant to introduce a more human dimension to the workplace, increase office efficiency, and foster a sense of enthusiasm for the daily grind. But because of the way these activities necessarily edge into people's social lives, are they also invasive?

A spokesman for the corporate-sabotage group ®™ark (pronounced "art-mark"), who goes by the pseudonym "Ray Thomas," thinks so. He sees the perks as being insidious in nature. In a conversation that fell, appropriately, two days after the ®™ark-sponsored World Phone-In-Sick Day, Thomas said that this is just one of many ways that corporations cajole employees into "voluntarily" giving up chunks of their leisure time. "They're just little tricks that work. These employees need to be treated with 'respect,' in quotes, because they do have a lot of power compared to other workers. They have to be treated with kid gloves and exploited very carefully. The trips are like very carefully placed peanuts."

Thomas' view is a characteristic one where work, in general, is seen as part of an exploitative relationship between labor and management. A quick scan through the book titles produced by the academic discipline of "industrial psychology" reveals the following examples:

    Work Psychology and Organizational Behaviour: Managing the individual at work

    The Corporate Negaholic: How to deal successfully with negative colleagues, managers, and corporations

    Recharge your team: Keep them going and going

Thomas is disturbed by the concept of employees as resources, not people. By using rhetoric that transforms workers into Energizer bunnies, companies seem to objectify the workers as they try to pat them on the back. The same thing might be said of the goals of the bonding trips themselves. In such a world, Thomas would like to see, at the very least, the workaday life returned to just eight hours a day, five days a week.

Whistle While You Work

BUT THERE ARE OTHERS who take a different view. Since we have to work, they reason, why not try to make it a more pleasant experience? Patric Douglas is one of the people who makes the trips happen. He is the CEO (he calls himself "Chief Excitement Officer") at Absolute Adventures, and for the last three years he has been organizing limousine scavenger hunts, sunset cruises and whitewater rafting trips as a kind of outings contractor for companies like CNET, Rent Tech, SelfCare and Handspring. According to Douglas, blowing off steam is critical for a healthy work environment. "Unless you get to know co-workers on a basic human level, learn their sense of timing or humor, their demonstrated interests, your team environment falls apart. You may inadvertently piss off a co-worker with an off-color remark, not knowing their personal situation. ... Humans naturally want to bond. Most workplaces prevent that. We ensure that."

Others inside the dotcom world see a need for informal interaction as well. Excite systems operator Eric Anderson has organized similar events on his own. He describes with pride a paint-ball team he put together to take on challengers from Infoseek. "They were all dressed in camo gear; we beat the pants off them." Having a chance to enjoy the office makes intuitive sense to him. "The kinds of relationships that we have at work are pretty important. Half our lives are spent here, so we mix fun in if we can. ... We need to go home, too, but we don't work so hard that we can't spend some time with our comrades."

Carole Bosch, marketing communications manager at Cogit.com, explains that while her company hasn't yet sponsored any major trips, it hopes to soon. In the meantime, Cogit employees frequently go out to dinner together. "As with most startups, we're extremely interested in fostering teamwork. At dotcoms, people work hard and fast, they put in long hours, and these activities are good to relieve pressure and put the group back together. It's a way to release some of the stress and bond at the same time."

But there's more to these dotcom trips and activities than stress-relief and bonding. In an industry constantly striving to attract young talent, they are tools for recruiting as well as retaining employees. "Employee retention is one of the primary ways for measuring an Internet company these days," says Lee Topar, currently employed at Epinions.com. "This is mostly due to the high costs associated with knowledge transfer and training, the dearth of qualified applicants, and because it is a potential indication of weak management." As such, startups have also used excursions, as well as game-room gear, to woo would-be marketers, engineers and project managers.

According to one insider, "The kinds of packages you'll be offered by dotcoms may be very similar, and the fact that one organizes hockey games and another pingpong matches could make the decision."

Patric Douglas' perspective on the importance of the trips takes it a step further: "These companies are doing massive hirings. Most of their hires are new to the Bay Area, and that's where we come in. We cement their valuable employee into the area and provide them with an instant social life."

Indeed, this may be the first time that a career path has been tailor-made for recent college grads on such a large scale. Almost the entire industry is young, and accordingly, most dotcoms offer their employees a young working environment. The result is a workplace that isn't much different from college. Danielle Rollo works at Beenz.com, her third startup. She describes a "party atmosphere" at some companies. "Everyone is the same age and it's a fairly homogeneous, friendly environment. You share space, pull a lot of late hours together and almost immediately become good friends." The end of the honeymoon, she adds, paradoxically enough, is when the money starts to roll in: "As it grows, things usually shift to a more corporate style."

Ah, the dreaded corporate style. This can mean one of two things: pool-game banter replaced by hushed and paranoid water-cooler chats, or else forced attempts at being "hip" and "with it." One large Silicon Valley company's efforts to keep pace, socially speaking, have fallen a little, well, short. According to one longtime employee there, "One day we had a kind of Olympics in a park and I found myself dressed up in a fat suit wearing a sumo wrestler's outfit. I was going against my 45-year-old manager. ... Yeah, it's great to get away from your desk, it's just that the functions aren't really chosen by us." This employee has friends at startups and says their trips to Sonoma to get rip-roaring drunk sound a lot more appealing.

Couch Corporate Couch: Higher-ups often nudge their employees to fraternize with co-workers in a way that many aren't always this comfy with.


The Out-Crowd

AMID ALL THE dotcom boosterism, there is a small but growing cadre of dissenters. Because they need to remain anonymous to protect their jobs, they're hard to find. But they're there, and they are not looking to be "cemented" anywhere. They do not want their companies to provide them with a social life, and "bonding" to them is more like getting forcibly glued to a co-worker than having fun on the company dime and becoming more productive in the process.

Opting out of the activities, as one Internet professional explains, may even be a bad career move. "The person who doesn't go on a trip or to a dinner will be seen as not being a team player. Because San Francisco is so small and people switch jobs so frequently, you can develop a reputation for yourself. It's kind of like getting put on the dotcom blacklist." She notes that a main company selling point to investors is the fact that it has a core group of hard-working individuals. Not surprisingly, this filters down to office protocol. "There is a level of informal social control involved. It's like 'forced fun,' and you have to become one of the gang to be accepted. If you opt out, you run the risk of being ostracized." And at that point the bonding trips fail in terms of office efficiency. They become an all-or-none proposition: they're only effective if everyone participates.

Most employees are in fact ready and willing to participate and are looking for exactly what they're getting: a fun, laid-back place to work. "There just happen to be a lot of intelligent, dynamic, fun people working in the industry, so it's a pretty social atmosphere and you get to know these people pretty well," says Lee Topar. "Once that happens," he adds, referring to the employee retreats, "the trips become that much more enjoyable. Some people are apathetic, they're just there for the free trip, but for the most part people are looking for a social atmosphere when they come to work."

The dotcom job postings seem to confirm young employees' desire for informal interaction at work. Take this one, posted on the job site craigslist.com: "We have beanbag chairs, a remote-controlled toy car, an office dog, and we eat lunch together on Wednesdays. ..." Or this one from AutionWatch.com: "If your interests include skiing, snowboarding, windsurfing, music, movies, motor-cross, playing pool (on our in-house table), Quake or Nerf wars ... AuctionWatch.com is the place for you."

Judging from the level of employee commitment, something is working--whether it's team-building or informal forms of social control. It would seem, therefore, to be an appealing and indirect way for any CEO to squeeze a little more from engineers, administrators and salespeople. Not for Kim Fisher, however, who is the CEO of AudioBasket. This is Fisher's third startup, and her experience suggests that there is a less savory side to the fun and games.

"I've seen a lot of companies and incubators with foosball and pool tables, a massage room in their office space, and my philosophy is if people are done working they should probably go somewhere else. We do spend a lot of time working in this industry and we should have a more well-rounded life. We certainly have a glass of champagne together to support funding events and we give people access to local sports clubs, but I'm a big believer that people should get out and interact with others."

AudioBasket currently employs 37 people, and there has been no turnover. This suggests that there are at least three-dozen professionals interested in things besides company meals and dropping out of the sky with a cubicle mate. Fisher says, "We recently hired someone who said he was turned off by companies where he was interviewing when they said they provided free dinners. That scared him. He thought, 'Are they expecting me to hang around?'"

Fisher believes a company can offer employees more valuable perks than pool tables--things like ergonomic work spaces and a safer environment. On one level, it comes down to a matter of preference. According to Fisher, most of AudioBasket's employees are between the ages of 30 and 50--a much higher average than that of the standard dotcom. And a more mature worker may look for different things: a higher degree of professionalism, fewer rubber balls, more space between desks.

While Fisher admits that the dotcom bonding trip may increase employee longevity and create a more tightly knit team, she also points out a less savory side. "I think they're trying to create an environment where people will stay and work later." To hear something even approximately like ®™ark's opinion expressed by a CEO in the industry is somewhat shocking. And Fisher points to another fact that may undermine the entire enterprise of the bonding trip: "Teamwork and communication are of the utmost importance, but I think that these internal things could create a sort of cliquishness. Informal communication is always important, but I want to make sure the kind of communications that are improved are those that have to do with getting excited about the product."

One question that ought to be raised is whether trips, and especially in-house games, end up achieving what's intended, namely increasing productivity. Even when workers are staying longer, they may not be getting more done. According to one person fairly new to the Internet industry, "The pressure to stay longer than you'd like exists and it's real. Since I've been working in dotcoms, no one has ever told me, 'It's time to go home.' But oddly enough, it always has more to do with the number of hours you stay than with the amount of work you get done."

David Newman, who works for Epinions, is less skeptical. When he talks about the trips he's recently taken, he doesn't frame them in terms of enforced bonding or team-building, but rather as rare bonuses. "The company promised something and followed through. With other companies I've been with you often don't end up going. Something comes up, or some key people can't make it."

Similarly, Patric Douglas doesn't place too much emphasis on the bonding, nor does he necessarily see these activities as a silver bullet to end all intra-office squabbles. Instead, he sees himself as working with companies that already have a solid "corporate culture." "We never, never tell employees 'it's a team-building event.' In fact we are anti-team building. Let's face it, if you think your manager or co-worker is a jerk, you'll still think he or she is a jerk after you have been forced to climb ropes or bang drums together for a weekend that you could have been spending with friends."

The companies with bad culture, it should be pointed out, are often the ones that aren't so much riding the technology wave as drowning in it. And compared to bonding trips, the stock option is the far more appealing dangling carrot. It works over employees in a similar way as the ski trip: the sense of part-ownership one gets when one owns stock subverts the standard corporate paradigm in the same way that the ski trip does. According to ®™ark's Ray Thomas, "The stock option thing--owning stocks is an extremely effective means to get people to lower their quality of life." He adds, "Not many of these dotcom stock options will pay out, of course, though some people at the very top will get very rich."

Rockclimber Corporate Climbers: In the spirit of dotcom adventure, rock climbing, spelunking, kayaking, river rafting and mountain treks are used as vehicles for building team unity. Some love it, but others prefer to spend their off-hours in the company of family and friends.

Bad Dream Team

APPARENTLY stock options don't work on every employee. Fitting into what Patric Douglas might call bad corporate culture, one disgruntled dotcommer who works at what he calls "a faltering Fortune 500 company" implies that no amount of corporate stunts, short of paying up, will bring the team together. "The company just brought in this consultant from Petaluma who keeps promising that she's going to take us on a river-rapid trip. But because the company's in such bad shape, we all have contempt for our fellow workers, especially in upper-management. I couldn't imagine a more hellish experience than being on an inflatable raft with my co-workers. I'd be too concerned that they'd try to push me overboard to have a good time."

He says his previous dotcom job, with a flailing company that held up a potential amusement-park trip as an incentive, was even worse. "HR brought in this totally schmoozy Hollywood guy who used to work at Disney. The company was losing venture capital left and right, but he was always promising us that once our product shipped, he'd take us to Disneyland. We would laugh, 'Fuck Disneyland. Pay us out on our bonuses.' Needless to say, the products never shipped and we never got our free trip."

Before too loud a lament is sounded over the plight of the dotcom employee making digital widgets, it's important to note that dotcommers have it pretty good. As Ray Thomas notes, programmers and genius marketers have a great deal of power relative to the average auto-plant worker. The equivalent to a weekend ski trip in Lansing, Mich., might be, at best, a company picnic flush with wieners, burgers and various mayonnaise salads. Offering employees a sense of ownership of the company has yet to catch on in most places.

Wherefore Utopia?

THE PROMISE of technology way back when was a kind of telecommuting utopia where people everywhere would do their work from their own homes in pajamas--or, better still, from a hiking trail in the high Sierra via satellite. Technology was the thing that would blur the work/play line in a way that the workplace would become absorbed into the playground. But somewhere along the way, exactly the reverse happened: the workplace co-opted the accoutrements of the playground. In the process, the techie's dream of the telecommute has been replaced with company-endorsed fun and ever-lengthening hours on the job.

The folks at ®™ark take the position that dotcommers are the brethren--albeit distant and more fairly treated--of workers everywhere, and they are being worked very, very hard. "Workers are bamboozled into working 10-hour days routinely, if not 12-, 14-, or 16-hour days," says Ray Thomas. "The dotcom industry is just the tip of the iceberg; it's like that across industry and across country. ... May Day commemorates the eight-hour day and that's out the door in America."

Others remain skeptical of the corporate culture that is created when the dictum for a Friday-night happy hour is issued from upper-management. Some worry that this hyper-social environment may end up scaring off whiz-kid programmers or marketers who prefer keeping to themselves. And it's also worth asking whether, in the long run, being known as a party industry will be good for Internet HR departments. But there is also a more concrete complaint to be filed against the types of activities that are organized.

Debra Meyerson, a visiting professor of organizational behavior at Stanford who has studied gender and race equity in the workplace, notes that many practices, on the surface benign, can end up discriminating against a certain group. "There are all sorts of in-house activities that are kind of male-bonding rituals like foosball," she says.

In principle, Meyerson is not opposed to work-sponsored "mechanisms of attachment," but she does offer some cautionary words: "[The practices] are not designed to exclude anyone, but those kinds of practices inadvertently penalize and exclude people who have bounded days, who have responsibility outside of the workplace. ... So this isn't about intending to discriminate, it's about practices that are often about trying to create bonding, trying to create perks. They can be very double-edged." Another downside specific to the industry that she offers is the fact that fostering a family-like atmosphere within the workplace is somewhat at odds with the realities of a business that increasingly utilizes contract workers. This, she speculates, could have "the potential to exaggerate differences between core workers and peripheral workers."

She does add, however, "if it was some off-site [retreat] that was inclusive and not a repeated requirement, then it can be a positive and a bonding experience that employees really appreciate."

In the early '90s, author Alvin Toffler heralded the IT revolution as the "third wave" following agricultural societies and industrial ones. He predicted a new, networked workplace where many of the organizational hierarchies that often stand in the way of efficiency would fall away. Thus far, there is a strong possibility that Toffler had it right, but only time will tell whether we are truly witnessing a business revolution of epic proportions. It could be that this is just one stop along the way to the next high-tech mega-corporation. According to Meyerson, "Work and the workplace are being changed dramatically." But she admits it's too early to track anything definite. "There are really competing trends ranging from this increase in fraternity-like rituals, to an increase in contract labor, to an increase in telecommuting, where people are working outside of the workplace. How that plays out is a very interesting question."

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From the May 18-24, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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