Friday, December 05, 2014

All Perked Up

Let me see if I get this straight.

Pinterest has 450 employees, and ten of them (Jen Nguyen and her nine direct reports), during ‘a busy week in August’ saw to tasks like this:

One  taught a company-only class in muay thai, a martial-arts style with kicks and punches. They put dried mango and fresh towels throughout the online scrapbook service’s new office. There was a postmortem of why a Japanese-themed lunch ran out of rice. (The reason? The rice was tasty.)  (Source: WSJ Online.)

Dried mango? Fresh towels? And a postmortem on why the rice ran out.

Well, at least I’ll give them credit for getting to the root cause during their postmortem. If I had a dollar for every time I participated in a postmortem – why the release was delayed, why the launch failed, why the sale was lost – I could afford to strew my home with dried mango and fresh towels. But only if I got the money even when we didn’t get to the bottom of the problem.

“We are just providing basic standards,” says Ms. Nguyen, 40 years old, whose title is head of workplace. Free lunch, dinner, snacks and events like a Jell-O shot-making “studio night” are a big part of what it takes to keep Pinterest’s roughly 450 employees productive and happy, she adds.

The definition of “basic standards” is sure changing. In my day, we never dreamed of Jell-O shot making “studio nights”.

Back then, the office manager took care of things like making sure the phones worked, that we all had business cards, and that the receptionist had plenty of little pink note pads to leave our “while you were out” messages on. But now:

…the role of office manager has transformed into a so-called workplace coordinator, who often leads a staff of aim-to-please specialists. Such employees function as concierges, responsible for everything from planning outings to memorizing favorite granola-bar flavors…

Tech companies say it is hard to avoid creating at least one full-time position devoted to the pursuit of worker happiness once a company hires about 100 employees.

All part of the “frenzied job market”.

Me? Well, I’ve mostly lived through bad economies, downturns, bubble bursts, and just plain grubbing for survival, but amidst all the sturm und drang, I actually had lived through a “frenzied job market” or two. But never saw anything quite like this.

My first job out of business school, at Dynamics Associates, the “pursuit of worker happiness” was pretty much holding “Friday Party”, a beer, wine, and junk-food blast that took place late Friday afternoon. The big perk was that there were always leftovers around for the weekend warriors. There were also a couple of video games in the kitchen, but they were pretty much obsolescent within a month or two after they were installed.

If there had been someone responsible for the pursuit of worker happiness, that person might have had to spend all their time trying to dislodge the company execs from the offices they barricaded themselves in. (I once suggested that they cut a dog-door in the side of the president’s office. If anyone were willing to go through the humiliation of wriggling through the dog-door then, well, they should be entitled to an audience.)

My next job was at Wang, the anti-perk to beat all anti-perk companies.

Sure, if you were way up there you got an office, an indoor parking space, access to the executive dining room, and even a clothing allowance.

But for the rank and file, the big perk was that there was a Burger King in the basement. (At some point, during all the downsizing, the BK closed.)

Among the other anti-perks were no trash pick up, and the removal of 2/3’s of the overhead light-bulbs.

The day I came across a mega hawked-up loogie – already congealed - on the stairwell was the day I decided to quit.

Next up: Softbridge, another company with Friday Party. (No surprise there: both Company Number One and Company Number Three were founded by the same fellow.)

Perks? What perks? We didn’t need no stinkin’ perks.

At Genuity, we did. Sort of.

The biggest perk was food being served at pretty much every meeting. And since meetings were held continuously from dawn until dusk, that meant a lot of meals.

The other perk – although I don’t think that it exactly perked up morale – was the quarterly Good Humor afternoon, during which senior executives would wheel an ice cream cart from floor to floor giving out ice cream sandwiches.

The company also tried to perk us up with a big blow-out party on the day of our IPO.

Unfortunately, the IPO was a big, fat failure, with the stock price plummeting from the moment the opening bell was rung. Many employees lost tens of thousands of dollars.

At my next – and final – stop, NaviSite, the biggest perk that I can recall was that they did put out mousetraps when we requested them…

At least they were responsive to our needs:

One worker at Pinterest recently wanted the company to build a zip line to a nearby bar…The zip line got a no.

How incredibly short-sighted.

If there comes the day when Pinterest has to a) make money, and/or b) have lay-offs, they could just hand every pink-slipped worker a chit for a drink and send them zip-lining on their way.

The bottom line on perks is that it’s not clear that they actually provide any bang for the buck in terms of employee retention and satisfaction. But hip and happenin’ companies feel they need to offer them in order to attract top talent.

But sometimes, frankly, the top talent just isn’t interested. At Pinterest, there was:

…an evening event in August where an artisanal jam maker was brought in to turn jam into cocktails, a vinaigrette and cookies. Seventeen employees RSVPed, but only two showed up.



Frederick Wright said...

Having left the startup world a few years ago, I read about perks like this and just shake my head. There is a temptation among some in the media to blame the 'entitled Millennials' who apparently expect to be coddled. But I agree with you - the blame rests primarily with the absurd mountains of cash invested in these profit-less companies, valuations spun from fairy dust and hope, who produce nothing, serve no measurable purpose but have some quality of hipness or coolness. Let's ignore the fact that the barriers to entry simply don't exist anymore. If our gamble gets acquired by Google or Amazon or Yahoo, we'll all be rich!

Maureen Rogers said...

Ain't it the truth.

The tech world has become such a crazy game. Matters not what you produce - much of which doesn't appear to have any true societal or business value - if you can command enough users, one of the biggies will gobble you up for access to those users.

Once you're rich, you can fill your life with all the perks you want.