When the workplace becomes a trap

I don’t know if you all had to read Homer’s Odyssey in school. You know the one about Ulysses? Well I had to, and actually quite enjoyed it.

It’s been years, so I can’t recall it exactly (the erudite please pardon moi), but there was a part of the story when Ulysses (and his men?) gets trapped in an island by nymphs (or was it mermaids?), the gorgeous and beautiful creatures gave them water, fruit, food, and delights of the flesh, all the comforts of the world, thus keeping him distracted from his journey and purpose. At some point they ‘snap out of it’, or Ulysses does, and manage to break free and move on with the journey. This took loads of courage, to abandon such a place.*

You probably think you know where I am going with this, back to the ‘live your life, follow your dreams, and don’t settle for something you don’t like, bla bla bla’… yes, I could go there, but actually there’s loads of metaphors here and I am taking a whole different one.

There’s a ‘new’ thing now (actually it’s been on for a while), an obsession really into turning workplaces into ‘super-duper-fun’ places. Physically, I mean. I am not even talking bean bags and stuff like that, I mean full amusement park gear: slides, pool tables, dispensers full of M&Ms, napping corner, fun corner, foosball, etc. While this may work for some places, I believe for most it’s just bollocks, and probably hiding big corporate issues.

People who know me will know I am all up for fun at work, but for me that’s a completely different concept than the ‘theme park recreation’ mentioned above. For me work should always involve creativity, which can come from silliness, fun, free-flowing of ideas. I hate the idea of having your mind trapped in a little box and not being able to come up with anything new or original, AKA, solutions, simply because your work policy doesn’t allow it. For me a fun workplace is a place that empowers its employees, a place where people can have a say in the direction of their departments, where people are motivated to speak their minds on what they think could improve the company, as opposed to being in the bottom of an impossible to understand org chart, where you are just an amoeba. A fun workplace is a place where you know your impact in the company’s objectives, goals and future matters. How many companies like this are there out there? Not many I would assume.

The whole amusement park thing for me sounds like a trick – a trick to keep you in there for more hours, to distract you from your life and retain you at work. I may be wrong of course, in fact I know some people would rather stay in the office sliding away, or even working, than go to their awful marriages, annoying families, or whatever it is there are escaping from.

For me however, in my few years of life, and having a strong sense of ‘Carpe Diem’ from early age (as I said before), I always felt it was all about balance. Balance and Time. In my view, there’s no better gift a company can offer you than time. Better yet, the best thing they can offer you is to show that they understand the importance of time: they’ll want you to have personal time to live your life, be with your friends, family, travel, whatever it is that ticks your box, BUT they’ll also make sure the time you spend at the company is valuable and useful. In my eyes, a fun workplace would never make you stay until 6 pm playing in the slides, stuffing yourself up in M&Ms, or pretending to work. Take school recess for instance, it was great if it was between classes; but if your last class of the day is cancelled, do you really want to stay in school? NAH!

I may be out of my league here, as I never worked in a place with slides. But I have worked in a place with PlayStation, foosball, and massage chairs. You know how many times I used it? Never. And it wasn’t for lack of time, trust me, I would just rather get on with whatever I have to do and get out, still in time to enjoy the rest of my time. I mean I have friends who would play foosball in their lunch hour, maybe that’s cool and fun too, totally respect that; but I do think it gets excessive sometimes. And I do think it can be used as a distraction to lure you in into a deeper work coma.

Am I making any sense? I just think that it’s a bit hypocrite, to build these massive infrastructures, to look like the best place to work ever, and then have massive processes in place, bureaucracy, exhausting hours when nothing gets done, extenuating meetings about nothing, and then brag about having slides and M&M’s. Worse than that, I think it’s massively hypocrite to have all that but then the employees don’t really a have a voice or say in how things are done or heading. That’s like zero fun (for me).

Not surprising (to me), at Ricardo Semler’s company – Semco – there’s none of that nonsense. Not even a gym. They don’t have organization charts, dress codes, or strict rules. Instead they have a collaborative environment, where employees have a say on who is hired or gets to be promoted, flexible working hours, flexible environment – as in you can paint the walls and decorate as you wish as long as people around you are on board with it, where change is considered healthy and is welcomed, as are employees ideas on how to improve anything in the company. Furthermore they welcome opinions, they have a set-self pay policy – yep, people have a say on how much they should make, and they have transparency policies, to an extreme where everyone’s salary is known. Everyone in that organization knows their value, knows their voice matters, knows they’ll have a say in the way things are done, and knows they can balance work and life as they wish. They don’t need slides. They have a proper workplace. They’re off the island.

*I hope it’s not the wrong book; I tried to find the right chapter and got confused. I will read it again sometime and get back to you on this.

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