Should We Be Suspicious of “Best” Workplaces?

The companies I’ve worked at over the last 16 years haven’t offered me much, and haven’t expected much in return. My workload was heavy at times, but manageable, and no one seemed to care if I took a long lunch break, came in late, and/or left early. As long as I met my obligations, and was there most of the time I was supposed to be, all was well.

Some companies demand much more, such as expecting employees to be there regularly until late at night, and to be on call, or to show up, on the weekend whenever necessary. Many of these companies, however, give a lot in return. What they give is a much higher salary than I’ve ever experienced, detailed and meaningful career development plans, and plush offices. Some of these offices include recreational equipment such as ping-pong tables, and have lounge areas with beanbag chairs.

My sister’s company doesn’t offer an overly plush office space, but she’s much better paid than me, and has much better company fringe benefits, such as a three-month paid maternity leave (I’ve heard that my company offers all of two weeks paid maternity leave) and even quarterly stipends to buy the products (liquor!) the company produces. But they expect more from her. She has a more structured schedule than I do, and often takes work home with her. She also has multiple performance reviews annually, while I haven’t had one in five years.

I saw on Business Insider last week that Bain & Company had been named Glassdoor’s top-ranked company in its 2017 Employees’ Choice Awards. The magazine featured a photo essay of Bain’s New York City headquarters, and it looks comfortable and pleasing—mostly. The pictures show a luxurious office, but one glaring feature I, and many others, wouldn’t be happy with: open workstations rather than cubicles. Is that because they believe that’s what’s most comfortable and happiness-inducing for employees, or because they want everyone to keep an eye on each other? Or because the openness aids collaboration? I have to sit next to my boss in the office we just moved into—the two of us share a large cubicle, and I can tell you it’s not great. Are the people who work at Bain, and other high-performing companies, a different species from me, one that doesn’t need alone time (and doesn’t like to stealthily read New York Magazine during phone meetings)?

Like the absence of cubicles, the rest of the beautiful office also makes me question the company’s motivation. How much has to do with keeping employees accountable and in the office for long hours of work, and how much has to do with doing the right thing by employees? Many will say the goals of keeping employees productive, and keeping them comfortable and happy, are not mutually exclusive, but I wonder.

The philosophical question is whether employees can look for their happiness in the office, in an enforced environment, or whether a highly comfortable office is akin to a highly comfortable detention center or jail? You can get satisfaction and fulfillment from your life’s work, but can you derive happiness from being expected to stay long hours in a location not of your choosing and for a number of hours also not of your choosing? You can enjoy your co-workers’ company, and appreciate the ping-pong table, but wouldn’t the more meaningful perk be to have no office and no mandatory-number-of-hours schedule at all, and instead offer a modest office with private workstations employees can use as needed? The focus in that ideal corporate culture would be on doing what needs to be done, and getting it done well and on time. The emphasis wouldn’t be on keeping employees in a particular location, or in any place, doing anything for a specified number of hours.

The Bain office pictured in the photo essay has casual, café-style tables and diner-style booths in the kitchen (alongside the ping-pong table). The article says the tables are for “Bainies” to work. Why do they need to work in the kitchen? Is this a tactic to make it more likely employees will work through their lunch hour? Like many at low-performing-give-little companies, I go out for a walk at lunchtime, and then bring back my lunch to eat at my desk. Would that behavior be discouraged at Bain? Is the expectation that you won’t leave the office for many hours after arriving promptly at your official start time in the morning?

Funny enough, the company seems to want to cater to the “creative” mindset by offering rooms and breakout areas where “solitude” can be found. They do seem to have many areas to travel to for privacy, but privacy within a group. If you want privacy as an individual, it seems like you would have a harder time. It looks like there are no private areas just for each person to retreat to compose on his or her own. One of the entertaining things as a creative person is the misconception many much less creative people have about creative types. They think most of us are extraverted, life-of-the-party, collaborative-minded people. That’s sometimes the case, but more often, very creative people are individualistic and crave time alone in a quiet, sheltered setting where we can spend time inside ourselves. Are the “private” spaces at Bain for meetings or for creativity? Is there such a thing as a creative meeting?

For me, the greatest luxury an office can provide is a casual and relaxed spirit. I want a clean and comfortable space (ping-pong tables not required, as much as I love to play ping-pong). I like a place where I can come and go as I please, and find a comfortable, quiet and private workstation—preferably a workstation outside my home or local coffee shop.

I prefer working in an office to working in my home, now that I think about it, but as much on my own terms as possible. I don’t want to feel obligated to stay there to repay my debt to a company kind enough to provide me with a nap room. I don’t want to work such long hours that I require a nap.

What is your company’s motivation in the office spaces it creates for employees? Is it just trying to be big-hearted and give back to the employees who already give the company so much? Or is the company only giving them office perks because it wants employees to stay in the office for as many hours as possible?