The Deceit of Startup Culture
Startups often offer a lot of fun perks, like an office keg or a game room. But what are the employees really getting out of it?
Picture this: you are freshly graduated from college, and have been devoting yourself full time to finding a job. Today, you find yourself on the way to an interview at a tech startup that you’ve heard good things about. Okay, you don’t really know much about the company at all, but you’ve definitely seen the name on social media, so it must be alright.
You arrive at the office, and get a tour. You walk through the “open floor plan”, where people sit with headphones and laptops, some of them on chairs, some on giant exercise balls, some at standing desks. There are sofas with people chilling, ping pong tables, even a keg. This place seems pretty awesome!
This office, however, is not unique. It is just one of many offices existing within a new office space reality- one that consists of bean bag chairs, bouncy balls, beer fridges, foosball, and ~fun~. This office culture is especially pervasive in the startup space, and while it seems playful and fun, peeling back the layers a bit reveals some darker reasons that this type of office culture is becoming a new norm.
Sure, it seems hard to frown upon a workplace that appears to value fun and offers unique perks for its employees. But the reality of these workplaces becomes a lot more daunting when you compare workplaces today to the workplaces of a few generations ago.
A few generations ago, there was a very strong social contract between employers and employees. Companies placed an emphasis on serving four constituencies- customers, communities, employees, and investors. Many companies placed extra emphasis on the first three, believing that a focus on those constituencies would lead to more a successful business, and thus would ultimately please investors. The important thing to note is that investors were not typically placed first.
Now, however, many companies- especially startups, and especially tech startups- are forced to prioritize investors. The startup mentality says that you should lose money fast, so you can grow fast. The confusing reality is that, while many of the big tech startups people can name are valued at extremely high amounts, many of them are not profitable, and are in fact losing money at alarming rates. Snapchat, for example, reported that it lost $514.6 million in 2016, and said it may never be profitable. That being said, it is valued at over $20 billion dollars.
A common thread at startups is very fast employee turnover. These companies that are supposedly experiencing “exponential growth” are firing people left and right- often with no explanation. Author Dan Lyons wrote about this phenomenon, decrying the way that companies manage now, treating employees as resources rather than human beings. These tech startups want all the hottest young talent, but they don’t want to invest in actually developing employees as people. The solution? Keep them for a year or two, and tell them that this is a “great experience” that will “help them get to the next big thing”.
This mentality is what drives the whole “fun” office culture. The reality is that this office culture is only the surface- a superficial layer, used to entice young people. Young people fresh out of college are more willing to accept lower paying jobs, and to be attracted by a seemingly fun office life. Companies benefit too, as investors love to see an office full of young, energetic people- it sells. But beneath the surface, the social contract between employer and employee is slowly being erased, while young employees are too busy playing beer pong and describing themselves as “social media gurus” or “growth hackers”.
The harrowing truth is that these companies are misreading, or perhaps simply ignoring, what millennials actually desire and value in a workplace. Sure, all of the perks are fun, but many studies have shown that millennials actually want meaningful work, and want to feel that what they are doing has a purpose. They also value professional development, and want to work at places that will help them progress in their career paths.
Many workplaces employing young people today, however, fall short when it comes to professional development. Younger people are cycling through a lot of jobs, and thus reaping less benefits. Many companies don’t even offer benefits, or offer compensation in misleading ways, such as stock options. But if many companies are offering neither concrete benefits for employees nor valuable employee development, then what exactly are they offering?
The distressing reality: there are many companies today that are stripped down to the skeletal, bare bones versions of what former companies used to offer in the form of employee benefits and development, leaving little to gain for the employees themselves. The even more distressing reality: as the job market is constantly evolving thanks to technology, professional development is actually more important than ever.
A formal education and/or a concrete set of tangible skills can only take someone so far- the skills that are required for success are constantly changing. In fact, one of the most valuable skills today that can set young people up for success in the workplace is adaptability, or the ability to continue to grow and evolve skill sets as the market demands. As it stands right now, many companies are not stepping up to the plate to play a role in that development. Instead, it is becoming the norm for employees to be recycled out of companies as soon as their skills become obsolete, and for there to be a steady influx of “fresh, young talent” to work within whatever the newest reality of the workplace is that is in play.
So what can be done? As with many problems, there is never one answer. And the answer is never simple. But a first step is a common understanding, amongst both employees and employers, of how the workforce is changing and evolving and a rethinking of how education, skills training, and employment are all interwoven. All people in the workforce should view these factors not as destinations to be reached, like an MBA or a certification in a skill, but rather realms of development where a constant revisiting and rethinking of skills and growth is crucial.
That being said, I do believe that it is both right and beneficial for companies to take on more of a role in developing employees, both as professionals, and as human beings. The employer-employee relationship should be mutually beneficial, in which both parties grow together- not a bland, transactional relationship that likens employees to cogs in a machine. Companies should invest more in continuously training, and developing their employees. This will give the company not only a competitive advantage as it becomes resilient to the ever-changing market, but also the benefit of having to spend less money on employee recruitment (which is a lot more expensive than employee retention.)
In conclusion, the employer-employee relationship that was once mutually beneficial and focused on developing employees as people, is being degraded. Young people entering the workforce are being lured in by companies with seemingly fun perks, such as ping pong tables, and kegs, when these companies are not doing much below the surface to actually provide valuable benefits. Under this guise of fun perks and office culture, these companies are able to attract, use, and then recycle fresh talent quickly as the skills necessary for success become obsolete or irrelevant in rapid succession. The nature of this relationship hurts both employers and employees, and a change should be made that brings about more of a synergistic relationship that allows both employees and employers to thrive, grow, and constantly adapt to the changing market.