I've been following the recent large amount of talk about startup offices and benefits closely. After all I feel like I'm partially responsible for the office culture we've created at Paperless Post and am a part of designing our new space and move to Lower Manhattan. It's easy to be blind on the inside to how ridiculous this world might seem. However one of the things I've always loved about NYC startups is how it always seemed a little more rugged and hence a little more focused then our west coast counterparts. Of course, I knew this would change when the money started flowing in. From my perspective, there is a balance with benefits where they actually are beneficial.
The Opposite of Good
In my mind, the quintessential pointless office accouterment is the ball pit. How fitting a tribute to male dominated startup culture to have a place where people can go sink themselves into multi-colored balls?
What always struck me about the stereotypical "startup office" is how so much seemed geared at infantilizing the employee. Toys, video games, scooters, junk food/snacks everywhere, "zen rooms". Its as if at some point, some CEO saw the movie "Big" and was like "THATS where we should work". Then everyone else just followed suit.
The common reasoning for these types of workspaces is that we should "make our employees/developers comfortable". You can read this as "SO comfortable that they never want to (should) leave the office." Theres a deeper (read: more disturbing) thing here, which is that these companies are basically trying to re-create a womb/infant like experience. All the free food! All the fun you could have! Anything you want - The company will provide. The company in this sense replaces your mother, and just like your mother (well at least my mother) the company can turn the dependence into guilt and guilt into work.
I'll quickly admit, that I am/was 100% tempted and excited by the idea of working like that. Now after talking to my coworkers and trying to nurture and push our culture forward, I see that there's a different way to approach that might lead to a better result.
What smart people want
In a formal review about a year and a half ago, I asked one of the developers on my team if there was anything he wanted from the company to make his job easier. I was expecting (actually kind of hoping) he would mention things like catered lunch, company outings, etc. Instead he just said, "more money". I was a little taken aback - not because I thought he didn't deserve a raise (he got one) - but because that seemed obvious to me. After deeper thought there was an underlying meaning. Smart people want to be treated like smart people. Not like "cowboys" or "ninjas" - they want to know that they work in place where their opinions are respected and a place where they can continue to learn and grow. Most would also rather just get the money that a company would spend on perks to spend themselves.
I've tried to actualize this feeling by pushing for and trying to create perks that nurture these desires. Some simple things that I think have worked great: Regular in house speakers; Bi-weekly lightning talks - where everyone can get up and give a short talk about something they've been working on; Hack days (or what we call Stampy Day).
That's not to say that we still don't have "fun" things, we've tried to just build the "funtivites" around what people actually like doing. In our case that's mainly good food and drinks and karaoke (@modality and I constructed an in house karaoke from random software and Amazon prime).
Something else we've been exploring is more freedom with office hours and work from home. We talked about unlimited vacation, but from stories inside other companies unlimited in practice often leads to less vacation. Instead our general idea is that if you trust your employees to get their work done and trust them to be responsible about time off, they can actually accomplish their goals AND take a good amount of vacation and off days when they want to.
Figuring it out
There definitely is a way to create a balance of a comfortable and fun place to work that's not overbearing and not a prison. I'm not saying that we've created this ideal environment, I just know now to try to approach the work with the constant mantra of just treating these brilliant and beautiful people like adults. What a novel idea!