Too Much Ado About Bean Bag Chairs
By Michael H. Rand
Almost ten years ago, a high school friend of mine announced that he had landed a job at Google.
Saying he was excited about it would be an understatement.
Google had only existed for a little more than a decade, but the company’s work environment was already the stuff of legend. Their campuses hosted a long list of amenities. Employees had access to free food, fitness centers, and recreational areas. They could even bring their dogs into work.
The recession had taken its toll on the job market. Young job seekers such as ourselves were told that we would be lucky to find a low-paying temp job in any sort of office environment. Many of us, including myself, were expecting to spend the next few years working in fields that were completely unrelated to our degrees, fields like retail, food service, and hospitality.
I was living in the West End of Richmond, Virginia when my friend told me the good news. Despite my BA in English, I was working part time at a Barnes & Noble café earning a little less than seven dollars an hour. I had made some mistakes. I hadn’t applied for any internships in college and I had neglected to study up on how to sell myself, and my degree, in a competitive job market.
My friend was living in beautiful Santa Cruz, California and working at one of the most exciting companies every created. I was jealous. He seemed to be living the dream.
All I could ask him was, “does your office really have a swimming pool?”
The Focus on Millennials
Google’s experiment with company culture seems to have paid off. Glassdoor rated Google as the #1 company for employee satisfaction in America in 2014 and it continues to get high marks for job satisfaction year after year. Google considers its employees to be highly productive and creative, and that productivity is accredited directly to employee happiness.
This new model for workplace happiness has spread. Companies in a variety of industries are making tweaks to their culture to try to boost employee job satisfaction and productivity. But this model has also given rise to new grievances about what it means to be in the workplace. Many of these grievances are directed at Millennials.
In the news and in various web spaces you’ll hear the same refrains over and over:
When discussing the changing workplace, writers, business executives, and other influential “thought leaders” will often cite workplace amenities as evidence of the Millennial generation’s influence.
A great deal of attention has been paid to free food, nap pods, and bean bag chairs.
Changes in workplace environments have been attributed to Millennials’ voracious need for comfort and approval, their addiction to social media, their search for instant gratification, and their desire to make “an impact.” But the trend of the so-called “Millennial workplace” has long been in the making, and the amenities that everyone is focusing on are superficial indicators of deep changes that have been occurring for years within the business world.
The Impact of the 20th Century Work Environment
According to a study conducted by Dartmouth and the National Bureau of Economic Research in 1999, the percentage of American workers who claimed that they were “very satisfied” with their jobs between 1972 and 1998 ranged year after year between 44% and 55%. During the second half of the 20th century, the culture of the American workplace was more or less static.
Business was business. Workers were expected to dress and behave a certain way in the workplace. In the 70’s and 80’s, offices focused on limiting distractions by placing employees in cubicles. Blue collar workers had designated times for breaks and lunches. Managers worked separately from their subordinates in their own office spaces. It was difficult to imagine a workplace that didn’t adhere to these practices because any alterations ran the risk of disrupting productivity and workflow.
And then, in the late 1990’s, Mike Judge wrote and released the movie Office Space.
One would be hard-pressed to prove that this movie had a direct impact on recent company culture trends, but it’s impossible to argue that it didn’t highlight some of the major issues in the 20th-century workplace. Perhaps inadvertently, Office Space opened a new dialogue about the relationships between employees and their managers and what an optimal work setting was supposed to look like.
Because of the tech boom in the late 1990’s, innovative startups in Silicon Valley found themselves flush with money and a high demand for their products and services. Instead of pursuing the same company culture models that had been common in the late 20th century, they decided to experiment with models that answered a single, fundamental question:
Why should anyone be miserable at work?
Companies replaced typical management hierarchies with experimental flat ones. Executives were more transparent about their salaries. Workers were given more autonomy and told to use good judgment. And, yes, employees were often supplied with amenities like free food, bean bag chairs, nap pods, and yoga classes.
Current levels of U.S. job satisfaction are similar to those of the 20th century, though they are higher now than they were during the recession. About half of the country is satisfied with their jobs. Millennials began entering the workplace in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, overtaking Baby Boomers in numbers around 2013 and Gen Xers around 2015. Compared to their older counterparts, Millennials report some of the highest levels of job satisfaction in the country.
The Universal Desire for Happiness in the Workplace
The most common narrative regarding the contemporary workplace suggests that businesses are being forced to cater to the myriad needs of Millennials. There may be some truth to this. Millennials certainly have a different idea of what work should look like than their predecessors, but the reasons for these changes are not solely based on the unreasonable demands of the latest generation of workers.
Millennials arrived in the workforce at a time of great upheaval. Technology altered everything from the way people communicate to the way they manage tasks in the office. Teams know use task management tools to track progress and collaborate. People can work remotely for companies in other countries without ever putting on dress clothes or having to set foot in an office building.
The intense focus on “work/life balance” that once dominated the headlines has now blurred to the point that there may not even be a separation between the two. In some instances, it seems perfectly reasonable to go to work wearing blue jeans and flip flops. Why not wear street clothes in the workplace if it doesn’t negatively impact your productivity? What if doing so actually increases your productivity?
These changes seem to have originated not from the demands of a generated of entitled narcissists, but from an intense scrutiny of the 20th-century work environment. Maybe Millennials are leading the charge, but the universal desire for a happy workplace has always existed and will continue to be pursued.
For now, we will revel at the campuses of tech giants like Facebook and Google, and at the growing movement of companies who adopt “giving” as a business model. Not every industry will be able to create these types of work environments. And only time will tell if these changes are profitable and sustainable. But if current trends are any indicator, the “Millennial workplace” may be the workplace of the future.
Raised in Richmond, Virginia, Michael H. Rand holds a Master's degree in English from Salem State University, where he was an editor of the school's literary magazine, Soundings East. His work has appeared in various online venues, such as Crack the Spine and NoiseMedium, and is forthcoming in Grub Street Magazine. He works as a copywriter at a marketing agency in Burlington, Massachusettes and lives in Beverly, Massachusetts with is fiancée, Sarah.