I see a lot of posts about work. A lot of them are not positive.
October 23, 2008 2:42 PM   Subscribe

Why is work not fun?

So, I've been a professional software developer for a little over 10 years. Over that time I've worked for 5 corporations, of varying sizes, regions, and industries. None of them have been fun. In fact, they've all been slightly awful to very awful. For years, I just thought it was me. But I hear the same story from a lot of others.

Corporate culture, to generalize my experiences, has been painful, inefficient, political, stifling, surreal, and somewhat often absurd. But, how can corporations like this survive and be competitive? Isn't there a competitive advantage for workplaces that are very fun? That are well-run? Doesn't the de facto state of corporate America violate some economic law?

I'm a (relatively) smart guy, with a good degree from a good school. I come up with interesting ideas. I put in the 50+ hours a week. I take initiative; I'm a team player. I don't have problems with meeting deadlines, and my quality is high. I stay up-to-date with industry trends.

Why can I not find enjoyable employment? I would take a 25% (or more) pay cut to work somewhere that 1. didn't make me wear a uniform, 2. let me work flexible hours, 3. let me work under 50 hours a week (if I met deadlines), 4. encouraged my ideas and innovations, 5. accepted my individuality, 6. let me joke around at work, 7. employed co-workers who were fun and weren't gaming the system, 8. let me work from home sometimes.

I could go on.

But the point of the question is the same: why do corporations never seem (or very slowly) evolve (at least regarding employee satisfaction)?
posted by brandnew to Work & Money (57 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
You've been unlucky; I've worked many the fun job.

Your 8-point happiness plan sounds perfectly reasonable, and as a 10-year veteran software developer you should have the skills to command a job that meets those criteria. Start looking.
posted by jacobian at 2:51 PM on October 23, 2008

In this market, employers really don't have to make things "fun" because people are scared to death of losing their jobs. It's people that are competing for jobs, not companies competing for people.
posted by desjardins at 2:53 PM on October 23, 2008

Why is work not fun? Because fun doesn't pay the bills.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:54 PM on October 23, 2008 [5 favorites]

Why can I not find enjoyable employment? I would take a 25% (or more) pay cut to work somewhere that 1. didn't make me wear a uniform, 2. let me work flexible hours, 3. let me work under 50 hours a week (if I met deadlines), 4. encouraged my ideas and innovations, 5. accepted my individuality, 6. let me joke around at work, 7. employed co-workers who were fun and weren't gaming the system, 8. let me work from home sometimes.

Self-employment may be for you.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 2:57 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's because traditional software businesses just don't scale that well.

Even Google, with its engineer-driven culture and de-emphasis on management, has its fair share of disgruntled and disillusioned employees (or so I hear from my friends who work there). The bigger any corporation gets, the more general rules it needs to impose on the people who work there and the more layers of middle management are necessary for small teams to function at all.

There are cultures where you can get all of the eight things you want, but IMO it's only possible to find them in companies with less than 100 employees.

Anyway, a startup with an emphasis on agile development might be the right place for you. Consider contracting and freelance work, too.
posted by svolix at 2:58 PM on October 23, 2008

I'm fond of the aphorism: If work was fun, they wouldn't call it work.
posted by gnutron at 2:59 PM on October 23, 2008

1. didn't make me wear a uniform, 2. let me work flexible hours, 3. let me work under 50 hours a week (if I met deadlines), 4. encouraged my ideas and innovations, 5. accepted my individuality, 6. let me joke around at work, 7. employed co-workers who were fun and weren't gaming the system, 8. let me work from home sometimes.

I get 1, 3, 4, 6 and 7 (with the hope of 2 and 8 a distinct possibility in the near future) and have done for the last four years in a large American corporation (I've been based both in the UK and Spain). Yeah, there are still things I actively dislike about my job and the corporate hierarchy and some of its inherent inefficiency, but y'know what? It beats the fuck out of working in the docks, delivering the mail, being in the army, working retail or making tea on films sets which are all jobs I have done in the past.

For me it's the people that make it worth it and why I still wake up most mornings after 4 years looking forward to going to work.

With your experience your requirements should be perfectly doable.
posted by slimepuppy at 3:15 PM on October 23, 2008

I think you've been either tremendously unlucky in your employment, or you need to retool your skills in order to work in a different corner of the industry. It sounds like you work in a highly corporate environment - perhaps you could move into R&D or some other type of programming (games perhaps) that offers a much more flexible and attractive working environment - although I do think the working less than 50 hours a week might not be realistic, considering the development cycles in most industries. The working from home shouldn't be a huge problem for most places, though. What type of software have you been developing?
posted by The Light Fantastic at 3:15 PM on October 23, 2008

Do you wait until you quit your previous job before you find a new one? You could be rushing yourself into jobs that way. If this is a goal you want to have, then you should always be looking for jobs until you find one. Sure, it may not be the next one, but you'll be more likely to find these opportunities. Speaking of opportunities, network with your ex-coworkers.
posted by rhizome at 3:22 PM on October 23, 2008

Response by poster: This doesn't seem to be exclusive to the software industry though. And, I do understand the mantra of "if it's not fun, then it wouldn't be work". I've dealt with it, and continue to deal with it. However, what I'm talking about pure economic rationality.

For example, if company A pays their employees $100 and and is "work" for 80% of the workforce, but company B pays their employees $75, and is considered "fun" for 80% of the workforce, shouldn't there be an advantage to company B (assuming "fun" is worth $25)?

Often I think of this, and I'd do it myself to test the theory, if I had the skills. But, I'm not sure I'd be a good entrepreneur.
posted by brandnew at 3:27 PM on October 23, 2008

You want to work for my company. I get everything except #1 (they expect "business casual" and you need to wear a badge).

Granted, it will require selling yourself to the government... but that can be fun, too. And job security!
posted by backseatpilot at 3:28 PM on October 23, 2008

I have a fun job. I moved to a small company (sub 250 people) from a big one. They are out there, it just takes time and a clear focus to find them. For me, I was looking for a job that didn't require near-constant travel, allowed me to do more creative work and would let me be more myself. I found it. Sure, there's the odd late night (once or twice a month rather than three or four times a week) and the odd bit of dull work, but generally speaking I like going into work in the morning, get on really well with my team and the day flys past because I'm genuinely interested in the work I'm doing.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:30 PM on October 23, 2008

Yup. "If it was supposed to be fun, they wouldn't call it work." I'm sure I heard that a hundred times before my twelfth birthday. There's also the, "I'm not paying you to have fun" argument.

Both of these positions are bullshit as far as I'm concerned. But there you go. Welcome to the pretty much complete bankruptcy of humanity that plagues so much of the corporate world. Look no further than neck-ties. If they're not nooses and/or leashes, what the hell are they?

How did things get this way and how does this situation sustain? The complete answer to this is way too long and complex but my small piece of it goes something like this:

The corporate world is an exclusive club. The rewards can be significant but you won't even get invited in until you wipe that smile off your face. These people gave up on fun so long ago they don't even remember what it feels like it.
posted by philip-random at 3:32 PM on October 23, 2008 [6 favorites]

Why can I not find enjoyable employment? I would take a 25% (or more) pay cut to work somewhere that 1. didn't make me wear a uniform, 2. let me work flexible hours, 3. let me work under 50 hours a week (if I met deadlines), 4. encouraged my ideas and innovations, 5. accepted my individuality, 6. let me joke around at work, 7. employed co-workers who were fun and weren't gaming the system, 8. let me work from home sometimes.

The problem with your list of things is that they are all freedoms that are easily abused and could cause the workplace to degenerate into unproductive, unprofessional frivolity.

You sound like you have good judgment and good professional moorings. Other people, given the freedom you desire, may very well abuse it. One person's "individuality" and "fun" and "flexibility" is another person's opportunity to get away with murder.

A big part of the problem is how pathetically bad much of the workforce is. By bad, I mean lazy, cynical, scheming manipulators who would take advantage of all the latitude you wish your workplace would allow. For every person (like you) who wouldn't take advantage of the latitude, and for whom the freedoms would be a positive, motivating force, there are nine people who would take advantage, causing a decline of productivity.
posted by jayder at 3:33 PM on October 23, 2008 [3 favorites]

Why can I not find enjoyable employment? I would take a 25% (or more) pay cut to work somewhere that 1. didn't make me wear a uniform, 2. let me work flexible hours, 3. let me work under 50 hours a week (if I met deadlines), 4. encouraged my ideas and innovations, 5. accepted my individuality, 6. let me joke around at work, 7. employed co-workers who were fun and weren't gaming the system, 8. let me work from home sometimes.

I think maybe you're looking in the wrong place. I've worked in half a dozen places over the past 8 years as a software developer, and I've:
1. Worn shorts and had bosses that wore sweatpants to work
2. Worked whatever hours I want (from 30-45 hours a week)
3. NEVER worked more than 40 hours a week without getting paid overtime, but even that was maybe 1 or 2 weeks out of the year.
4. Been asked and rewarded for individual innovation
5. ummm, dunno what that means
6. While I'm not a joker, I've definately worked with a lot of them.
7. Hard work and hard play make the best workers.
8. Yeah, I tried that, didn't like it.

Anyway, my advice would be to look for work at smaller companies (30-50 people) where the managers are the owners. Generally I've found them to care more about their employees, and give them opportunities to have fun at work.

I wouldn't accept or stay at a job that made me work more than 40 hours a week. My time is MY time, not theirs. And I wouldn't accept below average pay for above average work.

You controll your career. Make it what YOU want it to be. (this means taking risks)
posted by blue_beetle at 3:33 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

4. encouraged my ideas and innovations, 5. accepted my individuality, 6. let me joke around at work, 7. employed co-workers who were fun and weren't gaming the system

Sounds like 4 out of 7 of your criteria has nothing at all to do with the corporation, but the people who work at them and the environment they create at the corporation.
posted by HeyAllie at 3:34 PM on October 23, 2008

Response by poster: Also, although the original question was more of a theoretical one, I'll give you my work experiences, if you want to solve the problem for me specifically.

I've only worked in the North East of the US. I've worked for companies in the 500 - 2500 range. I've worked consulting once, government once, IT once. The other two were pure independent software vendors. Some companies I've stayed around up to 4 years before growing weary. My shortest stay has been 8 months.
posted by brandnew at 3:38 PM on October 23, 2008

Seconding everyone who says work for a smaller company. Another thing to do is just wait around. Last time I was job-hunting it wasn't a case of "oh god, i need a job!!", and I could afford to turn down offers until I found the perfect one. Worked out great.

Putting yourself on the market while you're still at your current position isn't going to hurt anything, and when you go in for an interview lay down what you're looking for in a workplace. It isn't in an employer's best interest to lie to you about what they offer, and if your wants mesh with their corporate culture they're going to be happy that they found someone who fit in.

Jobs are like significant others, just put yourself out there and don't settle!
posted by soma lkzx at 3:40 PM on October 23, 2008

Another thought:

Some of the most absurd and demoralizing workplace situations are when an efficiency- and productivity-obsessed management tries to introduce stilted ideas of "fun" and "individuality" into the workplace. For example, the manager who asks you if you have enough flair on your suspenders.
posted by jayder at 3:47 PM on October 23, 2008

I've only worked in the North East of the US

This could be an issue. I've only worked in the northwest, but talking to folks who have worked on the east coast, I get the impression that things near the Atlantic tend to be much more straight laced.

I've worked for companies in the 500 - 2500 range

So is this. There tends to be a lot more bureaucracy and process in larger organizations, out of simple necessity. Organizations of such size couldn't function without, but it has the side effect of stamping on individual voices a lot.

As lots of people upthread have said, smaller companies tend to be a bit more "freewheeling." Find some 50-100 body shop on the west coast and you might find something more to your liking.
posted by Nelsormensch at 3:51 PM on October 23, 2008

I've got a job that gives me everything on your list, though working from home is only occasionally an option, and only with good reason. I love my job. It's fun, I get to do what I want, I constantly play with new web applications and have support to do so, I take time our to explore new things that interest me, I really enjoy spending time with my co-workers, I adore my "clients", and I feel passionate about my work and my profession.

I'm a librarian.
posted by Hildegarde at 3:54 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I work at a job that provides everything on your list. These jobs exist. You just have to keep looking. Consider looking at a smaller company or working in the public or non-profit sector. You will take a pay cut.
posted by sid at 4:01 PM on October 23, 2008

Why can I not find enjoyable employment? I would take a 25% (or more) pay cut to work somewhere that 1. didn't make me wear a uniform, 2. let me work flexible hours, 3. let me work under 50 hours a week (if I met deadlines), 4. encouraged my ideas and innovations, 5. accepted my individuality, 6. let me joke around at work, 7. employed co-workers who were fun and weren't gaming the system, 8. let me work from home sometimes.

Have you considered education/non-profits? I've been in the educational IT world for almost four and a half years, and nearly all of those apply - including the pay cut.
posted by Remy at 4:10 PM on October 23, 2008

"Why is work not fun?"

Partly this: "I've only worked in the North East of the US"

The east coast doesn't have a monopoly on uptight corporations, but it sure does seem to have more than its fair share and the generally stick-up-ass culture of the Northeast doesn't help.

I work at a place with a fairly "west coast" corporate culture, a government contract, and small size. It's in a non-technology, non-financial industry where the implicit assumption of 65 hour weeks for 40 hour pay doesn't exist. Where I work, I don't wear a uniform, set my own hours, have to obtain authorization to put in my 31st and up hours in a week (as I'm on the books as a thirty hour employee), have essentially a totally free hand to innovate as fits the need, work with good people who are fun and who largely respect me, and work from home 3 or more days on the average week.

I took a pretty big hit in pay -- about 30% less, hourly -- to come work for these folks but so far it's been great to get away from the kind of stuff you hate. I talk to plenty of people who are similarly happy with their workplaces. Most of the technical folks I run into who are drowning in politics and the middle management morass are employed by companies in the medical, financial or technology sectors.
posted by majick at 4:19 PM on October 23, 2008

Public sector.
posted by fixedgear at 4:19 PM on October 23, 2008

I LOVE teaching. Kids can be hilarious, lesson planning can be done at home or during the summer. Ideas and innovations are mandatory. It will only be 50 hours for the first year or two. In a good school it will never be fifty hours. If you don't mind a pay cut, working HARD when you're at work and extreme tests of patience, check out Teach For America.
posted by debbie_ann at 4:21 PM on October 23, 2008

4. encouraged my ideas and innovations, 5. accepted my individuality, 6. let me joke around at work, 7. employed co-workers who were fun and weren't gaming the system

I think criteria 4-7 are commonly found in jobs where people are passionate about what they're doing. From what I've read, it sounds like professional chefs enjoy an atmosphere like this. Same with a tech start-up. But chefs and tech entrepreneurs work a ton of hours and deal with a lot of stress. To some extent, I enjoyed a similar atmosphere when I worked in investment banking (the trader types even more so). But, again, long hours and lots of stress. It's an "in the trenches" type of atmosphere--some people really excel in and enjoy that. But it becomes your whole life.

I think it'll be tough to find a job that meets criteria 1-3 and also 4-7, though blue_beetle and others here seem to have done so.
posted by mullacc at 4:24 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hello, I will be your contrarian voice today.

Over that time I've worked for 5 corporations, of varying sizes, regions, and industries. None of them have been fun. In fact, they've all been slightly awful to very awful. For years, I just thought it was me. But I hear the same story from a lot of others.

There's a common thread here, and that common thread is YOU. These are your five jobs that you chose five times and that you worked at for 10 years.

It's not that the jobs weren't fun -- they may not have been. More importantly, it's that you didn't have fun at the jobs that you chose.

This is like talking to a person on their fourth spouse, wondering why his/her ex's were all crazy. They may have been all crazy, but YOU chose to marry them. In succession. You'd figure that after No. 2 at least, you would've gotten the point.

Why is this? Let me see if I can decode some things.

I would take a 25% (or more) pay cut to work somewhere that

1. didn't make me wear a uniform

Since I presume you're neither in the military nor working for Wal-Mart, you're calling business attire a "uniform." Get over it. Or specifically ask about this aspect of worklife in your next interview.

2. let me work flexible hours

Translation: I didn't want to show up early in the morning. Again, get over it, or ask about it in your next interview.

3. let me work under 50 hours a week (if I met deadlines)

Translation: I don't always meet my deadlines. Or, I was unable to communicate work to superiors. Or, I don't code as fast as I should but I don't want to be here all night, either.

This is a managing-up, managing-down problem. Many (if not most) software developers cannot accurately estimate their work velocity or capacity and end up working long hours to compensate. Look into Scrum as a means of managing your work.

4. encouraged my ideas and innovations

Translation: They don't listen to me.

Well, are your ideas any good? Are they presented well? Are there compelling reasons to do things the same old way? I've worked with brilliant software developers that were full of great ideas that couldn't, wouldn't recognize that their brilliant ideas just. weren't. useful. right. now. If I'm running a Denny's, we are not serving lobster and French wines, no matter how good they taste. It's fucking Denny's. The sooner everyone recognizes that, the happier we'll be. And maybe then we'll get some good ideas to make this the best Denny's in town. Again, this is simple managing up and managing down.

5. accepted my individuality
6. let me joke around at work

Translation: I'm weird, I like action figures on my desk, I don't know how to monitor my own behavior.

Again, you chose this job. It didn't grab you in a darkened parking lot and have its way with you. If on your next job interview, walk around the office, and if you fail to see any fellow members of your tribe ... dude, don't work there.

7. employed co-workers who were fun and weren't gaming the system

Translation: I don't know how to play this particular company's reindeer games, so I get mad when I see others successfully playing the reindeer games.

Iffen you choose the right place of work, you'll feel better about yourself.

8. let me work from home sometimes.

Translation: I don't like to talk to the people here, and since I don't really need to talk to the people here, why don't I just go home and not talk to people? Then I can play my music and talk to my action figures all I want and still get paid for it.

Look, employers want to watch you do your thing, if only because they want to make sure they're actually getting what they pay for. If I let someone work from home, and it turns out they can do twice the amount of work in half the time ... the first things I'll wonder are a) since you're only working half time, can I pay you half as much, and b) can I get you to do FOUR times as much work in a full day? And why can't you do that at work, where you might be able to teach others to do the same?

I hope this all helps give you a different perspective.

Work is work. That's why they call it work.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:42 PM on October 23, 2008 [10 favorites]

I work at a place that fits all of the requirements of a place you want to work. Come to San Francisco. Almost every startup I know is desperately looking for engineers (yeah, even while laying off 10% of the rest of the workforce) and the work environments are pretty much what you want.

Also, if you do move to San Francisco and find yourself in an office that's too business-y for your liking (it may happen, if you have no sense of what's standard here), you can push back. My last CEO tried to get the engineering team to be in the office at nine a.m. and they flat-out said no. It's not like she could fire them and find somebody else to take their place.
posted by timoni at 4:50 PM on October 23, 2008

Work isn't supposed to be fun, that's why they have to pay you to do it!

Nthing smaller companies - you're more likely to be treated as an individual, and as such, there's less need for rigid rules. eg: if you've proven yourself to be reliable, then you can work from home 2 days a week - that kind of thing.

Larger companies have rules because the more flexible they are, the more chance there is that some employees will take advantage of that. And treating everyone the same is easier (especially for HR).

I disagree with recommending the public sector. You'll certainly take your 25% pay cut, and be rewarded in most of your points. But 4 is unlikely and 7 is definitely out the window!

No workplace will be perfect - they're there to do a job, not to make you happy - so you need to figure out which of your requirements are the priorities, and which you might be willing to sacrifice for a job that meets most of them.
posted by finding.perdita at 4:53 PM on October 23, 2008

The simple answer is you're doing something you don't want to do. And it's not just corporations, anything you have to be coerced into doing is going to suck. Just think about it if you didn't have to do exactly what you are doing, would you?

Ran Prieur has written a lot on this subject:

"Do what you love and the money will follow" is an irresponsible lie, a denial of the deep opposition between money and love. The real rule is: "If you're doing what you love, you won't care if you never make a cent from it, because that's what love means -- but you still need money!" So what I recommend, as the second element of dropping out, is coldly severing your love from your income. One part of your life is to make only as much money as you need with as little stress as possible, and a separate part, the important part, is to do just exactly what you love with zero pressure to make money. And if you're lucky, you'll eventually make money anyway.


Hard work is satanic. Our nature is to be lazy -- primitive humans have moments of extreme exertion, but they don't go through life in a hurry, they don't push themselves, and despite the popular myth, they don't live in great stress on the edge of starvation. Even medieval serfs worked fewer hours, and at a slower pace, than modern industrialized workers. Ivan Illich has written that at the dawn of the industrial age, they would put a man in a pit that gradually filled with water, and give him a pump, and he would have to pump constantly all day to not drown. Humans are so naturally resistant to hard work that it took something like that to train people for industrial jobs. Now they do it with the schooling system, and with the Calvinist doctrine that hard work is morally virtuous. The reason there aren't any Calvinists is that their victory was total -- industrialized humans, especially Americans, are now all Calvinists.

The opposite of hard work is quality work. Quality work may be done quickly, but it is never pushed. It arranges itself around the goal of doing something as well as it can be done, and it finds its own pace.

Another opposite of hard work is playful work. Like quality work it may be done quickly but is never pushed. But playful work is indifferent to quality, or even to success. When you're doing playful work, you don't care if it ends in total failure, because you're having such a good time that you would look forward to doing the whole job again.

Also read The Abolition of Work by Bob Black.

Also read Crimethinc's How I Spent My Permanent Vacation.

Also read In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell.
posted by symbollocks at 5:04 PM on October 23, 2008 [14 favorites]

Other people have touched on it, but whether or not work is fun is really on you. Are you picking the right kinds of companies to work for? Are you making yourself attractive enough to the kinds of companies that could make this happen for you? Do you make the environment fun & rewarding - or do you rely on others? Are you the kind of person people actively want on their team?

There's almost no other line of work that allows people to call their own shot like software does. What are you waiting for?
posted by NoRelationToLea at 5:06 PM on October 23, 2008

Another thing I notice about most people's thinking about work is that they want a career. They're driven by this need to have the "one true thing" they were cut out to do, kind of like other people are driven to find their soulmate. Newsflash: we weren't cut out to do one thing for the whole of our lives, and there isn't one person you were fated to be with for the rest of your life.

This doesn't mean that a diversity of work is the solution to your problems though, if you ask me, a lack of work is the solution.
posted by symbollocks at 5:16 PM on October 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

You need to find a different workplace. I've worked in the Northeast at many places that were not as stifling as your employers. They were all 1) Under 50 people 2) In the Internet industry or 3) Working for myself.
posted by lsemel at 6:07 PM on October 23, 2008

Part of the problem is that you have to show up. I like my job a good bit of the time, but sometimes I'd rather be elsewhere. The fact of the restriction affects your attitude towards it.

I had a coworker who had a sign above his desk: Miserable? Hate your Job? Remember working at the convenience store for 8/hr? yeah, so shut up and get back to work.

Join the trade association in your area. Check out other companies. If you find that most other companies like yours allow casual dress, flex hours, etc., propose it. Do the research, and present it. They may not approve it, but doing stuff like that in a positive way is a good way to become a leader, and becoming a leader is how you change things.

Start a bowling group, or be your company's United Way rep. Start a lunchtime badminton group. Start a Morale Team, and do mildly amusing, non-offensive things. You might be successful. Change your own attitude, and work will be less painful.
posted by theora55 at 6:18 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Long(er) time corporate worker here. I have had some jobs that satisfied none of your criteria, and others that satisfied most:

1. didn't make me wear a uniform

For tech work, this is rare outside of Fortune 500 or meet with clients jobs. When I worked for IBM in the mid-90s, they had already abandoned the white shirt and tie uniform.

2. let me work flexible hours

This is quite common among SF-area dot coms.

3. let me work under 50 hours a week (if I met deadlines)

Again, pretty common.

4. encouraged my ideas and innovations

This varies by company and by manager. Some places take ideas from the rank-and-file, others are strictly top-down (and in some places, the founder is the auteur and everyone else exists to implement the founder's ideas).

5. accepted my individuality

Again, pretty common among SF dot coms.

6. let me joke around at work

This is a trait I highly value in an employer, and I have learned to recognize that humor-free environments are simply not worth it.

7. employed co-workers who were fun and weren't gaming the system

7 follows from 6 and 5, to a large extent.

8. let me work from home sometimes.

Less common, but you can find places that support this. You may have to prove yourself to the org / manager before you can work from home a day a week.

At my last gig, I made this one a condition of employment. I figured I could either push for salary or working from home one day a week, and the latter meant more to me. I wound up working there for a number of years, and once I had established the case that an employee could work remotely, it became more common among subsequent hires (including one of the CxOs).

The reason you haven't found more of what you are looking for is that you are describing an enlightened company, and such places, just like enlightened people, are uncommon. You will have better luck finding jobs like this if you make these criteria part of your search, and I think you will also have better luck if you focus on small to midsize companies. The smaller the company, the faster it is to adapt, and the greater potential it has to act intelligently, to expect good ideas from employees, and even to have a sense of humor.

Perhaps larger companies lack some of these qualities because, once you get to a certain size - say 50 people - it becomes more tempting to fill empty positions with acceptable candidates than exceptional ones. Also, over about 50 people, the group has grown beyond the founding core, and I think people then become less open with their humor, because a lot of the employees are relative strangers compared to the initial group that was probably pretty close (and knew what they could say that wouldn't hurt or offend their co-workers).
posted by zippy at 6:27 PM on October 23, 2008

I can piggyback on CPB for a bit as contrary voice. I've been involved in hiring for a lot of creative outfits in technology and entertainment, and all of them very much WANTED to provide a "fun" environment for their workers, and they were willing to invest in it. They've heard so many stories of Google offices full of bean bag chairs, company vacations, and paddling pools in reception, and they've been told they should do that too, in order to "attract" the best talent and encourage them to work harder or with more passion than average employees, and they're very willing to do that if it helps. So they try that. They spend a lot of money on such things, hire people attracted by that, and watch what happens. (The cost of an employee to a business is MUCH higher than their salary, when you average out all the other costs involved, especially when there's training and replacements, so you have to watch a long period of time to really see what impact this has.)

The problem is that people, quite simply, don't know what they want. It's not that they lie to employers (though that happens a lot too, of course), it's that they really do not know. A very large group of employees will say that they want the pool table type atmosphere, and they'll happily take the perks along with all the free training and "fun" atmosphere for awhile, and it'll be the best job on earth for them.

I have noticed that there's a honeymoon period of about 6-8 months, on average. But after that time, even if the job stays the same, these people (perhaps) lose interest in the "fun", and a certain percentage of them will jump to a "better" job.... and usually a far more boring job in a big gray building... but it pays 5% more... and perhaps this other, less "fun" job allows them the change their psyche needs for other reasons -- one less annoying coworker, a long commute, work that isn't exciting or novel anymore... whatever. People tire of things, and in our modern society, attention spans are growing shorter and shorter, I think.

(There's nothing "bad" about these employees, other than they're people and like all people they really don't know what they want or need, so they stumble around trying different things that seem good for awhile, nodding and smiling and trying their best. But then whatever seemed appealing about a job in the first place grows old. It's not so much that it changes, as their own perspective changes. They see the negatives they didn't see before. They're so accustomed to the perks they don't even think of them as special anymore. Everything in this life wears out its welcome.)

Now run that process 20 or 30 or 500 times over a couple of years. Now you, Mr Board of Directors, will see that you're spending extra money and effort on Caribbean retreats and Thursday-afternoon desk massages... and it's giving your staff peaks and valleys of happiness and boredom... but overall it's had zero impact on productivity or profitability. You're also learning that many of the employees who SAY they want the "fun", would actually rather just have the extra $100 a week all along. So after awhile, it's very difficult for a business to justify "fun", since "fun" doesn't always work over time... and they revert to grayness themselves.

And then the "we" you're trying to build with all the fun turns into "them". Imagine the formerly-eager hire: "How come they waste money on fountains in the bathroom but they can't give me the raise I want? Fuckers."

The far better path to pleasant work in these environments is to build teams of compatible people. That's takes much more time and money than buying a water slide for the boardroom, and it's a hell of a lot harder to understand and work through... but it's the only way (in my experience) that you get a "fun" environment that people actually want.

Of course, hiring for compatibility is a legal minefield, but it is done, or at least attempted, quite often. I've been involved in creating screening "tests" that weigh heavily on the soft skills and knowledge and EQ that will FIND a happier person to hire, rather than taking a random person and attempting to make them happy... which might be impossible anyway.

You wonder why so many work posts here are negative. You assume it's the workplace; I suggest it's the nature of people. We don't get along with other people. We don't even get along with ourselves.

How many positive human relationship posts are there on MeFi, after all?

Sorry for the novel.
posted by rokusan at 6:59 PM on October 23, 2008 [7 favorites]

Much shorter anecdote: I remember interviewing someone once, and while talking about his five previous employees, it came out one by one that each time, he had to work for "a crazy person" and could not stand it any more after a few months each.

Based on my understanding of probability... I silently formed a different hypothesis.
posted by rokusan at 7:01 PM on October 23, 2008

a suggestion outside of what you are asking for:

what else do you do with your life? do you have interests, projects, other things that define you besides work?

I used to feel the way you did about work. And frankly I hate having to 'dress' but that's on the mornings when I don't have anything I like to wear. It took me a while to put together a wardrobe that still reflected my personality but was acceptable on Wall Street, but I did, and it's okay. (And I'm a chick, so the investment was a lot more than 5 white dress shirts and a couple of ties.)

I think what you are just looking for is a place that treats their employees like they are human. I actually wrote a post on Craigslist that sounded a lot like what you wrote above about a year and a half ago, because I was working for a place that was just BRUTAL. And then they transferred me to their parent company and although I thought I'd hate it, I lucked out and got a great manager. After two weeks, I was all "oh, right. this is what it's like when you don't absolutely fucking hate your job." It is TOUGH, though, to find someone who is a great manager. And although I keep being offered jobs that pay more, right now this place gives me what I need and my manager is awesome.

But in the end, I work to live. It's what I'm doing and working on outside of the 9-5 (for lack of a better term) that sustains me. And if doing this is what I need to do to do that, well, it's worth the price.

I echo everything above about the 'funky' workplaces. I remember going from startup to startup in the mid-90's, and when I got laid off for the third time, when the recuiters would call and talk to me about the cool startup with an office in a cool part of town with a pool table and great employee outings, I would ask them again if they had anything at the core group of large technology companies in that area and that i was only interested at something in one of those situations. It gets old after a while.

[and, apropos of nothing, but : cool papa bell is my new hero. not only the greatest handle on mefi but excellent posts and great writing. cool papa bell could get out of bed to turn off the light and be back under the covers before the light was out.]
posted by micawber at 8:41 PM on October 23, 2008

If it was fun, you'd have to pay to do it ...

Blah blah blah. One man's fun is another man's pornography is another man's meaningful day's work. In defense of brandnew's question, he does wrap it up with this:

why do corporations never seem (or very slowly) evolve (at least regarding employee satisfaction)?

... which, translated into Canadian English, would perhaps be better worded as such:

Why do corporations seem to evolve so slowly with regard to allowing for employee satisfaction?

A darned good question, I think.
posted by philip-random at 8:57 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I could rattle off why answers off the top of my head all day long. Collectivizing human effort is hard: it's a lot easier to do it poorly than well. People who tend to get promoted are frequently people who best promote themselves: this trait is not necessarily conducive to good leadership. And since people hire the traits they value in themselves the system proliferates. There's no making some stuff fun. Somebody has to clean the toilets. A shallow but at least superficially effective way to view the optimization of personnel is to extract the maximum productivity for the minimal investment. Grinding and gouging are not the prescriptions for fun. The business environment is inherently (though not necessarily) culturally conservative: personal style and individuality are in conflict with this reality.

For research you might want to peruse Studs Terkel's classic Working. It presents people who find meaning and pleasure in their work and people who find their work meaningless and disappointing.

You might also think about a book like What Color is Your Parachute: one of its underlying premises is that you craft a picture of the sort of job where you'd be happy and then go looking for that job, and has strategies for searching off the beaten path to make the most perfect match. None of the qualities you suggest seem unobtainable to me. If you haven't considered it some parts of the non-profit world might hold promise for some of what you're looking there. Believing in come intrinsic value in what you're doing doesn't hurt either.
posted by nanojath at 9:19 PM on October 23, 2008

wow you guys sound like you all work in the salt mines or something. The answer is simple; your in the wrong place. If you good or motivated there are plenty of nice places out there.
posted by H. Roark at 9:46 PM on October 23, 2008

I've got all 8 of your points in my life. I'm a software developer.

I can name at least 5 people off the top of my head who are also software developers and have all 8 points.

The one other thing we all have in common is that we freelance exclusively.

Just somethign to think about.
posted by Ookseer at 9:52 PM on October 23, 2008

I have to admit that I haven't read the other answers, but I want to elaborate on the 'if it was fun, it wouldn't be work' idea. Or, more literally, 'if it wasn't work, it might be fun.' Or perhaps, 'if it's work, it's a lot less fun.'

I have the awesomely enviable position of having been offered a wonderful, flexible, work from home job doing something that I used to love to do absolutely for free as a hobby. And there are days that I'd really rather stay in bed than get up and face my job.

My work environment is my living room, so it couldn't be more entertaining and suited to my personality if I tried. The subject matter I deal with is delicious, yummy food, so it couldn't be more light and pleasant. The people I work with every day are people who share my passions and who volunteer to do what we do for free (as I used to) so they're all a pleasure to work with.

I still like my job much better than my previous job, and I'm very happy to have it, and I count myself as tremendously lucky, and most days, I don't hate my job at all. The fact that it's a job, and I must do it, and I'm significantly responsible for the outcomes and that my livelihood depends on it all come together to make something that I really enjoy not nearly as much fun.

I'm not actually sure this factor doesn't get worse the more you loved whatever you do before you start to do it for money. The daily grind of things like expense reports and annual reviews and weekly status reports start to get mixed in with this thing you love, and make you love it less, and then you get increasingly bitter about those nasty things, which just makes the love-hate spiral speed up.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:23 PM on October 23, 2008

Another anti-"if it was fun, it wouldn't be work" comment: none of your complaints seem directly related to the content of your work, with the possible exception of (4). You're talking about the environment. You're not being paid to sit in an environment. You're being paid to code--which most certainly is work, not because it's unpleasant but because it's not something just anybody can do. The environment is ancillary to this. You're absolutely justified in demanding an environment in which your happiness is not compromised while you do the actual thing you're being paid to do.

I know that I've thoroughly enjoyed about 70% of the programming I've had to do for an employer. And I've absolutely hated every job I've ever had.
posted by Netzapper at 12:05 AM on October 24, 2008

I have to take issue with all of the "if it was fun, they wouldn't pay you to do it" answers. Whether or not you have fun doesn't make a difference to the company as long as you make them money. They pay you money to make them money, and if making the work environment "fun" for you means they'll make more money, they'll invest in a better work environment.
posted by timoni at 12:16 AM on October 24, 2008

I would also add to somone who says that freelancing as bad in an unstable economy: I had a dinner on tuesday with 7 other freenacners. None of us were skittish about the economy. Most of us were up for the quarter. I personally haven't turned down this much work in more than two years.

Finding the next gig freelancing doesn't change the landscape much, since we are always, in theory, looking for the next gig. But getting laid off chan be life changing.

However freelancing isn't for everyone. Working at a smaller company might very well work for you. The reason large companies don't make exceptions for exceptional employees (outside the C level) is because it is more efficient to be homogeneous to all employees and they have lots of motmeum in that direction. That means if you are clever or work better at different times or in different environements you're fucked. In fact you will be driven out. Smaller and newer compaines are a higher risk for longer-term stability (supposedly) but they offer greater opportunity for unique work environments and participation, and they are much more likley to have employees who are excited and enthusiastic about their work. And it's always is true that the smaller the group the more likley you are going to be heard.
posted by Ookseer at 1:51 AM on October 24, 2008

I was thinking again about this question overnight, and wanted to add a few things.

On first blush, I fundamentally disagree with all of the 'if it wasn't hard and boring and soul-destroying, they wouldn't call it work' type comments. Because I've done boring and soul-destroying jobs, but I've also done amazing jobs (including the one I have now). Even the horrible jobs had moments that made them bearable, and even the most amazing job has moments that make you want to stick pins in your eyes. My dear old dad, font of much wisdom, once said to me when I was moaning about being in a job I hated 'Aye, but remember son, every job has drudgery in it in some form or another. The trick is finding the ones where the drudgery is the necessary, minimal overhead, not the entire point of the job.'

However, when I think back over the work I've done and the colleagues I've worked with over the years, there starts to be a clear constant, which Cool Papa Bell and others upthread have mentioned. To be blunt, if you want a job, career and workplace that you actively enjoy, you have to be very good at what you do, then find a place that recognises that and rewards it as you wish to be rewarded (for many people it's money, for you maybe it's flexible time and shorter hours and a relaxed atmosphere).

Big companies are set up the way they are because, again bluntly speaking, most of the modern workforce aren't exceptionally smart, focused, productive and proactive. Most people need structure of the kind you can't stand, and even if they don't actually need it, they feel like they do. Many companies create cultures and working practices that turn on the motivators and behaviours of the least capable employees. They enforce dress codes and strict start times so that lazy-ass new kid will at least shave and look presentable and maybe turn up on time some of the time. They have daily status meetings and enormous spreadsheets to track everything because if they don't, Billy Fuckup in the corner there will just amble along not doing any work.

It's arguable whether the effort expended to motivate and manage the poorest performing people in a large business will have excessive impact on people who do work effectively, but I feel it definitely does.

When I went looking for a job, I went looking for a company that had people in it I could genuinely get along well with, that offered me work I knew I would find interesting and that clearly had rigourous selection procedures. What's clear to me at my current employer is that pretty much everyone here wants to be here, and that the general quality, experience and skills of the workforce is pretty high.

Jobhunt when you have a job. Get really, really good at what you do. Trend towards small companies. Look for people who love what they do and are also good at it. Fun at work comes from being in a productive, exciting environment, not being in a 'fun' environment.
posted by Happy Dave at 1:52 AM on October 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

Doesn't the de facto state of corporate America violate some economic law?

And yet, logic and reason to the contrary, they still exist. So clearly, there's got to be something wrong with part of your logic somewhere.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:56 AM on October 24, 2008

Response by poster: I appreciate all of the responses. However, I feel that I need to respond to help clarify the question and better get at the root of what I'm looking for.

First, some of the responses have been interesting and enlightening, but be aware that I'm not a slacker. In fact, I've done pretty well for myself by corporate standards. I now have signature power, power over people and projects! And, yes, I'm guilty - I have gained these powers largely from gaming the system. In fact, I have practiced the opposite of my wish list, because it has worked out so strikingly well.

But it kills me, a slow kill, also. I feel like a charlatan. Sure, I still get things done, and projects get out the door, but I have had no passion for all of these rules and regulation and structure. The other day I had a performance review, and I asked that my raise be put toward perks instead. I basically told them I was gushing cash already; why would I want more? Instead I asked for more flexibility and the ability to let my teams to share the same. They looked at me incredulously, as if the idea of this would destroy the foundation of the corporation.

Lately I've been considering dropping out completely. This would be an entirely irrational thing to do. So, why is the feeling toward this path so strong? Maybe I'm just in the wrong career. Perhaps people who truly care and love their fields of work never experience this. The fact is, given the alternatives, I would still be creative, I would still code and create software. Perhaps I just have to move?

I'm puzzled by this economic model, that's all. Yes, I know it exists and seems to work. But, I am looking for economic reasons for this equilibrium. Some of you have narrowed down on some possible models. I continue to thank all of you for sharing your thoughts.
posted by brandnew at 4:15 AM on October 24, 2008

Well, in terms of economic reasons for where things are now and why they aren't better, have you considered where things used to be and how much better they are? We think of the Google model of bean bag chairs, free drinks and comfy chairs as being new and modern and different, but not treating your employees like total shit, working them to death for 14 hours a day, and paying them as little as you can get away with or nothing at all (slavery) are still pretty revolutionary ideas, too. I think it's probably not so much an equilibrium as it is where we happen to be at this point in human civilization. There are still plenty of countries where they haven't even achieved the amazingly free and open workplaces that you consider so stifling.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:20 AM on October 24, 2008

"They looked at me incredulously, as if the idea of this would destroy the foundation of the corporation."

IMHO, there are several different dynamics working here that are the basis for this reaction:

Its quite possible the really do believe your non-traditional ideas will "destroy the foundation of the corporation." In my view corporations are similar to national governments/laws in the way that your acceptance/membership is an agreement to support the group (and be less of an individual). The goal of a corporation is to make money in the most efficient way possible and the laws (spoken or unspoken) that govern that are designed in a generic/broad way to support those goals. I like to refer to them as "lowest common denominator laws" by which I mean "most people are idiots who will take advantage of a loose and free work environment, so the corporation has to make many rules to maintain control". The more control they relinquish to you - the less control they have, and the more risky it feels to them. (perhaps you can find a way to get what you want, and still give them illusion of control ?)

Regarding the specific economic angle to your question ("you'd think fun jobs would be more profitable and more popular").. i would agree with... I think corporatism has been so deeply ingrained in (atleast the american) work environment for so long, its going to take a while to break out of that mindset. Its definitely taking hold in smaller companies faster (because they can adapt and change faster). Even in big companies who want to look friendly and edgy, their offices are still filled with cubicles.

Why is your resistance to corporatism so strong ?.. because you've realized its not a natural human way to work. It is without a doubt absolutely soulless. I also have yet to figure a way out.. but I'm trying everything I can to make that happen before I turn 40.
posted by jmnugent at 5:33 AM on October 24, 2008

First, some people like the corporate atmosphere. That explains the existence of such work environments. Now to tackle your more theoretical question of why you keep ending up in them.

As others have chimed in, plenty of "fun" environments exist. And it seems like with 5 random samples you should have found one by now. Since you haven't, I can see three conclusions:

(1) You're simply unlucky.

(2) You are the common denominator in all this and will just find any job not "fun", contrary to what you imagine. Any of the jobs mentioned by commenters above which seem to meet your criteria would not actually be enjoyed by you.

(3) The work environment random variables have not been independent. i.e. there is some systemic bias in how you're choosing jobs.

Personally, I think (3) is most likely. That means that something about how you choose a job is correlated with that job being "boring". Perhaps you should re-evaluate your job search method and see what it is that might be doing that. Maybe it's location, firm size, programming language used (i.e. if you only look for shops that use Java, maybe that could be it if Java use is heavily correlated with companies you'd find boring), some other job requirement, kind of hiring manager your responses and demeanor impresses, way you found out about the job (ad in Corporate America Magazine), etc.

Disclaimer: I just graduated in June and am about to start my first job, so this is more of a theoretical response than one based on experience.
posted by losvedir at 6:48 AM on October 24, 2008

My partner gets pretty much all of those things. Still working on the non-asshole coworkers, though.

He works for a much smaller place (less than 100) in NYC and gets paid about market rate.
posted by sondrialiac at 9:37 AM on October 24, 2008

[...] why do corporations never seem (or very slowly) evolve (at least regarding employee satisfaction)?

I am looking for economic reasons for this equilibrium.

Blech, I hate to be quoting people all the time, but these people have said it in much better terms than I could rattle off the top of my brain here in a matter of minutes. If you can't tell, these are questions I have been pondering as well, for the last year and a half.

The questions you are asking are super complex (even if they appear simple) and as such the answers will be complex.

This is a passage from the book A Language Older Than Words by Derrick Jensen. The title of the chapter is "The Parable of the Box":

The box is full of salmon, and a man sits atop the box. Long ago this man hired armed guards to keep anyone from eating his fish. The many people who sit next to the empty river starve to death. But they do not die of starvation. They die of a belief. Everyone believes that the man atop the box owns the fish. The soldiers believe it, and they will kill to protect the illusion. The others believe it enough that they are willing to starve. But the truth is that there is a box, there is an emptied river, there is a man sitting atop the box, there are guns, and there are starving people.

In the 1930's, anthropologist Ruth Benedict tried to discover why some cultures are "good," to use her word, and some are not. She noticed that members of some cultures were generally "surly and nasty" -- words she and her assistant Abraham Maslow recognized as unscientific -- while members of other culutres were almost invariably "nice."

Benedict is of course not the only person to have made this distinction. The psychologist Erich Fromm found that cultures fell, sometimes easily, into distinct categories such as "life-affirmative," or "destructive." The Zuni Pueblos, Semangs, Mbutus, and othes that he placed in the former category are extraordinary for the way in which they contrast with our own culture. "There is a minimum of hostility, violence, or cruelty among people, no harsh punishment, hardly any crime, and the institution of war is absent or plays an exceedingly small role. Children are treated with kindness, there is no severe corporal punishment; women are in general considered equal to men, or at least not exploited or humiliated; there is a genarally permissive and affirmative attitude toward sex. There is little envy, covetousness, greed, and exploitativeness. There is also little competition and individualism and a great deal of cooperation; personal property is only in things that are used. There is a general attitude of trust and confidence, not only in others but particularly in nature; a general prevalence of good humor, and a relative absence of depressive moods."

Readers may more closely recognize our own culture in Fromm's description of the Dobus, Kwaikutl, Aztecs, and others he put into the category of "destructive." These cultures, he said, are "characterized by much interpersonal violence, destructiveness, aggression, and cruelty, both within the tribe and against others, a pleasure in war, maliciousness, and treachery. The whole atmosphere of life is one of hostility, tension, and fear. Usually there is a great deal of competition, great emphasis on private property (if not in material things then in symbols), strict hierarchies, and a considerable amount of war-making."


Given the ubiquity of this culture's destructiveness as well as its technological capacity, there has never been a more important time to ask Ruth Benedict's question: Why are some cultures "good" and others not?

Benedict found that good cultures, which she began to call "secure," or "low aggression," or "high-synergy cultures," could not be differentiated from "surly and nasty" cultures on the basis of race, geography, climate, size, wealth, poverty, complexity, matrilineality, patrilineality, house size, the absence or presence of polygamy, and so on. More research revealed to her one simple and commonsensical rule separating aggressive from nonaggressive cultures, a rule that has so far evaded implementation by our culture: the social forms and institutions of nonaggressive cultures positively reinforce acts that benefit the group as a whole while negatively reinforcing acts (and eliminating goals) that harm some members of the group.

The social forms of aggressive cutures, on the other hand, reward actions that emphasize individual gain, even or especially when that gain harms others in the community. A primary and sometimes all-consuming goal of members of these cultures is to come out ahead in their "dog eat dog" world.

Another way to put this is that social arrangements of nonaggressive cultures eliminate the polarity between selfishness and altruism by making the two identical: In a "good" culture, the man atop the box from the parable above would have been scorned, despised, exiled, or otherwise prevented from damaging the community. To behave in such a selfish and destructive manner would be considered insane. Even had he conceived such a preposterous idea as hoarding all the fish, he would have been absolutely disallowed because the box was held at the expense of the majority, as well as at the expense of future generations. For him to be a rich and influential member of a good culture, he would have had to give away many or all of the fish. The act of giving would have made him rich in esteem. But he would never have been allowed to strip the river. There would have been no fear with regard to the "gift" of fish, for social arrangements would have made him secure in the knowledge that if his next fishing trip failed, his more successful neighbors would feed him, just as this time he had fed them.

It all comes down to how a culture handles wealth. If a culture manages it through what Benedict called a "siphon system," whereby wealth is constantly siphoned from rich to poor, the society as a whole and its members as individuals will be, for obvious reasons, secure. They will not need to hoard wealth. Since this generosity is manifested not only monetarily but in all aspects of life, they will also not need to act out their now-nonexistent insecurities in other ways. On the other hand, if a culture uses a "funnel system," in which those who accumulate wealth are esteemed, the result is that "the advantage of one individual becomes a victory over another, and the majority who are not victorious must shift as they can." For reasons that should again be obvious, such social forms foster insecurity and aggression, both personal and cultural.

posted by symbollocks at 9:49 AM on October 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

Man, I'm regretting that wall of text now. The last paragraph is the most pertinent to your question.
posted by symbollocks at 9:54 AM on October 24, 2008

This is kind of fascinating to me -- just as a data point, I work at a relatively software company and pretty much every coder on our staff has the 8 points you've listed here. Now I'm sure when they're in crunch time on a project they feel like those might be compromised sometimes, but overall these are all well within the bounds of what our programmers can expect. So good companies are definitely out there.
posted by anildash at 9:46 PM on October 24, 2008

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