Unlimited showers, laundry, and massages — this is not a description of a gym, but some of the trending fashions in stereotypical startup culture. To name a few more, there’s the foosball-tables, scooters, and free lattes.
Not more than a few decades ago, such a culture was unimaginable. Century-old industrial age companies, such as Ford or Rockefeller Oil, had defined work culture up until that point, evoking images of lowly “proletariat” wage-earners folding against the demands of “bourgeois” higher management; the clockwork of such corporate business functioned uniformly across the capitalistic world, because there was simply no alternative.
Then came the rise of startups. Compared to traditional business culture, startup culture functions on different, even fundamentally opposite values, often accompanied by an air of defiance and superiority; and rightly so — after all, startups have transcended the overheads of management, the rigidness of atmosphere, and the requirement for copious sums of venture capital. At a startup, it is not unreasonable to question the judgements of managers, to begin your workday to begin at noon, or for dress code to define an upper-bound, not a lower-bound.
Startup culture values itself — the culture — over strategy. Or more generally, it values the body over the head — a reversal in situation compared to that of traditional companies. It was valuable in the past for industrial companies with assembly-line employees to have intelligence trickle down, hive-mind-esque, to the mechanical workers below.
But now, especially in the digital-age, decentralized creativity and inspiration is key. In a way, computers and robots have taken the place of the mindless workers, freeing us to pursue harder problems that can only be solved by vast amounts of brainpower. Workers are hired as intelligent, idea machines, and the company serves to turns ideas into utility with as little friction as possible.
Take Google, for example. Having since grown to a size of nearly 50,000 employees after its initial success, coupled with its culture of innovation, has since outgrown its roots as just a search-engine company. From creating global internet for everyone via a grid of balloons in the stratosphere (Project Loon), to making powerful, connected internet devices available to all via Android and Chromium, to a hundred more world-changing projects, Google’s real product is innovation.
So where do unlimited showers, laundry, and massages fit in to this? At first glance, they seem little more than wasteful spending and irresponsibility. And yet, companies who have such benefits, such as Google, Facebook, and Dropbox, continue to push for a culture valuing happiness, because ultimately, happiness creates an environment of creativity and innovation.
Perhaps the rising trend of foosball-tables may be, remarkably, correlated with innovation as startup culture spreads.