Where you work matters, and some bosses don't care...
Long ago, I attended GABF (The Great American Beer Festival) as a media member. I took many beer photos, and I made a few friends good friends in the beer world.
One GABF, my (512) Brewing Company friends invited me on a trip to visit Fort Collins. We first visited Odell (an excellent craft brewery). One of the (512) folks knew Odell's owner, and they led us on a private tour. Compared to most Austin-area breweries a the time, Odell was large and well-equipped. Rows upon rows of fermenters filled a steel building fronted with a comfortable tasting room.
After Odell, we jumped back into our van and drove down the road to New Belgium. As our van approached New Belgium's campus, you could see how they spent their money. The brewery had lush landscaping around it, and some of the new buildings looked gorgeous. We didn't know anyone at New Belgium, but somehow the (512) brewer convinced them we were cool beer people from Austin who deserved their VIP tour.
As we walked into New Belgium, the contrast with other breweries was stark. The VIP tour had a waiting room filled with charcuterie boards, snacks, swag, and a supply of beer. More differences became apparent as we toured the brewery buildings. The older buildings were much like Odell: giant erector-set metal sheds that could occupy any industrial park in the US. The new facilities were cathedrals to beer and bicycles. Colorful mosaics circled massive brew kettles emerging from the floor of a bright, wood-beamed tasting room. Mobiles made from bike parts hung from ceilings. You can see my photos from that day here [https://www.flickr.com/photos/jmpk/albums/72157628362275717].
Outside the brewery, bikes covered a massive area. These belonged to employees -- New Belgium gives every employee a bike on their first anniversary. Judging by the sea of bicycles, the employees rode them daily. I've been to many breweries, and I've never seen anything like it. Not even Google's campus, where I once saw a car casually drive over a Google-owned bicycle left in the street.
Odell operates in typical brewery buildings with familiar brewery culture. New Belgium operates in deliberately unique circumstances. The difference isn't superficial because it changes employee behavior. A lot of employees bike to work on their company-issued cruisers. The whole place had a different feeling.
In my experience, most software startups behave like Odell. They pick their environment and culture from the same menu everyone else does. Espresso machines, free snacks, ping pong tables, and open-floorplan offices are typical. Many startups are similar, even if a few details are different. The choices aren't wrong; they're just not competitive.
Very few make unique choices like New Belgium. The (costly) office furniture comes from Steelcase or Herman Miller. Google hosts the corporate email system. Cans of La Croix fill the fridge. Very few startups have a unique take on the work environment or their approach to the work.
Even Facebook's new campus has developers working on a giant factory floor laid out panopticon-style around Zuck's glass office. That's pretty much the standard in many offices I've seen recently: employees toiling at long rows of tables overlooked by supervisor offices. If you look at photos of 19th-century factories, you'll find workspaces laid out the same way [https://sites.google.com/site/archief09/time-of-citizens-and-steam-engines-1800---1900/life-in-19th-century-utrecht].
Why aren't more employers innovative and intentional in how they design their workspaces? Considering how much time even the CEO spends at the office, you'd think they would want a more comfortable, beautiful, and productive space.
Instead, businesses arrange their offices as if the building's needs were more dear than those of the occupants. One place I worked periodically made the office more miserable. They sawed off the ends of employee desks to fit more in a row. The facilities manager scolded a colleague for hanging a pirate flag near his desk. The fun police even replaced organic post-it art with their own and evicted workers from the quiet "telephone rooms" if they seemed to stay too long. How does this help the company's mission?
My concern about workspaces and tools might seem odd. Software companies must benefit from their choices, right? Maybe not. I've made it my hobby to collect research concerning open-floorplan offices [https://www.hireappdeveloper.org/blog/open-floorplan-offices-hurt-productivity.html]. To summarize, open-floorplan offices decrease productivity, happiness, creativity, and collaboration. They increase stress and the spread of illness.
I can think of three likely explanations for these choices: conformity, expense, and hierarchy. If Facebook spent all that money on a software assembly line, it must be good for us too. Private offices (or cubicles) are too expensive. Supervisors need more prestigious spaces to denote power.
As study after study illustrates, our environment and tools influence what we do and how we think. Why are companies which depend on innovation so casual in their environmental decisions?
I hope that the pandemic will help employers think more deliberately about these questions. I think bosses will need real persuasive skills to pull some remote workers out of their homes and back to an office.
Many folks will miss the office's social aspects, but I think a larger number will wonder why they need to commute to a distracting, uncomfortable environment. Won't using threats and demands backfire? The number of permanently remote positions has increased dramatically since March 2020. A new job might seem a lot more attractive than returning to a daily commute to the software factory.
The second-order effects will be interesting too. Will office-centric employers fill with extroverts? Or will it work like a sorting method that gently nudges top talent to find a more friendly workplace?
During the pandemic, the status quo at many software companies has become working remotely. A status quo is difficult to change. I look forward to seeing how businesses and office owners respond.