Have you ever wondered about exactly how Netflix works? How those little red DVD envelopes get sorted, packaged and mailed to your home? Reports popped up recently, but they paint two curiously different pictures.
Netflix: Employee heaven?
MG Seigler at Techcrunch managed to pick up an internal Netflix presentation intended to explain company philosophy to its own staff. It's such an interesting document that Seigler suggests "other companies should have to read this."
Netflix, it seems, is really trying not to work in the same way that other large companies do. There's no real policy on vacations—it's a question of taking as much time as you need. Managers are encourage to let staff go if they're not doing the job, and to value efficiency over attendance—rewards shouldn't necessarily go to those who arrive early and work late, if other staff achieve the same in a standard day. Top staff should be paid well so they don't leave. Staff are encouraged to say what they think, "even if it's controversial."
And there's the killer line: "Our model is to increase employee freedom as we grow, rather than limit it, to continue to attract and nourish innovative people." For many an employee in an overly restrictive workplace, with corporate-suit bosses who play the "Well, Bob here was working over the weekend...Where were you?" card too often, this may well tempt you to up sticks and hike over to the Netflix recruitment office right now.
Netflix: Crypt-like silence, hellish boredom?
The Chicago Tribune's Christopher Borrelli got to visit one of the 58 Netflix distribution centers, and his story paints a different, and altogether eerier, picture. For starters, Borrelli wasn't allowed to divulge the location of the site—and neither are any of the employees. This is a move to protect the millions of thief-tempting DVDs inside each, and also to discourage customers messing with the system by turning up in person to drop off used DVDs. The building, in keeping with this, is drab, unremarkable and unmarked—there's nothing to distinguish it from "a meth lab."
Inside it's different. Nearly every employee is in "a red Netflix T-shirt, nearly every one in constant motion." Borelli was even asked not to disturb the production line workers with questions, lest he "disturb their groove." The groove which is a systematic, repetitive "flurry of fingers" where returned discs are unwrapped, checked and sorted at a rate of at least 650 an hour per employee. Every 65 minutes a bell rings and team leaders lead their groups through a quick callisthenic workout, all in sync, and then they return to work. Elsewhere an employee "swept what appeared to be a spotless floor" and a woman "sprinted back and forth along a mail sorter."
This makes it sound like the kind of dread corporate monotony that distopian sci-fi movies love to suggest is the way of the future. The fact that customers sometimes pop "scribbled movie reviews" and family photos into the Netflix envelopes thus seems a faint, stark, flicker of life against the all-encompassing corporate darkness—instead of a sweet tidbit of info.
So is Netflix heaven or hell to work in? It's impossible for me to say—I've never worked there, or anywhere like it. And the two pieces do have a slightly different slant, one towards factory-floor employees and one to execs. It does at least sound like the company's management are trying to maximize the efficiency of what would be a dread-boring day job any way you look at it, without doing so at the expense of their employees. And that's something I suspect many other establishments rarely think about at all.