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The Sun Sets on the Bohemian Workplace

The freewheeling culture of the dotcom workplace is rapidly disappearing, a victim of the harsh, new economic reality. Andrew Ross hopes to chronicle its glory days before it’s gone.

Foosball. Khakis. Overcaffeination. They were familiar trappings of the near-extinct dotcom culture. Live-work loft space. Flexible work schedules. Open-plan offices. The notion that all work is personal and that you are what you do.

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Those cultural trends and buzzwords — spawned in large part by the Internet Age — fundamentally changed the psychology of the workplace, according to Andrew Ross, professor and director of the American Studies Program at New York University. The transformation marked what the outspoken cultural critic calls “the industrialization of bohemia.” For the first time in the history of work, says Ross, a mentality more typical of artisans and craftspeople was imported into core sectors of the information economy. And work, he says, will never be the same.

From the mid-1990s until the dotcom meltdown, the office was reimagined as “a giant, multipurpose playroom for an ever-shifting team of workers,” he says. And while that kind of freewheeling play has largely subsided in today’s beleaguered economy, the informal workplace is here to stay.

Ross isn’t another ivory-tower commentator on dotcom culture. In the last days of summer, weeks away from the start of another school year, Ross, 45, is working feverishly to chronicle what’s left of a dying culture. He is conducting an in-depth study of Silicon Alley workplace culture. For the past year, he has made himself at home in two companies, where he has interviewed some 150 employees, attended dozens of staff meetings, and observed the daily grind.

It’s a familiar in-the-trenches project for Ross, who has authored nearly a dozen books on technology and culture, including his most recent book, The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney’s New Town (Ballantine Books, 1999). He eventually plans to publish his current research in a book that will explore the new economy’s work mentality.

In a recent interview with Fast Company, Ross offered a sneak preview of his findings so far.

What kind of Silicon Alley companies are you studying and why?

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There’s a lot of awareness of how exploitative sectors of that economy were and still are. So I decided to go to companies that were about as good as it gets. In many ways, these companies were labor aristocracies. The salaries were fairly high. There was a remarkable amount of personal autonomy on the job. Employees were given permission to manage themselves and their expressive energies. These companies also had strong, organically grown cultures, as opposed to culture with a capital C.

In what ways was bohemian culture imported into the workplace?

There was an attempt to bring the bustle and the vitality of urban street life into the workplace. Traditionally bohemian workstyles were visible in everything from casual dress and the informalization of the workday to the endorsement of a kind of general hedonism and party culture in the office. This contrasts with mainstream corporate America, which represents the bourgeoisie.

There is a civil war being waged between the old economy and the new economy. And in many ways, that battle is a replay of the 19th-century Parisian face-off between bohemians and the bourgeoisie. A lot of these companies presented themselves as alternatives to corporate America and took on all things bohemian. What’s interesting is that both groups needed the other. The world of the bourgeoisie always needed a bohemian underside, a sort of fantasy demimonde, just as the bohemians always needed the bourgeoisie to define themselves against. And a lot of the culture that you find in the Internet economy is very much a reenactment of that century-old opposition between the bohemians and the bourgeoisie in an urban setting. The fact that such a familiar dialogue has been played out in the business world is quite extraordinary.

What was truly new about the new economy’s work mentality?

It was everything, from the physical space — the arrangement of the office — to a greater sense of permission and personal autonomy. The true mark of humanity is choice. Is workplace community obligatory or optional? In other words, can you chose to treat your job as just a job? In some companies, employees who want to fit in have no choice but to hang out constantly with the “in” crowd — which isn’t entirely healthy or humane. There’s a very thin line between communitarianism and obligatory community in the workplace.

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Employees also had greater liberty to manage themselves. In the history of work, there has never been such emotional self-management on the job. By self-management, I mean the degree to which employees accept or reject the idea that the working day can be a mix of work and play, self-application and dreamy idleness. Ultimately, I’m talking about work rhythms and patterns that imitate the way artists traditionally work. When I’m writing, I spend a lot of time just sort of messing around — writing now and again. Play is critical. Most managers haven’t yet been able to incorporate creative meandering in a sustainable way.

From an employee’s point of view, there was also an unprecedented sense of permission in the workplace. Someone I recently interviewed described the sense of constant encouragement as a gentle light that’s always glowing in another room — or an encouragement so pervasive, it’s like love. There’s no source of the power that constitutes love, but when you feel it, it’s omnipresent.

The new-economy workplace was also supposed to provide a level of self-actualization for employees — not just self-fulfillment, but self-actualization. People approached a job as if it were a work of art, a test of their innermost essence and integrity.

What was true two years ago that is no longer true today?

Consider the degree of specialization of labor that’s kicked in over the past year. The Internet industry is a young industry, with a medium that had to be discovered and with an early-adopter workforce that basically had to self-learn the necessary skills along the way, because there were no textbooks for this stuff. These were Renaissance men and women.

Today, there’s much more of a division and specialization of labor. Between then and now, we created a whole discipline of information architecture and devised a formal academic system to train and credential employees in a particular skill, rather than an informal multidisciplinary education where you learned a little bit of everything.

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You had similar patterns in previous industries. As technologies become automated and the division of labor develops or deepens, employees who had more power initially — because of their range of skills — tend to lose some of their standing in the workplace. Now they can only do one thing.

What is true today that wasn’t true two years ago?

Managers have learned how to be managers. For a lot of employees, there’s a sigh of relief, but for a lot of other employees, that skill arrived too late to save them.

It’s also true that a lot of clients in corporate America have figured out that the Internet isn’t the sort of magical, mythical creature that requires a priestly cast of young neophytes to interpret it. Most companies can figure out much of what they need to know about the new medium for themselves.

You could connect that shift to the economic downturn, but I’m more likely to say that it was inevitable. These things are fleeting. Golden ages never last very long.

How has the industrialization of bohemia affected the new-economy worker?

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One of the most interesting stories is about the role of young people. How their passion for change, which is endemic to youth in general, somehow got channeled into a passion for corporate change. Which meant that a lot of the activism, or socially productive work that they otherwise might have done, was redirected into a kind of infatuation with changing the shape of corporate America. That could have only happened, of course, because of the particularly bohemian cast — the sort of counterculture cast — of the companies that recruited these employees, for better or worse.

How has the current economic environment affected this new work mentality?

One of the first things I discovered was nostalgia less for the prospect of stock options that had withered on the vine and more for the kind of humane work environment that these companies had fostered.

When times were fat, the structure was very flat. There really was the sense that the lowliest employee could say anything to senior management. When privation sets in, the lines became more distinct. That’s even true for companies with the best intentions. Today, employees have a much clearer sense of where they stand, and the lines of power are more visible.

But a humane work environment makes layoffs even worse. Because if a company has a very strong culture, where everyone is supposed to feel like family, it’s much tougher to fire siblings than employees. And where there aren’t clear lines of managerial hierarchy, employees often feel like no one is really accountable for the decisions that lead to layoffs.

So what is the current mentality of the employees inside the companies you’re studying?

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People are hanging on to their jobs. They’re dealing with a changed corporate environment: The stock market not only crashed, but the Web is no longer a source of magic. There isn’t the same level of intoxication that came with this idea of inventing a new medium. People are just trying to get used to that. And in that regard, I don’t find the same level of enthusiasm — total self-bondage — toward work. People are waiting to see what happens, not just with their job but with their life. There’s a general lull. People are drifting. When they leave companies, whether they go voluntarily or not, they tend to gravitate toward smaller-scale organizations that maintain an artisanal work environment, or they strike out on their own. They’re not filtering into big corporations that effectively squash creativity.

Christine Canabou (ccanabou@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company staff writer.