Before I moved here, everyone told me Southern California wasn’t just a place, it was a “state of mind” where life was slower and the people were laid back and carefree. I always found this notion odd because well, Los Angeles has the second largest economy in the U.S.--it isn’t going to run itself. But it still made me wonder how this might apply to the great inevitability of our lives: work. Since there’s so much to do here besides work, do Californians not work as hard as people in harsher climates? Again, I found this doubtful from the beginning, but I was still curious to see if there might be any significant difference in how they do business and how much value they place on comfort and leisure. At first, I got mixed messages. There were all those people rushing around the 405 freeway and most people seemed to have fairly normal ideas about work ethic. But, then I joined a temp agency and got to see LA’s business men and women in their natural habitat. That changed a few things.
I joined the temp agency back when I was first getting my business started, but I continue to stay on call for several reasons. For one, the work is inordinately easy; I really do just answer the phone. I learned this the hard way; on my first assignment I showed up in a full suit ready to work a hard 8-5 and instead just got told to stay at the desk and not get in the way. So I pretty much get paid to sit on my computer, sign for FedEx packages, and blog while eating the catering food that intermittently gets delivered. Oh, and answer the phone when it rings. I swear, a small monkey could do this job. However, I also get an inside scoop on workplace goings-on, not to mention tons of high-quality people watching.
So while I continue to do this at various LA businesses, one thing has become abundantly clear: work is a very different experience for many people in LA than in any other place. Now, while people are usually professional, proactive and very dedicated to what they do, what’s really thrown me for a loop are the working conditions. All but one of the LA offices I’ve been to, and I’ve been to quite a few, were designed rather than merely furnished, so much that they often seemed more like works of art than places of business. I couldn’t believe how much money these businesses had sunk into their offices on entirely re-done floor plans, custom furniture, art pieces, etc. It’s incredible, check out these pictures:
Now onto the details—one dot com company had the liquid crystal line of widescreen plasma televisions above every single cubicle-- just so there could be a 57 inch image of their website topping off everyone’s workspace. One office had bathrooms with Meyer’s Lemon Lotion and Hand Soap, which I found selling for $58 on the Williams Sonoma website. That’s not including refills, which you know this place goes through like TP.
I’ve also never seen this much thought being put into the employee fridge. I was in a place that buys whole, skim and soy milk just for morning coffee along with every single fixin’ you could possibly imagine. And if regular coffee’s just too common for you, a gleaming steel espresso machine awaits, complete with espresso from Starbucks and separate cappuccino cups and saucers. The only thing missing was a private company barista.
Another place ordered $250 worth of fruit each day just so the employees could pick at it whenever they wanted a snack. Thursday was bagel day, where every available type of bagel and spread got ordered. I also happened to be there for an employee function where they bought eight types of sandwiches and three kegs of beer for a Friday lunch. Anything so the employees have limitless choices. Another company spent $1000 on a small catered breakfast and lunch duo, and let me tell you, I didn’t know something that would be consumed so quickly needed to look that beautiful. If that’s what they spend on food, think about what they must be spending on travel or corporate gifts. Or rather, think about what their clients must be spending.
The office kitchens I’ve seen have far surpassed their humble beginnings. Most have top-of-the-line, stainless steel appliances. A few have put in what exemplifies what's different about working in many California companies: the built-in beer tap. Yes, I’m serious, they had beer taps in the kitchen. This suggests that the staff are drinking so much beer that even just buying the occasional keg isn’t economical. And, by the way, the tap was Newcastle Brown Ale, quite a far cry from Natty Ice.
When I ask the office coordinator ladies about this, they say “yeah, we have a beer tap” like it’s just a great job perk. And as they said this, they also looked at me like some not-with-it Midwesterner, like if I told them I didn’t have text messaging. But still, what blew my mind was that it had never seemed to cross anyone’s mind that their employer’s spending habits might be a bit extravagant. To them it was no big deal, an expected part of working there, even something they deserved. What’s happening here is that the employees are being spoiled so often and to such a lavish degree that they’re taking it for granted.
This is going to sound old geezer, but where I’m from spending such lavish amounts of money on yourself is wasteful, whether you’re an individual, company, whatever. There’s no arguing this crap is somehow necessary-- you don’t need the $500 breakfast or the gleaming toaster or the beer tap—and that fact they have them makes it even more abundantly clear that these companies, when it comes to themselves, spare no expense.
Despite the obviously large amount of money being thrown around, I seemed to be the only one asking where it was all coming from. Somebody has to pay for all this stuff. Is it the clients? Possibly. Is the company not paying its employees very well in return for the fab working environment? Also possible. I couldn’t get an answer without sticking my nose way in where it doesn’t belong, but I highly doubt the higher ups are taking a pay cut for that beer tap.
I have never seen corporate spending like this in my life, not in Cleveland, Washington D.C., New York, anywhere, ever—in fact, the Washington Post looked like a shack by comparison. These aren't even oil companies either! You see, I come from a fairly conservative steel town, where offices actually looked liked places of business. They've got a microwave, fridge and vending machine in the kitchen and that's it. This is because you’re there to work, not anything else, and the office theoretically should reflect this. The rationale is that you try to remove distractions from the work environment in order to encourage people to focus while they’re there. Makes sense, right?
I’ve contemplated the purpose of all this grandeur? Is it for the employee’s comfort and enjoyment to help them to be happier at work? Doubtful. Does the company want to be seen as innovative and fun? It’s possible—this is L.A., image is everything. Or it is to impress visiting clients? Does investing a fortune in a place really gain you that much business? I’m not sure; I can’t imagine how much more it cost to create this rather than a regular office, but I’m doubtful the results justify the investment.
I was leaning towards the client/image reason at first, but then I heard an interesting perspective from one of my former employers who stands, hands-down, as the best boss I’ve ever had. He explained that they’re probably trying to fashion an environment in which the line is blurred between work and not-work. By spending all that extra moolah and recreating the comforts of home, you entice salaried employees to put in longer hours, and then they are more productive. Plus, it makes the employee think fondly of the company and feel more dedicated to doing their job well, thus inclining them to work harder. According to my old boss, this can easily translate into the company getting more than they’ll ever shell out in payroll or in all those job perks.
This made sense to me, but it reminds me why it’s difficult to not be cynical as an adult in this society. Everything costs money, people are always trying to make money off you, there’s always some ulterior motive you’re facing. In this situation, I can’t see there being some innocent reason for such lavish decoration and spending. Companies don’t spend that much money just to be nice-- what do they get out of it?
So, back to my original question: is there a difference in working in California? Most definitely, yes. From my casual research, it appears that these companies are trying to appeal to Californians’ laid back, leisurely “nature” to hopefully get them to work harder and longer hours. This makes sense and definitely says something about what Californians expect to have in their lives: comfort, treats, nice things, yuppie stuff. So much for disproving the stereotype. But maybe this is how that “state of mind” intersects with real life: Californians will work hard and put in long hours if the experience is enjoyable. After all, there’s a lot of sun out here.