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The Economist and Work Incentives: Things I Really Know Nothing (But Still Have Opinions) About

September 24th, 2010  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized

Okay, I’ll admit it: I read the Economist, and not just because I have trouble sleeping at night. I read it for work, as part of my research for the Harper’s Index, which I write each month. I came across a interesting article recently, written by the anonymous (and in my opinion, stupidly named) columnist, Schumpeter, on how businesses are trying to increase the amount of fun Americans get to have at work (without engaging in illicit or illegal activities):

The cult of fun is deepening as well as widening. Google is the acknowledged champion: its offices are blessed with volleyball courts, bicycle paths, a yellow brick road, a model dinosaur, regular games of roller hockey and several professional masseuses. But now two other companies have challenged Google for the jester’s crown—Twitter, a microblogging service, and Zappos, an online shoe-shop.

Twitter’s website stresses how wacky the company is: workers wear cowboy hats and babble that: “Crazy things happen every day…it’s pretty ridiculous.” The company has a team of people whose job is to make workers happy: for example, by providing them with cold towels on a hot day. Zappos boasts that creating “fun and a little weirdness” is one of its core values. Tony Hsieh, the boss, shaves his head and spends 10% of his time studying what he calls the “science of happiness”. He once joked that Zappos was suing the Walt Disney Company for claiming that it was “the happiest place on earth”. The company engages in regular “random acts of kindness”: workers form a noisy conga line and single out one of their colleagues for praise. The praisee then has to wear a silly hat for a week.

Now, short of having a silly hat—cuz who doesn’t want one of those bad boys for office and home use—why would the masters of industry in this country think I want to have more fun at work? I can’t speak for the employed-without-children, but I can’t imagine they are all that different from me: I want to do my work and leave. Creating things that will keep me in my office strikes me as, well, a way for an employer to keep me in my office. Which is not where I house my girlfriend, children, television, or refrigerator. As a parent, I’m constantly looking for ways to meet me work responsibilities while simultaneously spending as little time physically in the office as is possible and ethical. This trend directly counteracts those efforts.

It reminded me of some work-related experiences I had years ago when I lived in Vietnam (that’s how I met Matt; we were both sub-editors at Vietnam News). I had a friend who was a manager at a foreign-owned mobile-phone company. One of his colleagues was having a hard time motivating his Vietnamese employees, despite having implemented a number of what he considered worker-friendly office policies, the crowning achievement of which was casual Friday attire for work.

The Vietnamese employees detested casual Friday, largely because they were, culturally speaking, not quite as sartorially casual as the average American. They liked dressing up—it signaled success and respect to them. Telling them to wear Dockers wasn’t going to make them feel more invested in the company.

My friend’s solution, and it was a good one, was to create a program within the company where employees could earn training and education trips abroad. This cost the company money, of course, but it was suitably difficult for the employees to achieve, and most important, it was something they really wanted.

Trip abroad or funny hat? Hmm. Check back with me later. I’m thinking here.

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