Games consoles, table football, fridges full of beer and "big balls of light" - Roisin Woolnough explores some new economy workplaces
Walk into the agency.com offices and you could be forgiven for thinking you'd stepped into a school playground. Football nets in the corridors, kickboxing and yoga are just some of the measures introduced by the Internet professional services company to inject an element of fun into the working day.
This is the dotcom image brought to us by so much recent media hype, where everyone is a young, combats-wearing Net enthusiast earning a tidy packet whilst having a blast.
Like most stereotypes, there is an element of truth in the dotcom hype, but it is by no means the whole story. Certainly, there are plenty of people who, like Sarah Winter, business development officer at events publisher whatsonwhere.com, actually look forward to going into work in the morning. "I absolutely love my job," she enthuses. "I couldn't imagine going back into a traditional company now."
Winter thrives on the challenge of working for a company that is evolving. She thinks there are many more opportunities than in larger, more traditional companies. "You are given an opportunity to prove yourself early on. In a few months I've achieved things it would have taken me five years to achieve in a big corporate company."
Dotcoms pride themselves on doing away with what they perceive as hierarchical structures, instead encouraging staff to express their ideas and get involved in the overall strategy. Winter thinks this helps people to feel that they are part of a team. She admits that giving staff this sense of a common goal also means that they are expected to put in the hours to make it happen.
"It's not a clock watching environment. The official hours where I work are 9.30am till 6.30, but I often work until 9.30/10."
The perks associated with dotcoms are well known, but the one that everyone is most interested in is, of course, share options.
Since the dotcom bubble burst however, more and more stories are coming out from people who say share options are a red herring and often don't materialise. Even more of a concern are reports of dotcom staff not getting paid. Sarah Cause, a researcher for an online news service based in Seattle, is one such victim. She left the UK five months ago to join the company. Within days of starting her new job, she realised that although the idea was good, the management was shambolic and unprofessional. Within four months, 10 people had left the company, Cause included. "I didn't get paid until my third month there and I'm still £3,000 out of pocket because they didn't pay all my relocation costs as promised, or other bills. They had a very cool office in a funky, trendy area but they didn't have the money to pay staff."
Cause was so traumatised by the experience that it has put her off working for another dotcom. "I would absolutely never go to work for another one as I'd be scared of being in something so unprofessional again."
Couple stories like this with the number of high-profile dotcom failures in the news recently and you can see why the dotcom party is reportedly over. But, according to Carole Hepburn, national recruitment director at IT recruiters Computer People, the market is still strong. "It's still a very active recruitment market, although it has waned slightly. Candidates are interested in dotcoms but they need to be convinced it's a good idea. I have heard of people going back into traditional companies and there is more caution than there was, but the market is strengthening as a whole. It has constituted about 30/35% of our business this year, which is 50% up on last year."
Traditional companies, many of which were hard hit by mass staff exoduses to join start-ups, are still feeling the pinch. Some have tried to compete by emulating the dotcom feel and cosmetic trappings. Allowing people to feel more relaxed in their attire and surroundings is generally thought to increase levels of staff retention and recruitment. While companies don't need to go the whole hog and order in a load of Playstations and orange paint, open plan offices help to break down barriers.
One of the things that dotcom staff rave about most is the sense of opportunity, the chance to take big career steps quickly. Traditional companies that want to hang onto their employees need to ensure that they too offer a definite career path. Employees no longer accept that they have to do x number of years in a company in x different roles before they can get where they want to go. So perhaps the key to luring back those dotcommers is to make career possibilities more flexible and accessible.
E-Business Review examines the very different workplace environments at four Internet companies
One of the first things you see on walking into the Gameplay offices - a warehouse conversion, of course - is a life-size blow up Lara Croft doll. This is the dotcom environment we hear about. There's a trendy caf‚ downstairs, brightly coloured walls and furniture and PCs purely for playing games on.
Steven Blackburn, online marketing director: "We're thought of as the new rockstars. We enjoy coming in to work - it's like working with people who are mates. There's often loud music blaring in the morning to wake everyone up. Staff can come in here and relax. Sometimes I pop in at the weekend and there are people here, hanging out playing games.
You have to work very hard though. It's the cliche of work hard, play hard. You have to have the mindset that welcomes the challenge. You have to be a self-starter and be willing to stand on your own two feet. It is a very steep learning curve, but it is exhilarating. If you're not the right person for this kind of thing though, it can be terrifying.
Work does occasionally spill over into the weekend. In any business you are setting up you need to put the hours in and 90% of the time with dotcoms, you are setting up the business from scratch. If you expect to clock in at 9.30 and clock out at 5.30, it's just not going to happen. It's a 24x7 medium and when I started I couldn't take holidays because I was too busy. Now, I am probably still doing longer than traditional hours - but I have time to take holidays! But then, people are probably earning slightly more than in traditional businesses. People are often more interested in perks though, rather than money. Most people are given their own laptops and we are currently developing a scheme that lets people nominate how they get paid - things like having a car, massages at their desk, private courses unrelated to their job, like an art course."
Although these are dotcom companies, the office itself is not that different from your standard working office. Yes, it's open plan, there is table football, a snooker table and a fridge stocked to the hilt with beer, but that's about as far as it goes. It certainly doesn't have the vibrant, trendy atmosphere of the archetypal dotcom.
Carol Weatherall, chief of resourcing: "The party is over for dotcoms in terms of just getting money and spending it. People believed that you could come up with an idea over dinner and make millions but we've come back to earth and it's the reality of sensible business. A great idea isn't enough any more and more and more investors are looking for genuine management experience. The typical profile of an entrepreneur is from a business development background. Dotcoms are becoming more corporate, but still keeping the fun, entrepreneurial environment. Some companies are still lagging behind, but people have different expectations now and want to enjoy the environment they work in. Once you've had a taste of the dotcom environment and thrown off the corporate shackles, it is very hard to step back into a stiff environment and the suited mentality. It's different from corporate life in that there is less time for politics because there is a common goal, which unifies people. You're all charging up the same hill. But we are not a trendy company. Dress is mostly business casual - no combats. I don't think it's important what you wear to work, but some dotcoms are too image focussed. We're a serious business and there's no show, Playstations or image here."
Big Blue is creating a different environment and atmosphere in its new e-business centre for innovation. Rob Lawrence is the person in charge of developing the creative, informal atmosphere now associated with dotcoms.
Rob Lawrence, creative director at IBM's e-business centre for innovation: "It is widely recognised that there are benefits to working in an informal atmosphere in terms of creativity, but it's very difficult to create an environment where you're encouraged to think. You need to be somewhere where you feel comfortable and can speak your mind. We have made a big glowing white room in our new offices. There is no furniture except for an old church lectern. It's well known that the best thinking and talking is done standing up. Rather than reach for a piece of paper, we have created a room where you can draw wherever you like. You can write anywhere, even on the floor. There's an interactive wall that displays everything. And outside is a light sculpture that shows how much thinking and working is going on. It is a big ball of light that monitors traffic on the network and glows according to how much thinking is going on in the room. And in our Hursley office, there is one cool room where all the walls are made of velcro and the furniture sticks to the walls. This means you never walk into the same room twice, to reflect that things are always changing.
With traditional companies and dotcoms, the goal driver is success, whether it's based on profit and revenue or how good your ideas are. To get things done, you need to put long hours in, but you are involved in it because you love it and are working hard for success. If companies expect this, they have to give people the benefits and allow them to relax. In terms of dress, it's what people feel comfortable in. I wear a suit when the occasion demands - but it might be a little different!"
UK and Ireland
Compaq is a company with traditional values. When Rene Schuster, chief executive and vice-president, UK and Ireland, joined the company a few weeks back, he felt some changes were needed, although he by no means intends to dispense with the corporate feel:
"One of the first things I did when I joined was to relax the dress code a bit and introduce Dress Down Fridays. It's about wearing what's appropriate, so people need to check about dressing down before they meet a customer. It's what's appropriate to the business and the culture of the organisation. If you're a start-up with a groovy feel, then going in to work in more traditional apparel can be counter productive. However, even the really trendy guys who were wearing very groovy stuff are now reverting back to business dress. If you come across as just funky, that's superficial and the wrong image for companies to portray. When you really are a global company like Compaq, customers expect the same style, quality, look and feel all over the world. There are expectations and customers will not stand for things being different. Clearly, the dotcoms do a lot of good to the traditional bricks and mortar companies, giving us all a nice injection of entrepreneuralism. It made some companies nervous and re-invent themselves.
However, some of the bricks and mortar disciplines were lacking, like the financial processes of running a business. The pressure they are now under re-confirmed that those skills matter.
Also, ultimately, companies are made up of people and I believe you have to create the right working environment. It's offering the right career path, looking for the individuals that have the drive and providing training. We also provide things like a gym and creche facilities."
This was first published in September 2000