Play hard, work hard? Life inside a dotcom

Dotcom offices have a reputation for being more game zone than work zone, but staff claim to work long hours. Roisin Woolnough...

Dotcom offices have a reputation for being more game zone than work zone, but staff claim to work long hours. Roisin Woolnough goes in search of reality

You can always judge a place by its toilets. Which is why when you step into the Gameplay toilets and see a vending machine stocked with painkillers, condoms and toothpaste you know you're in a dotcom.

A lifesize Lara Croft doll stands in the reception, music is blaring and the coffee bar is full of Playstations and people doing video work. This is the environment that the media loves to hype.

"It is the old clich‚ of work hard, play hard. We enjoy coming to work," says Steven Blackburn, online marketing director at

"There are few barriers between staff and it is like working with people who are mates. People can come in here and relax. Sometimes I pop in at the weekend and there are people hanging out, playing games."

Blackburn says it is important that people can relax at work. After all, the hours are often long and the pressures of working in a new industry where everything moves very fast can be intense.

"With dotcoms, 90% of the time you are establishing a business from scratch," he explains. "In any business you are setting up you need to put the hours in. So if you expect to clock in and clock out, it's just not going to happen. We're still probably doing longer hours than traditional company hours but it is getting better.

"It is a 24x7 industry. We work a shift system with Saturday and Sunday working too."

Everyone is expected to get their heads down and muck in. This kind of environment has meant that some dotcomers end up doing tasks outside of their job description.

One such person told Computer Weekly that he is looking for a new job because he does so many menial tasks unrelated to IT that he feels he is wasting his skills and experience. He also says he feels that he was hired under false pretences.

Others look at it as a purely temporary situation while the business gets going.

Laura Porter, technical consultant at online marketing solutions company, says, "Initially, I was doing a lot of work on the phone and doing all the sales. As we have got more people, my role has become more defined."

The advantage of this free-for-all kind of environment is that it allows people to take on new responsibilities very quickly and learn new skills. It can be a fast track up the career ladder, which is why there are so many stories in the press about 21-year-olds leading companies and raking in good money.

Although these are the exception rather than the norm, most dotcom staff rave about the chance to expand their skills and work on a variety of projects. In fact, the lack of hierarchy is one of the aspects of the dotcom world that people mention most frequently as a big bonus because it makes it easier to progress.

A lot of people who work for dotcoms say they have achieved and learned a lot more than they would have done if they had spent the equivalent amount of time at a traditional company. To get there though, it generally takes lots of hard work. However, many dotcomers seem to be quite happy to eat, drink, sleep and breathe the work they do.

Porter says she is happy to put the hours in because she enjoys her job so much and feels that she is part of a community. "I have a lot of passion for what I do. And everyone pulls together. The success of the company is the common goal," she says.

According to Porter, the office layout engenders a community atmosphere and breaks down corporate barriers. "I like the open-plan nature of the office. It means the IT department isn't separated from marketing, sales or whatever, which means you have an idea of what everyone else does, and we are not those alien IT people who do mysterious work," she explains. "It also stops people from feeling isolated. It can be quite good for shy people to work in an open-plan office where it's all quite fun as it can bring them out of their shell."

Blackburn says, dotcoms attract people who love a challenge and have lots of ideas. "You have to be a self-starter. You have to be willing to stand on your own two feet, have the mindset that welcomes the challenge and be able to learn quickly. It is a very steep learning curve, which can be exhilarating. But it can be terrifying if you are not the right person for this kind of thing," he says.

The informal atmosphere of the office, Blackburn believes, helps people to feel comfortable and confident of their ability. "People have to feel that they can try things and learn. You can't be afraid of failure," he says.

Likewise, he thinks having a casual dress code helps to break down barriers and make people feel relaxed.

"People need to be able to wear what's comfortable to sit around in and work in for 10 hours a day. I occasionally wear a suit, but some people here might look a bit out of place wearing a full suit."

However, not all dotcoms aspire towards this laid-back image. Some even deliberately avoid it, thinking the market has become too image-focused.

Carol Wetherall, chief of resourcing at Internet accelerator eVentures, thinks it is important for people to look professional if they want to be taken seriously, particularly now that the bubble has burst.

"There is no show or image here and no Playstations or combats," she says. "We are a serious business. People believed you could come up with an idea over dinner and make millions, but the party is over and now it is the reality of sensible business."

That said, the eVentures office does have table football, a pool table and a fridge full of beer, so it is hardly all work and no play.

Porter, too, says she is expected to dress smartly if she is meeting anyone from outside the company. "We are encouraged to look smart and presentable for client meetings," she says. "Otherwise, we are allowed to wear pretty much what we like. I usually wear smart-casual."

As dotcom staff seem to socialise together after work and most of them do work in super-trendy areas, a full suit and tie might look a bit out of place.

Porter thinks the fact that everyone is encouraged to socialise together helps to build a good, working relationship with colleagues. "We have an organised night out once a month called Magic Thursday," she says. "We always end up with good tales at the end of it."

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