My fairy tale job experience
Yes, this is my true fairy tale about a little piece of workplace heaven. A group of real people in an environment that garnered trust, investment in our work, and friendships. We worked hard and played hard. Having been in a period of introspection lately, I decided to examine what I valued in that experience.
Work Hard, Play Hard
We had high expectations for potentially great rewards. The office had standard working hours, the individuals had flexibility. Billable employees were expected to log a certain number of hours, but all decided how to accomplish that. We had no timeclocks, no ‘attendance police.’ We were left to get our work done. And during tight deadlines, we banded together to make it happen.
After working hard and long, an impromptu lunchtime game of darts with pizza and beer helped us defuse. Other times, around 4 p.m. we would spontaneously gather to chat, sometimes with an adult beverage and then return to work until 6, 7, or . . . .
The dart board was hung in the children’s game room (with the darts safely stored). We didn’t have onsite daycare but did have space for a child or two during those rare but inevitable times that an employee must choose between leaving work or bringing a child to the office.
After winning or finishing a project, we celebrated at a nearby Mexican food restaurant on a Friday afternoon. In fact, I was hired on a Wednesday and attended a Friday celebration to meet my coworkers before starting work the next Monday.
Annual group trips for employees and plus-ones ended the year I joined the company—one effect of a beginning recession. But stories of antics in Las Vegas and New York City lived on.
If employees do what they love to do, then they’re happy, work is well done, the company profits, and celebrations and bonuses abound. I remember taking on too many marketing projects and complained about being stressed. One partner drew two columns on my whiteboard—one column was for me to list tasks I loved and the other to list tasks I didn’t love. He said he’d assign the ‘don’t love’ items to others. The trouble was that I loved everything I’d taken on!
We didn’t have a day to dress casual—it was the norm. I couldn’t bring myself to dress casual for work. That’s my generational upbringing. Fridays, though, I might wear blue jeans and a nice shirt. The partners usually rode their bicycles to the office and would wear their cycling clothes all day. But both of them kept a nice crisp white shirt and a suit in the closet to change into for a business lunch or if a ‘suited’ client stopped by. Most employees followed that example, and when a client meeting was scheduled, an email alert asked everyone to dress for business that day.
If the environment weren’t benefit enough, we had a great employee benefits package. A friend told me that. She offers supplemental insurance, the kind that employees decide whether they want and pay for themselves, like a cancer care policy. I arranged for her to meet with our human resources person, and my friend stopped to say “goodbye” before leaving. She was so impressed and excited and said, “You have one of the best benefits packages I’ve seen, and they want to provide the supplemental insurance AND PAY FOR IT!” Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, another result of the recession.
Even before the recession began, late one afternoon each quarter we would lock the front door and gather in the conference room with snacks and beverages of choice. Management delivered the ‘state of the company.’ They shared the numbers (profits, losses, projections) and their plans. They welcomed questions and suggestions. As stakeholders in the company’s financial success, employees were engaged. Bonuses typically were quite generous and we all had a stake in keeping it that way.
With the recession worsening, management said they would do whatever they could to offset the need for layoffs. Anyone who could afford an unpaid sabbatical or a shorter workweek (and smaller paycheck) was encouraged to do so. The five managers took temporary paycuts, the two partners didn’t draw a salary for a few months. With those steps plus a cash lockdown, reserves were preserved and the company bounced back.
No one was laid off but the recession pressed on, and the partners decided to sell the company. Before the recession, the buyer made an offer, which was turned down at the time. After the sale was a done deal, the staff learned of it, though some suspected. The decision to keep the sale confidential was met with mixed reactions, but I believed the secrecy was an understandable, reasonable business decision.
Still, true to their style, the partners generously shared profits of the sale with staff.
Things changed. The original company’s partners moved to other states. The new company’s culture wasn’t as great a fit for many of the ‘bought employees.’
I’m sure that someone else would have a different take on things, but I believe that most people were quite happy working in the original company. It wasn’t perfect, but was darn close to it in my perspective.
One memory that seems to say it all is the ‘first impression’ story that our business development manager told me after he’d been with us for about a year. He arrived early his first day, and around 5:00 p.m. he started to wind down. At 5:30 everyone was at their desks. He checked again at 6:00; all chairs still were occupied, everyone was working away. At 6:30 no one seemed inclined to leave. At 7:00, with dusk on the horizon, he wondered, “When do these people go home?” He resigned himself to staying until everyone else left that day and soon learned to set his own pace.
And so it was. Maybe that day a project deadline was pending. But there were no threats, no cajoling. Just people getting the job done, enjoying each other’s company. We’d leave work early another day. And maybe have a celebration Friday.
Nowadays, when someone asks about my favorite job, instead of describing tasks I try to describe this culture—honest appreciation, autonomy, teamwork, caring—because that’s what kept me there, working so hard. Unfortunately, recruiters aren’t trained to match people to cultures.