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Is Silicon Valley’s legendary office culture a business liability?

Silicon Valley officeUnless you work in a completely soul-crushing cubicle farm, every workplace has certain quirks and inventive touches that management thinks will boost creativity and productivity, from Keurig coffee makers to organized happy hours. But in Silicon Valley, tech workplaces have taken this approach to such extremes, they’ve almost become caricatures.

We all have a picture in our heads of the “typical” Valley start-up. That picture probably includes a mixture of skateboarding down the halls, meetings held during ping-pong tournaments, and themed costume contests. Google’s office apparently has bathtubs filled with foam blocks where people can contemplate the nearby fish tank. One Facebook employee lamented on Glassdoor that “ripsticks hurt a lot when they hit you.” Accurate or not, this imagined lifestyle has become synonymous with being young and working in technology.

But does a perception of Silicon Valley workplaces as Bohemian jungle gyms have any drawbacks? In some ways, yes.

The Rodney Dangerfield of the business world

Every start-up will eventually needs to go outside the Silicon Valley bubble, either to attract capital or simply to network with various service providers and strategic partners. Yet most of the working world still works in traditional settings with the traditional business culture, where Silicon Valley may be looked upon with skepticism and perhaps even jealousy. They remember how little was accomplished in our dorm rooms and Greek houses in college, and wonder why someone would choose to recreate that atmosphere in a company.

T-shirted employees may cherish kegerators and beanbags, but potential investors with millions of dollars on the line may not look at lounging employees on the clock the same way. They may even struggle to take the business seriously.

High expectations

The second caveat of the Silicon Valley stereotype comes from the very employees who benefit from these perks. However accurate or inaccurate these perceptions of living and working in Silicon Valley are, prospective talent has come to expect luxuries from their employers, no matter how nascent the firm may be.

This has led to a sort of nuclear arms race of fun, with Valley firms trying to out-do each other with benefits to attract top talent. If one starts offering free breakfast and lunch, another will offer an additional dinner to take home. If one installs massage chairs, another funds an on-site massage therapist. This obviously costs money. The big boys can afford the expense, but start-ups at beginning stages simply cannot compete.

zynga officeJonny Shaw, the chief marketing officer of the television search engine Boxfish, based in Palo Alto, says his company has experienced the crunch. “We spend a lot of time in interviews trying to get past peoples’ shock that we won’t be providing free cinema tickets and pet massages,” he says.

According to Shaw, true technology start-ups do not have the time, money, or energy to waste on such frivolity. “It’s a frantic, mad dash for survival.”

As if establishing an office and living in northern California wasn’t expensive enough, these companies now have to figure out how to pamper employees, lest they lose them to some better-funded employer. In the long run, adding additional hurdles like this could stifle innovation and diminish the quality of future technology.

No one begrudges Silicon Valley companies for finding ways to compete for emerging talent. No one blames Zuckerberg or Brin for fostering the working culture that they feel best encourages creativity and innovation in their employees. And if you look at the performance of their respective stocks, it’s obviously working.

For better or worse, young people, particularly in technology, have new ideas on how offices should function. Some industries and companies are willing and able to meet those demands. Some can’t or won’t.

Our culture is generally becoming more casual across the board. For example, how many people still have to wear suits to work? Just as Silicon Valley companies have forced technology itself forward at a quantum pace, the workplace is following suit.

[Image credit: CNN Money]

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