King for a Day – My Visit to Zappos (Part 2)

In my last post, I discussed a very stimulating tour of the Zappos headquarters.

In this post, I discuss some of the perks of the Zappos work environment.

During the tour, I found myself checking off items in my head from my imaginary list of things needed in a dream workplace1 :

They provide the essentials for sure. You will definitely see me write about many of these key components of a great work environment throughout my blog entries.

Allow me to start with my favorite perk of working as a developer at Zappos, Adjustable Desks. I hope you can make out the picture that I took from my phone. In it, you can see a worker that is standing while working. I did not see anyone adjust his or her desk, but I understand that this can be done easily.

I can only imagine how much more comfortable this must be while working. One of the biggest drawbacks to being a developer is the health issues that can arise from sitting at a desk in front of a computer for long hours. Carpel Tunnel Syndrome, limited physical activity, and bad posture can be at least partially alleviated by Adjustable desks. Perhaps I am especially sensitive to the adjustable desks because I am fairly tall (6 feet 4 inches) and am often defaulted into using disproportionate desk furniture. Corporations do not want to purchase custom chairs and desks for each individual worker so a one-size-fits-all strategy is taken, which is no help in creating comfort. I can understand the need for saving money in this way. Alternatively, Zappos has made the definitive statement that they care about employees’ comfort by allowing the flexibility to work on a desk of any height. If I had this opportunity, I would sit comfortably before lunch and stand while working after lunch, helping me to both keep good posture and to stay awake. I appreciate a company that felt this was important even knowing that employees will occasionally be tempted to dance while typing.

My commonly observed theme was a high level of interaction between employees. Although there are numerous obvious benefits to this, my original notion was that it would be extremely difficult to get much work done on an individual level, as I alluded in Part 1 of this blog post. After all, to accomplish great work, knowledge workers need time without distractions:

We all know that knowledge workers work best by getting into “flow”, also known as being “in the zone”, where they are fully concentrated on their work and fully tuned out of their environment. They lose track of time and produce great stuff through absolute concentration…trouble is that it’s so easy to get knocked out of the zone. Noise, phone calls, going out for lunch, having to drive 5 minutes to Starbucks for coffee, and interruptions by coworkers — especially interruptions by coworkers — all knock you out of the zone. If you take a 1 minute interruption by a coworker asking you a question, and this knocks out your concentration enough that it takes you half an hour to get productive again, your overall productivity is in serious trouble.

—Joel Spolsky, Fog Creek Software
(from Where do These People Get Their (Unoriginal) Ideas?)

What I had not realized is that I had this thought before seeing the development department, which was in a second building detached but right outside the main building. In my opinion, this separation was a crucial element to Zappos’ success.

Many departments work differently. Some require heavy collaboration and outright noise. Others are responsible for cheering whenever a tour walks by. A development department cannot survive if such distractions are omnipresent. It will never be as productive as it should be.

I cannot say I got the full experience of what the development department was like just by walking through it. However, in general, the second building was much quieter than the main. Employees working in the second building receive the best perks from both buildings because it is still easy to hop over and get a fix of the different energy of the main building when necessary. Whether it be the need for a game of ping-pong or reflecting with Dr. Vic, it must be nice to know that these options are available but do not get in the way of day-to-day work habits.

Beyond gaining productivity from existing employees, Zappos’ excellent and interesting culture affords them a giant benefit: Top-Notch Recruits. How many potential employees take the tour or hear about Zappos’ unique culture and soon after take a look at Zappos job postings? I would imagine this occurs frequently, as I know at least one other blogger that I talked to on Twitter did this. By garnering extreme interest in the company, Zappos has a huge pool of candidates to choose from when deciding to hire, which inevitably gives them a pick of some of the most talented workers around. Not to mention, Zappos is headquartered in Las Vegas, NV, a vacation hot-spot and genuinely exciting city. Many talented individuals would consider relocating to Las Vegas for a great job opportunity, at least for a few years.

With all the obvious benefits that Zappos has created with its corporate culture, why doesn’t every company strive to be like them? The only answer I can come up with is a fear of employees taking advantage of the company’s policies. At “normal” companies, we submit equipment request forms for bigger monitors and ergonomic keyboards, we are required to be at the office between the hours of 8 am and 5 pm, and we are our responsible for directing our own personal growth. At Zappos, these things and more are offered as part of the employment package, allowing them to recruit the best of the best. As always with the best of the best, superficial concerns about work habits can be relieved by knowing that great work will get done, period. Also, with such a unique experience, employees that value it know that it cannot be recreated anywhere else, helping with employee retention.

If every company tried to create an extremely unique and happy culture, it would not work. Zappos falls into the perfect fit of culture with aptitude with industry. Encouraging collaboration and outgoing personalities helps them “deliver WOW through service” which makes them a successful retailer. As more and more companies attempt this, it will require “culture innovation” to stay unique and to continue to attract talent. Kudos for being at the leading edge of this trend, Zappos, I can only hope our paths will meet again.

1: A supremely neat novelty that Zappos had in the office was an industrial-strength blender. When we were walking through the tour, we watched them emulsify random office items like a foam ball and a pencil. I don’t know what the purpose is other than to relieve stress and to give outsiders something to talk about.

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