We just can't stop talking about how those damned dotcoms failed. But were they failures at everything? Wag a finger at questionable start-up ideas and business practices all you want, but the mind-set at those same companies changed the workplace in ways that will matter for years to come.
Affecting everything from how chatty the CEO is to what employees wear to work, the easy-going, free-thinking mentality of the dotcom workplace has crept into even the stodgiest offices. And even though the Foosball tables and Friday-afternoon keggers may be disappearing as businesses tighten their budgets, the relaxed corporate culture those trappings reflected isn't going anywhere.
In the mid-'90s, employees-especially those with tech savvy-could pick and choose jobs, using the bargaining power of a tight labor market to get anything they wanted from their work environment. "For many employees, the criteria [were] basic stuff like, 'Am I treated with respect?' 'Do I have the opportunity to exercise my creativity?' and 'If the firm does well, do I benefit from that success?'" says Philip Romero, dean of Lundquist College of Business at the University of Oregon in Eugene and overseer of the Lundquist Center for Entrepreneurship. Though the boom is over, job seekers still feel entitled to a stimulating, rewarding atmosphere.
"I think employees will continue to see themselves as free agents and have a much lower tolerance for dysfunctional work environments than they had 10 years ago," says Romero.
That's exactly why Service Net, a Jeffersonville, Indiana-based company that creates, markets and administers warranty and service-contract programs for manufacturers, retailers and distributors, employs Michael Neumann in the position of manager of communication and culture.
"[The position was created] because we're a company that touts its culture as the big draw," says Neumann. "We don't want to get into a bidding war for talented employees, and by focusing on the culture, hopefully you can [avoid hiring] people who are only focused on the money."
Service Net has built an environment that stresses employee empowerment and career longevity. "We reward people for taking initiative," says Neumann. If employees manage to cut costs or generate revenue in a new way, they're rewarded with $500 to $5,000. There are also $250 "fun money" rewards for those who've made it to the six-month mark. Plus, last year's profit-sharing payout totaled about $560,000. And if employees stay with Service Net for seven years, they get a five-week paid sabbatical in addition to their regular vacation time.
Enabling decision-making at all ranks and not punishing people for their occasional mistakes are also integral parts of the egalitarian atmosphere the dotcoms engendered. "What makes the idea of being an American work is the freedom to make your mark on the world," says Kent Plunkett, 38, founder of Salary.com. "There's no class system that prevents anyone from making an impact. Everybody can be a hero in their own way."
The trend toward democratic office culture is a logical extension of Plunkett's perspective. His Wellesley, Massachusetts, company, which provides compensation data online, solicits reviews from its 30-plus employees every six months. "It's fairly painful for management," he quips, "but it makes us keep current with where people are and where they should be."
If any of Service Net's 110 employees has a beef with the way the company's run, Neumann says, they can take advantage of 35-year-old CEO Lansdon Robbins' open-door policy. "[The hierarchy] is very flat," says Neumann. "We have very few forms, checks and balances where you need them, and people are very welcome to walk into the CEO's office and say, 'You're full of crap, and this will never fly.'"
However you choose to create a mood that will impress employees who've been there, done that and liked it, you'd best get used to the fact that office culture has evolved. Says Romero, "Because the [dotcom] boom lasted so long, I think its 'culture overhang' will be with us at least half a decade."