End of the Dot-Com Cultural Revolution?

When dot-coms and other high-tech companies exploded on the world stage several years ago, a new entrepreneurial class thumbed its collective nose at staid corporate culture by offering a bevy of workplace perks and redefining the conventional work environment. What fledgling-yet-promising companies could not pay their top talent in salary, they promised in lucrative stock options, vacation packages, liberal dress codes and concierge services.

Meanwhile, “Old Economy” businesses just thought that the youngsters were acting immaturely.

Today, however, as dot-com industries adjust to leaner and meaner post-shakeout times, a flip-side to the dot-com corporate culture is growing apparent. Employees who once welcomed reforms that made the workplace more fun and progressive are now realizing that such strategies allow companies to demand longer hours, exacerbating familiar conflicts between home and workplace commitments.

Traditional Barriers Broken

The modern corporation has a long history of developing methods for making its environment attractive to workers. For decades, company softball teams, picnics and holiday parties seemed to be appropriate ways to boost morale and foster stronger bonds between workers and their company.

Yet throughout much of the century, employees could balance the separation of home and workplace by the strict working hours they kept, the white or blue collars they wore, and the social standards they maintained on and off the job.

With the onset of the dot-com, the home/work relationship changed again. New high-tech companies lured employees out of traditional corporate molds by offering a dramatic integration of home life into work life. Talented professionals and young innovators alike leaped at the chance to work in new, exciting dot-com environments that offered tremendous growth possibilities.

Redmond Campus Perks

Microsoft Corp. epitomized this trend, as its deep pockets allowed it to provide numerous new perks to its employees. The company’s benefits plan soon became a bellwether for corporate protocol in the “New Economy,” and other high-tech and dot-com firms have since followed suit.

Microsoft headquartered its operations on a wooded, college-like campus in suburban Redmond, Washington — miles from the skyscrapers of Seattle’s central business district — to contrast their new emphasis on youthful creativity against old corporate structures.

On campus, Microsoft offers a wide array of programs aimed at easing the relationship between home and work. While the software giant does not provide a child care center, the company does offer paid maternity leave, adoption assistance, family counseling services, and a “work/life benefit” plan that provides entertainment, home improvement, and travel discounts to employees.

The company also promotes recreational activities (including basketball courts and health club membership plans) and all the free soft drinks its workers can stomach. Microsoft employees can phone a 24-hour nurse hotline, and bring in professionals to make ergonomic adjustments to maximize comfort at their workstations. Vacation plans are generous, too.

Some companies have met Microsoft’s standards and moved beyond, offering concierge services so that employees can outsource their own errands and chores. Others even allow employees to bring their pets to work.

So much effort to make those 14-hour days a bit more tolerable.

Blending Home and Workplace

In the wake of the dot-com shakeout, however, the standards of the new workplace are wearing thin on many of the Net professionals they once invigorated. What was only recently viewed as a way to address employee needs and improve production concomitantly is now increasingly perceived as a company’s excuse to overwork employees.

“There’s a growing cynicism that the benefits are false and are just in place to substitute for a home life,” said John Challenger of executive placement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Of course, eliminating the stock options and environmental perks and returning to a strictly salary-based approach to compensation does not solve the problem either. “You want to go to work where you enjoy the people, because you spend a lot of time there,” Challenger told the E-Commerce Times.

The danger, according to Challenger, lies in too thorough a blending of home and work life.

“We used to have such sharp boundaries between work and home and play,” Challenger said. “You dressed in formal clothing at work from 9 to 5, but today work is 24/7, our technology follows us around, we wear home clothes at work and we telecommute, so there is a real fusion and confusion of what used to be distinct boundaries.”

Mixed Bag may be willing to work 80-hour weeks for stock options that have hit rock-bottom, but creative dot-com perks are not for everybody.

“Anybody with a life outside of work won’t buy into the dot-com culture too heavily,” Challenger said, “and it will get more and more difficult for companies who don’t offer more work-life balance.”

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