Work-Life Strategies & Solutions

On the Evolution of Work Systems in the Digital Economy

The Happy Workplace: Reflection on a Presentation about Zappos’ Company Culture

A couple of days ago I attended a presentation by Zappos’ CEO, James Key Lim, in Sacramento, California. Lim spent an hour talking about the decision to turn things around at Zappos several years ago by developing and prioritizing a strong work culture of happiness that values transparency, trust, social connections, and fun (e.g., they have toys and games at work). Company culture is the #1 concern there as Lim emphasized over and over again. Unfortunately I didn’t hear or even find anything later about their take on job design and person-job fit as I hoped, however the Zappos philosophy on hiring as well as information on the hiring process itself can be found on YouTube.
In his presentation, Lim also expressed support for telework though their company places importance on face-to-face interaction and real world connections such that he couldn’t see having a virtual workforce to the extent that I know other organizations have (IBM and Cisco). However, since Zappos is about delivering direct customer service and thus people dealing directly with people, I can see why he sees it as necessary for his employees to be physically present – so that they can have fun together and help “transmit” happiness to each other which then gets passed on to their customers. Jobs in customer service are more attractive to people with highly extroverted tendencies anyway, so it is fitting that they first tailored the culture to their current employees’ needs and then subsequently select future employees on the basis of how well they contribute to the company culture. Fortunately, you don’t have to pay $45 to learn about Zappos’ development of a work culture that values happiness as I did. Much of what James Key Lim said has also been stated by a previous corporate executive, Tony Hsieh, in the following videos:

Lim also presented this music video that Zappos’ employees participated in. It shows just how much they encourage fun and silliness there.

It’s refreshing to see organization leaders try something different to make the work environment more palatable to its employees. If I were to ask myself if I’d be a great fit for Zappos however, I’d say, “Probably not!” I’m very introverted and very much a “lone wolf.” I have much lower need for affiliation than these folks and a much higher need for personal space. I value solitary work and the peace and quiet I need to get it done. (Yes, it’s very challenging to be this way in a world that tends to expect women to be sociable, agreeable, and group-oriented. And, by the way, this post titled “Leave Loners Alone” by psychotherapist Wayne C. Allen explains variation in need for external stimulation beautifully.) My point is that it’s very hard to come up with a work arrangement that pleases everyone.

This brings me to an observation I’ve made with regard to some disagreement I’ve witnessed between telework critics and telework advocates. I don’t expect the emergence of a cyber-utopia and recognize that a work anywhere-anytime system will present some problems just as every other work system had. We can go on and on ad nauseam about the many problems and difficulties presented during our hunting and gathering days, farming during the Agrarian Age, or working in centralized locations during the Industrial Age. I see growing indication of the Industrial work system becoming unsustainable and recognize an Information Age work system as being the better deal. I haven’t found any great videos that depict the worst rush hour traffic jams (because does anyone really want to take the time to record one?). However, this last video has made its way around. It shows how having everyone use the same routes to go to the same cities to work the same shifts goes against the notion of productivity, especially in an increasingly 24/7 business environment, due to the wasted time and stress that crowding creates. Furthermore, whether by rail or on the freeway, this is occurring in many major cities in the world.

2 responses to “The Happy Workplace: Reflection on a Presentation about Zappos’ Company Culture

  1. Steve Riddle January 26, 2013 at 3:42 am

    Thanks Lynn – another great post. When I was working in my previous role as Customer Experience Leader we regularly referred to and sourced information from Zappos as they have strong internal and external focus.
    PS – Japan + Train = Nightmare (Wow)!!!!

    • Lynn Patra January 26, 2013 at 3:57 am

      Thanks for commenting Steve! As a person of small stature who has once been in a mosh pit, I find the prospect of being on a train as packed as that one scary indeed!

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