It started with six pieces of Lego. Dan Lyons, former Newsweek technology editor, as well as writer on the HBO series Silicon Valley (and former Fake Steve Jobs), meets a Lego “Serious Play” trainer who asked him to make a duck in 30 seconds. He fretted, then worried, wondering if it was all a trick, before finally presenting his duck to her. It turned out that it didn’t matter what he did, that it was all just a game, a way to jump-start conversation. And that left him rattled.
In his book, Lab Rats: How Silicon Valley Made Work Miserable for the Rest of Us, New York Times bestselling author Dan Lyons critiques how this sort of “Serious Play” activity is all the rage in Silicon Valley, as startups and tech companies mess with the heads of their employees. He criticizes how it looks like a “cult of happiness,” which is facilitated through a new way of working.
And if you’re not in Silicon Valley, it’s coming soon to a company near you.
As Lyons wrote:
“You find yourself being gaslighted, immersed in the kind of shared psychosis and group delusion found in cults. You know these workshops are pointless, and that no one is going to be transformed by Lego. But to keep your job, you must play along.”
The World of Work Has Changed
Lyons outlines how the world of work has changed, how employees are earning less and working more, how they are often under constant stress trying to meet unreachable goals or suffering harassment from “mercenary, clueless tech bros who have ruined San Francisco are gaining ever more power and wielding influence that reaches all over the world.” He recounts his own experience after being downsized from Newsweek in a company that he says was like a “digital sweatshop.”
He set out on a “yearlong quest to figure out how work is changing, and, more important, why it is changing,” asking questions like:
“Why has the workplace become a cross between a kindergarten and a Scientology assessment center? Why do our offices now have decor that looks like a Montessori preschool, with lots of bright, basic colors? Why does work now involve such infantilization? I suspect it’s because companies are scared. We live in an age of chaos, a period when entire industries are collapsing.”
The Four Elements that Have Turned Employees into Lab Rats
According to Lyons, there are four elements that have turned employees into lab rats:
MONEY: We make a lot less today than we did a generation ago.
INSECURITY: We live in constant fear of losing our jobs.
CHANGE: New technologies, new methodologies, kooky new arrangements for where we work and how we work—we are overwhelmed by a workplace that never stays the same for very long.
DEHUMANIZATION: Once upon a time we used technology, but today technology uses us. We’re hired by machines, managed by them, even fired by them. We’re monitored and measured, constantly surveilled.
Lyons sees that this change began around the year 2000, “when the first dot-com bubble peaked and crashed. It’s also when a few technologies that made the Internet actually usable started to become more widely available.” Things were changing fast, established businesses were scared, and the “second Internet boom,” which spawned many of the big tech-based companies of today, “has created a new caste of American oligarchs, a bunch of socially awkward, empathy-impaired Sun Kings whose influence extends beyond business into politics and culture at large.”
But these are not enlightened rulers. “Unfortunately many of these new oligarchs seem to possess a decidedly anti-worker, and even anti-human worldview.” Netflix’s idea that “We’re a team, not a family” has spread throughout the world, leading to the concept that employees are disposable.
Lyons blames the attitudes of founders and venture capitalists who he believes no longer think about the long term; in his book, Lab Rats, he suggests they just want to develop ideas quickly and cash in.
“The VC and founders are not trying to build sustainable companies. So why should they care about providing employees with stable, long-term careers, or distributing wealth among the workers?”
And even older businesses want to become like startups, so they adopt many of the same techniques. “Management gurus” come along with new ideas that sound cool – Agile, Lean Startup, and others – systems that promise to make companies work like some sort of mythical Silicon Valley firm where there’s free snacks and ping pong tables and where everyone prints money. But it never works out like that.
It Doesn’t Have to Be Like This
But not all companies think like this. Lyons looks at two companies that treat their employees well: BaseCamp and Managed by Q. Both of these companies have strong beliefs that their employees are family, and they do everything they can to make their businesses comfortable places to work.
And there is a “quiet movement” of billionaires and venture capitalists trying to turn this ship around, though it’s a slow process. The “social enterprise movement” is trying to change these attitudes.
Some people are understanding that this level of stress and harassment of their employees isn’t profitable, and “research suggests that the way to build a truly successful company — one that outcompetes its rivals, turns a profit, and remains in business — is to treat your employees extremely well.” One researcher looked at companies where employees feel safe at work and found that they “tended to outperform the stock market average, sometimes by as much as 200 percent.”
Why Read: Lab Rats: How Silicon Valley Made Work Miserable for the Rest of Us
Lab Rats can serve as a cautionary tale for startups. Every founder should want their employees to be happy. They’re more productive, and the company will thrive. When you’re in the early stages of setting up your company, it’s good to think about establishing a culture of openness and safety. If you do, you’ll retain employees longer, and, as some research has shown, they will be more productive and your company can be more profitable. But it’s really not rocket science: “Some companies don’t need the business argument. Some do the right thing just because it’s the right thing.”
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