Cheer And Loathing In Las Vegas: Working At Zappos In 2015
I’ve nurtured a soft spot for Zappos since getting my wedding shoes from the site. It was easy: I ordered several boxes, got them sent to my office, let my coworkers help me pick among them, and then sent them all back except the ones that fit best.
That was 2007. In 2008, Amazon bought Zappos. In 2012, CEO Tony “Delivering Happiness” Hsieh turned his company into an experimental “holacracy” and this year he declared that Zappos has gone from “Green” to “Teal.”
What does the color shift entail, and what are the ramifications of having a corporation function like a mood ring? The New Republic’s Roger D. Hodge launched a delightful, detailed #longread investigation into the Vegas-based company to find out.
Tone-wise, the article falls somewhere between politely fascinated and politely horrified.
Back in the [downtown trailer] park [where Hsieh lives in an Airstream and employees hang out], I selected a Corona from the communal pantry and deposited a dollar in a huge lifelike spotted piggybank. I sat down in an Adirondack chair near a fireless fire pit and chatted with a red-bearded Zapponian named Tyler Williams as he set up microphones and amplifiers on the Airstream stage for a biweekly jam session called Open Air. Williams, whose job title was “fun-gineer,” spotted my beer, told me I had the right idea, and got one for himself.
Hsieh describes the atmosphere he cultivates as “South by Southwest meets TED meets Burning Man. But as a lifestyle, not a festival.”
That seems apt:
Around 10 p.m. Hsieh and several other Zapponians went up to the top of the big Airstream for a meeting. I could see what they meant by work-life integration. By the time Lou Pucci took the stage and sang “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” the band had swelled. A guy named Joey was playing trumpet, and another named Daniel was tearing it up on an electric fiddle. A lovely dark-haired high school girl who sang and played guitar announced from the stage that she had an algebra test tomorrow, so she had to go home. I saw Hsieh pick up a tambourine and heard a couple of straight-laced guys — clearly not Zappos employees, possibly Germans — making plans to go sky diving with a slick start-up dude sporting stiff gelled hair and a leather jacket. From my conversations with various Zapponians, I gathered that this idyllic scene was typical of life in Tony Hsieh’s magical kingdom. Work was fun, which is good, because people never really stopped working.
How do older folks or people with families cope with work as a non-stop carnival? Getting paid to have a job in Neverland must be fun for some of the younger employees but surely, even for some of them, it gets exhausting. And, at the same time as employees must embrace the wackiness and cheer and weekend meetings, they must also buy into the theory:
instead of having jobs, in Holacracy people have roles. Each role belongs to a circle rather than a department, and circles are guided not by managersbut by lead links. Circles overlap, and individuals hold many different roles. Of course, in traditional organizations, individuals occupy a variety of roles as well, but this is often an implicit and de facto state of affairs. Holacracy codifies that reality, so that dynamic roles replace static jobs. Authority becomes distributed, rather like packets of information on the internet. People being people, conflicts and problems will naturally arise, and so a mechanism — “sensing a tension” — must be devised to handle conflicts and resolve them. A tension is not necessarily a bad thing, however. Tensions might arise from anything that prevents getting work done, any gap between what is and what ought to be. As its adherents often say, in Holacracy “tensions drive everything.”
The tension I sense in many readers right now is that this all sounds unnecessarily confusing and abstract. It sounds like something invented by a software engineer, and that’s exactly what it is.
Odds are, this profile will make you grateful to work where you do — but if it inspires you, hey, I’ll bet Hsieh is hiring.
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