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Designshops.com: Would You Jump Out of An Airplaine if Your Coworker Asked You To?

The Following essay appeared on Designshops.com (a Miller Freeman property) in 1999.

Design shops build camaraderie outside the office

The high-intensity atmosphere at Web design shops has some employees jumping from high places. Chris McTiernan, an Internet business analyst at Novo Interactive, a busy shop in San Francisco with clients like Toyota and e-Trade, decided that jumping out of an airplane flying at 18,000 feet might be a nice break from the office.

He also thought it would be a good way to introduce some new employees to the Novo culture, a culture described by more than one person as having a certain "buzz."

When McTiernan circulated an invitation to come skydiving, 20 of his coworkers responded, and 10 ultimately took the leap. Though not all shops go to such extremes, this is an industry that loves to blow off steam.

At Big Theory in Dallas, fun begins with a state of mind. Eli Jones, a producer at this young firm whose clients include Herman Miller and Nokia, says that the Big Theory offices are filled with toy and video game junkies. There is a daily Quake match, which Jones says is a "very good release" for inter-office tensions. "We are a funny group," he adds. "Not a day goes by when I don't laugh so hard that my sides hurt."

Jones is one of several people who are always rallying coworkers for a weekend barbecue or a bowling night, says Leta Baker, Internet marketing analyst at Big Theory. Baker herself went on a nine-day mountain-biking, backpacking and camping trip with coworkers. She also describes a Christmas party at a resort that went wild with a large, impromptu drum-jam that "probably scared the people working there half to death."

Does this sort of wildness happen naturally, or does a company decide that it's going to be "funny"? Jones says without hesitation, "We've made decisions so that there's room to laugh. You have to accommodate that kind of spirit." It comes, he says, from the same place where people are free to speak up and ideas are free to flow. "A company's leadership has to take every opportunity to articulate [this kind of culture] as a goal."

Shawn Freeman, company president, agrees, noting that the Internet industry is extra-ordinary. "It is fast, competitive, and aggressive. And we [are looking for] people who want to advance in this industry. It's intense. This is why we have the culture the way we do here, why we look for ways for people to blow off steam."

Big Theory's management recently sent three people to wait in line for a day when Star Wars: Phantom Menace tickets went on sale. When it opened, Freeman declared a holiday and everyone went to the theater, then spent the rest of the day playing video games.

Kevin Johnson, a partner at Deluxe Digital Media, in San Francisco, admits to the occasional employee Quake game, but, overall, describes a more laid back scene. There has been the occasional sailing trip, but Johnson doesn't participate: he gets seasick. He watches for museum openings or other art events to attend as a group, or has a sushi night and invites developers from other shops. Sometimes they just sit on their sun deck and look out on the Bay. Is this the same industry that Big Theory works in? Deluxe may not match the demographic, but seems perfectly suited to clients like sandal-maker Birkenstock. Deluxe is a "pretty low-pressure" place to work, says Johnson, and though he concedes the work can be intense, he says employees know what the work requires and "it always gets done."

At Black Lizard Interactive of San Mateo, CA, even a trip out to dinner can be an adventure. Jerry Berg, president and creative director, is a pilot and will sometimes fly his crew to an (otherwise) out-of-the-way place for a meal, which he calls the "$100.00 Hamburger."

In the winter, Berg also flew the group to the mountains to go snowboarding. Although only one of Black Lizard's programmers is really serious about the sport, everyone went and participated. Berg says that the employees really enjoy one another's company and they love to do things together. Any one of them might not have gone snowboarding by himself, or gone out to dinner in a Cessna.

Berg says hanging out with his coworkers adds something to the work they do: "It adds a personal knowledge, respect. You get to know a bit about [how someone] works and their personality."

That's also the consensus at Novo Interactive. Anthony Westreich, Novo's corporate development officer and one of its founders, is planning an all-company raft trip. He says that doing things outside of work "builds a family mentality," that workers bring back to the workplace and that helps them work more collaboratively.

Says McTiernan, "When you hang out with someone outside of work, whether for drinks, a weekend barbecue, or an 18,000 foot fall, it takes your relationship to a different level. There is an investment into the relationship outside of 'I owe you this deliverable' or 'we have the same business card.'" He says that these kinds of events may not be defining moments in a company's history, but they do demonstrate his coworkers' desire to build "more than just Web sites."