Can We Stop Having Fun Yet?

Workers--and their families--can do with less company-sponsored merriment

Bailiff, lock the doors. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. We sit here today in judgment of mandatory fun. At the defense table sits mandatory fun, wearing some of its many disguises: the Halloween decorate-your-cubicle contest, lunchtime roller hockey, the "off-site" meeting where everyone comes home sunburned. Don't scoff. Mandatory fun is epidemic in Silicon Valley these days. There are fun budgets, fun-based mission statements, fun rooms full of toys, bean bag chairs, and foosball. There is even fun architecture: Excite@Home Corp. has a slide from one floor to another.

There's even a new crop of fun titles managing all this. For example, Joe Davila, 26, is the "cultural czar" of three-year-old, a company that helps people and small businesses build Web sites. Among his duties: planning an annual all-hands retreat (this year 130 employees went to San Diego for three days), and organizing basketball tournaments, talent shows, on-site masseuses, and charity volunteers. "The purpose is always team-building," he says. "It's worth it to spend a little money to create some memories."

Distinguished jury, I have no quarrel with Mr. Davila's good intentions. But I am here today to speak for the victims. The poor, downtrodden employees yearning to go home. The party-pooping, costume-hating working stiffs. Those who dream about letting certain colleagues flop straight to the floor in the trust-building, don't-worry-we'll-catch-you exercise. The spouses keeping the home front together as Mom's or Dad's work group parties on.

"Ho-hos." Silicon Valley first started pushing the edge of the fun envelope in the 1970s. Tandem and Apple Computer Inc. had killer beer bashes. In the 1980s, Rolm Co. had its own swimming pool. Genentech Inc. had weekly "ho-hos" with hula contests and suds brewed in spare bioreactors. Then, that crop of tyros grew up. Friday beer bashes morphed into substance-abuse seminars during brown-bag lunches.

Now, the explosive growth of dot-coms packed with very young employees has Nerf-batted the pendulum back again. "When you work 60 hours a week, you don't have much of a social life," says Tracy Aubuchon, office manager of San Francisco e-services company eLine Inc. So, an employee recruiting and retention mantra has spread through the land: "We'll supply the social life! We'll be so fun you'll never leave!"

On a recent Saturday morning I went to investigate some off-site fun with eLine in the foothills above Monterey Bay. I joined about 20 mostly male twentysomethings as they gathered to play paintball, a messy, shoot-'em-up game. "I bet five years ago you wouldn't have seen senior management out at something like this," said CEO Andrew Sullivan, 32, the company's oldest employee. Trigger finger twitching, he confides: "In this tight labor market I've been so looking forward to retribution for the unreasonable demands of my employees."

Nero fiddling. I must admit, dear jury, I crept into this sniper-encrusted glen convinced the fun fad is the modern equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome burns--more specifically, inexperienced managers with too much funny money to spend. But I learned a few things. Sullivan is no free-spending goofball. ELine is profitable entirely off cash-flow, and he harbors no wild-eyed dreams of IPO nirvana. Competitors make almost daily runs at his employees, but many have stuck around for several years.

Paintball isn't all they do together. Sullivan pays for pizza and beer for everybody on Friday night, and they play online computer games until the wee hours. I asked him: Doesn't the maturity and judgment people develop from actually having a life matter? He reminded me diplomatically: "I think you're speaking from a position of wisdom and experience." (Translation: Lady, you're on a first-name basis with Miss Clairol. You're too old to get this.) "These are young and very intense programmers. I tell 'em: `If you're not passionate about what you're doing, I don't want you around here."' Clearly, the more Sullivan can herd these multiple-pierced and tattooed young cats into high-adrenaline activities, the harder they'll work.

Regardless, I urge caution: A former vice-president with one dot-com bitterly told me employees began to resent the outfit's weekly lavish parties as the stock began to drop. "We had nothing to celebrate," she says, and management's happy facade became a symbol of denial.

What say the bankrollers? "Generally, I am all for companies having fun so that they are great organizations that are living and breathing," says George Zachary of Mohr, Davidow Ventures. But he notes that the real game is making money, not mischief. "There should not be a VP of Fun just like there should not be a VP of Work," says Zachary.

The recent dot-com devaluation on Wall Street is really putting fun on trial. Will fun prove to be what keeps employees around when their options are underwater or the chance of an IPO looks slim? I must close with a sentiment that I've heard muttered at plenty of Valley shindigs: "Wouldn't it be great if we could just have the cash they spent on all this?"

The prosecution rests.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.