The Facade of Fancy Workplaces

02/04/2014 01:03 pm ET | Updated Apr 06, 2014

On many occasions, I have had the opportunity to visit some of the coolest workplaces ever. Google headquarters in Mountain View, CA, Apple headquarters in Cupertino, CA, IDEO Product Design in Palo Alto, CA, just to name a few. These buildings are littered with coffee bars, comfy couches, big bright bay windows decorated with flower pots, and quiet rooms where employees can relax or even get a massage. When I was younger, I, like many other Silicon Valley twenty-somethings eager to learn, dreamed of working at places like this. They seemed like dream jobs and dream companies where you could be yourself. But as I got older and theoretically wiser, I began to see through the façade of free food, sculptures, and mural-strewn walls. I realized that through all of the fluff, work was and is just work.

Some folks might say that any sort of perk makes work more enjoyable, or at least more bearable. When I was in my twenties, I was in learning mode; figuring out what working people did for a living, where they went for lunch, and what they did during company hours. Work was a completely separate entity from my personal life. I surmised at one point that this separation was a "wall" that compartmentalized my work psyche enough so that I could look at work more objectively. But it was a double edged sword, preventing me from formulating a personal opinion about work. At the time, I was working for large corporations, including Hewlett Packard and Lockheed Martin. I would find myself later on looking back at these experiences with a sense of regret, not for myself, but for employees of these behemoth organizations, who were nothing more than mere employee numbers on a cryptic org chart somewhere.

In my thirties, I made the decision to make changes in both my career industry and the size of my companies. I moved away from the defense electronics world and into medical devices, with the notion that I would rather be paid to save lives, than be rewarded for my work's ability to take them. You realize the starkness and morbidity of your job, when the product you develop is rated by what's called "blast efficiency", defined by how many people per square mile can be killed by one of your missiles. To this day, I sit and wonder who the hell gets their kicks working on stuff like that.

With my move to smaller companies, in a field where you are developing life-saving products, I began to understand the personal side of work. Small groups tend to be very open, very transparent, and quite touchy-feely. You tend to be listened to in a small company -- not just "heard". Your connection with the small organization means that you are more subjectively in touch with everyone in the company, not just those in your department. Ultimately, I would find that the personal side of work, not fancy buildings or free mochas, which would be the real driver behind why I would even want to go to work every day. The pinnacle of my experience in startup medical devices -- when my own mom was treated using a catheter that I helped design and develop -- a true example of personal, caring work directly applied to someone you care about. You just can't get this working for a large corporation.

I learned over the years that huge buildings with beanbag chairs and dog-sitting stations do not make a company. It is the people who make the company, not the fluff. Think about where you work now, and understand where your daily motivations lie.

Because at the end of the day, work really is just work -- the rest is up to you...