Cheery office decorations

An article “identifying” the top 50 places to work in America caught my eye last week, and really got me thinking about exactly what makes a specific type of workplace “ideal” for each person. I don’t profess to have many jobs under my belt yet, but I can say almost certainly that I believe quantifying the “quality” of a job based on online employee reviews is a foolish, inaccurate thing. And that you should never, ever go off reputation or other people’s thoughts when selecting a place to work.

What reviews really miss out on are the nuances of a company, and what the day-to-day culture is like. A job and a particular office can sound great on paper or when you visit, but for the good of yourself, please take the time to look beyond the superficial qualities. I’m not referring to simple things like work-life balance, company events, or even location. I’m talking the things that will really make you enjoy or hate your job – the spirit of the company, so to speak.

One key component of this is of course the people that comprise it. If you’re a young, single, adventurous person, but your company is mostly made up of older, married homebodies whose idea of fun is walking the dog, chances are you will either 1) continue to feel out of place and eventually hate either yourself or the job, or 2) learn to conform by getting a significant other and forcing yourself into a few non-ideal but common hobbies so you have something to talk about with your coworkers. I’ve both experienced and witnessed this first-hand, and a clash of personalities / culture is definitely the first ingredient to unhappiness at work, and by extension, life.

Another piece of a firm’s spirit is its overarching perspective. What are the stated goals of the company? What types of activities do they sponsor? What viewpoints do they encourage employees to foster? Take this example from a place I worked at, where once a year every employee was to spend a day at a series of organized events designed to encourage reflection on one’s personal and professional values. Sounds great on paper, but it usually wound up being something of a pep-talk seminar, where you were subjected to speeches by “inspirational” individuals, herded into “group-bonding” activities, and otherwise sat around talking about your thoughts all day.

I attended one of these when I first joined, and it was among the first things that revealed this probably wasn’t the long-term job for me. Why? Because I felt the entire day was a forced farce, and what were designed to be “fun” and “impactful” activities felt childish, insipid, and overall ineffective. But the worst part? My coworkers LOVED it. Oh, there were a couple cynical remarks, but the general emotion I gleaned from them was enjoyment, hopefulness, and personal connection. I overheard one person telling another that these events were just “so powerful” that they made her feel “weak and spent at the end of the day”. I literally shuddered at the corny, gag-worthiness of that when I heard that, and felt more out of place than ever.

This focus on excessive spirituality and rose-tinted perspectives (far beyond mere optimism) extended past the single day, and into everything we did, from the morning check-ins to the team events and office activities. I was miserable because I wasn’t able to conform to that mindset, and for a long time thought it was my fault for not regarding things as my coworkers did. It’s only with time that I now realize I never could have adjusted, not without suppressing a large part of my personal beliefs. Which is what I did, and which ultimately had much more harm than good. Point of this example? Look for hints in your own workplace – do your coworkers get excited about things you couldn’t care less about? Do you feel at odds with the types of activities the company chooses to engage in? If so, maybe it’s time to look somewhere else.

The final factor to analyze is the cohesiveness of the companyespecially in the office you’re to join. My first job, which I absolutely loved, was incredible at this. Every single employee, from administrators to the high-level vps, committed 100% to all events and mingled so naturally and wonderfully. People acknowledged each other in the hallways, and there was no noticeable antagonism between the “back office” employees and the “front” ones. The culture was strong enough to cross over position-divides, and made for an incredibly positive environment.

As you might expect, the same was not true of another place. During the interview and subsequent visits, I was swept into believing that this would be just as strong of a workplace. It was only after starting there that the faults started to show. First, it was clear that the “back” employees utterly despised the “front” ones they assisted day to day. In true cyclical fashion, the front ones realized this and consequently treated them with indifference, and occasionally, sheer disrespect. Office events were thus almost nonexistent, as the two groups refused to align on issues like budget and timing.

Additionally, what really should have clued me in was that due to the nature of the work, nobody ever really had to be in the office. And thus, many people, especially the most senior, chose to never come in, except when they had something scheduled. The office was a ghost town most days, which truly wears down cohesiveness like no other. People didn’t know each other, and rarely bothered to make the effort. There was also a continual stigma against this location by the offices in other locations, which eventually wears at you like no other.

I’m going to conclude with a quick synopsis of what really encouraged me to write this, aside from the article – I never realized how much of an impact a company’s culture could have on my sense of self and my net happiness until now. Since switching jobs, my day-to-day work hasn’t altered much in terms of interest/excitement, but I’m feeling SO much more satisfied and happy with everything (crossing my fingers for the future). It’s like the difference between working in a sunlit room and in a doomy dungeon. Work’s just work, until you realize it’s a huge piece of your life, and one you need to make sure you’re spending in a place that makes you happy. This is often completely independent of the company’s prestige, your title, or even how it fits into your long-term plans. Because if you’re happy, you’ll do well, and that’s something that builds upon itself.