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Nerf guns don't matter (mikecr.it)
31 points by mcrittenden on Sept 12, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 54 comments

I love the last few paragraphs of this article, unfortunately, I've managed enough people to know the value of nerf guns/ping pong tables...

Ping pong/foosball/assorted games have a wonderful place in startups. Case in point - welcoming new employees. New people tend towards shyness. Cutting through this shyness should really be the first step in onboarding new people. Guess what? One game of foosball/ping pong is better than three (usually awkward) lunches with a supervisor/other coworkers...

Then, there is the struggle. Ben Horowitz wrote about the struggle from the perspective of founders, but startup employees feel it just as acutely. Ever been stuck at work, late into the evening, desparate to complete a project? Ever go out with friends from university and discover that you make 25% less than the rest of your group? Ever work for a company that has pivoted so many times you can't remember what you originally signed on to build?

Good founders and an environment built upon respect and open communication can go a long ways towards reducing the struggle. However, when you're in the thick of it, a couple of games of ping pong can keep you moving forward (or keep you from applying to any of the 35 other startups that would hire you)...

Finally, there's one other wonderful business reason for mixing work and fun. Retaining your talent. Really good people (aka - the people you need in startups) have all kinds of options. If they have fun where they are and work with close friends, they are less likely to quit.

All in all,decent article. Unfortunately, it overlooks a huge number of situations when ping pong actually becomes important.

The reality is we spend most of our waking lives at work. Other than those we had before we started, most of our friends (and even romantic partners) will be made there. Enforced work socializing is counterproductive, but enforced non-socializing is even worse. A good workplace should accept that people are social, that being able to play around for a few minutes in the middle of the day makes you more rather than less productive. That a workplace offers nerf guns does not prove that it will be a nice place to work, but it does at least show you that it's not stuck in joyless "professionalism" that would guarantee that it isn't one.

> but it does at least show you that it's not stuck in joyless "professionalism" that would guarantee that it isn't one.

I agree with most of your comment but I disagree with that. I think you have to define what a "joyless, professional" work environment really means. To me, it means nobody enjoys their work, nobody feels challenged, nobody feels heard, rather everyone is just a cog/code monkey. If that's the case, throwing in some nerf guns and free soda won't change anything.

However, to you, a "joyless, professional" work environment seems to mean one where people aren't friendly with each other, and nobody has any fun when they're at work but not currently working. In that case, some toys actually might help a good deal.

So I guess it's a subjective topic and both are equally valid definitions depending on your values.

I think "professionalism" is one of many factors that can lead a workplace to be joyless; I didn't mean it's the only way to cause that (as I know from personal experience).

The reality is we spend most of our waking lives at work.

Bloody hell, that sounds so depressing when you put it like that...

Really? I sleep about 8 hours a day, and work 8-10 hours a day. That's 6-8 hours of being awake and not working, plus 2x16 hours of not working on the weekend.

So worst case scenario, in a week, I spend 50 hours at work and 62 hours being awake and not working. If your numbers are not in that ballpark, you probably want to re-evaluate whether all the hours you spend at work are optimal :)

But those hours "being awake" include eating, showering, doing house chores, etc. In reality it's 10 hours work (including commute) vs 3-4 hrs non-work, and ~10 on the weekend. So the usual number is 50:40 at best, not 50:62.

You don't even need to do the math, we've all been there: get up, go to work, come back at 7-8pm, have dinner, 2hrs to do something then sleep.

Even more sad if you live in a northern climate. You get go to work in the dark, and return in the dark. Daylight is just something that happens during work.

I live in Sweden. When I was an employee I didn't get any sun on me during a significant chunk of the year.

I run my own business these days.

If professionalism feels joyless to you, you are doing it wrong.

I believe that was the intent of the quotation marks.

There's a bit of an either-or fallacy here, but overall I agree. I think companies would do well to heed your advice and figure out what is and what is not an appropriate perk.

Things that I, personally, would find appropriate:

- Free cokes and possibly (if you're huge) free food. Just don't provide it and then complain about how much it costs later. Worked at a place like that once, it sent an extremely confusing message.

- A culture that allows employees to bring in "cubicle toys" if they want. But I might draw the line at projectile weapons (see below).

- Gym memberships, company cars, and other more traditional perks are always nice.

Stuff that I, personally, would find more inappropriate:

- Projectile, melee, or any other types of weapons, Nerf or not. Don't get me wrong, I'm not making a political statement here. These things are plenty fun. The problem is that they, as the article points out, are a TRUE distraction and they by necessity distract more than one person. The other issue is that they can be awfully annoying to people who, for whatever reason, just aren't in to that stuff. Then they have to feel somewhat ostracized for never being the guy that wants to get into a lightsaber battle while his code is compiling.

- Foosball games, pool tables, in-office basketball courts, and the like. For mainly the reasons you listed in your post.

But I think all this has to be decided on a company-by-company basis. These will be choices that reflect the personality of the founders and, eventually, upper level management. You may not completely agree with every point made in the article, but you would do well, I think, to heed the general warning: work is not play. That doesn't mean work can't be fun, it just means that these are two separate activities with different cultural expectations and mostly different social circles. Mixing the two can be very awkward.

As an introvert, I appreciated the beer fridge when I first started because it helped me get to know the other introverts (everyone). At the time none of my IRL friends were in this sort of work environment so it was something to "brag" about. Back home my family had these visions that my workplace was like google or something and I'm sure they also bragged.

Four years later, I haven't had a beer at work in a long time. At the literal end of the day, I want to go home, relax on the couch and hang with the wife. Right now I'm looking around for a new job because I've realized the current place's motivation for the beer machine is to use as a distraction for the uncompetative salaries and lack of benefits. I geniunely like my co-workers, but the company not so much.

As a side note, all my friends do military contracting type stuff work and get paid substantially more. Four years later, perhaps the jokes on me.

When I see things like nerf guns, ping pong tables, free soda and snacks mentioned early on in the job description I pretty much pass it up right away because I assume that is all offered instead of competitive salary and equity, and to attract younger developers. The things that really matter are office layout (open floor plan vs private offices, etc), ability to telecommute, salary, equity and opportunity to work with talented coworkers and fun and interesting projects. I'll do work at work and then go home to play with my kids.

I really don't see the appeal of Nerf guns at work at all. I see recruitment videos from some companies that show people sneaking around with nerf guns and shooting other programmers in the back of the head when they aren't looking.

If someone was firing foam darts at me whilst I was in the middle of a delicate debugging session, my kneejerk reaction would probably be to punch them in the face.

All this stuff strikes me as kinda juvenile and doesn't really help if you want to be taken seriously as a professional.

Not only is it juvenile and unprofessional, it's really... male. If you really want to recruit talented people, how about just not being repellent to female developers.

Even if someone was just having a Nerf battle outside my office while I was trying to debug something, I'd probably want to strangle them. I can't imagine a bunch of people playing quietly with Nerf guns, and it's not likely that everyone within earshot will want to take a break from their work at exactly the same time.

I totally agree with OP.

My work sometimes has happy hours, and despite them being obviously optional I feel pressured to go to at least half of them so that I'm not judged.

Sure you can say the events and outings are optional but what happens to people who routinely don't go. They become less close with coworkers and this could hurt them career wise.

I have no interest in eating lunch with my team every day. I see them for the OTHER 7 hours a day. Why can't I get a break?

Workplaces really should be fun and social on the clock. But if I'm not on the clock I'd rather be with my other friends.

Don't cram friendship down my throat like some freshmen dorm. I'll drink with the people I want to. And avoid smalltalk with those I don't.

Absolutely all of this. I don't want to work at a company that pretends it's a family. I don't want them to make me be friends.

Work is a necessary evil in peoples lives. We all like to eat and have a place to live and this takes money, hence work, but it is still an evil. It takes the majority of your day and the majority of your life away from doing things you want to do and people you want to do them with. I would much rather be at a company that realizes this and doesn't try to force itself on you pretending that it is some great thing that it is not.

If you don't want to do your work nor like the people you work with, you should really switch jobs...

That said, I agree that companies should not try to creep in weekends and evenings. Having a life outside work is healthy and should be incentivized by every company.

But really, work is NOT a "necessary evil" for me...

> If you don't want to do your work nor like the people you work with, you should really switch jobs

Which is not what I said. Work is what you have to do to enable you to do what yo want to do, but in that process it takes time (a lot of time) away from being able to do what you want to do. No one likes every part of their job, but you have to do those parts along with what you do like because it is part of you job, it is the work you have to do. No job lets you do everything you want to do in life. Co-workers are a random group of people that have been brought together on some common goal (the job). If everyone conducts themselves like adults you will probably be able to get along with them, but you will not like every last one of them.

> work is NOT a "necessary evil" for me

Really? What happens if you don't go to work anymore? What happens if you wake up and say, "You know what, I would like to spend the next month with my wife traveling around [insert area of the world here]?" What happens if you wake up and say "you know what, I don't really feel like working on X (your job) for a bit, I want to try this neat new thing that has nothing to do with it?"

Welcome to the necessary evil. Work is what you have to do, it takes away from all the other things you want to do.

> What happens if you don't go to work anymore?

I freak out and have to urgently find another thing to work on. Like, URGENTLY.

> What happens if you wake up and say, "You know what, I would like to spend the next month with my wife traveling around [insert area of the world here]?"

Work doesn't disallow that - I can simply work and travel at the same time, as I've done for a couple of years already (with my wife - and dog)

ps.: I'm not a workaholic by a very, very far distance. I just LIKE what I do and think it adds a lot of meaning to my existence (plus money of course) - I'd say it's a "necessary good" ;-)

I worked at a place once where we were forced to work 12 hour days for about 5 months straight. As exempt employees, we were not paid more, and our pay was already below industry standard.

In exchange, we got free soda, nerf guns, and they would buy you dinner. They also had a beach party once... on a saturday. Also raffles for free swag.

Despite the fairly pleasant social atmosphere and talented co-workers who were in the same boat as you, I left after 7 months. It didn't matter as much as having time to spend with non-work friends and loved ones and a better paycheck. Apparently most agreed - the turnover rate was over 200%.

What do you mean exactly by turnover rate of 200%? That each year, the entire workforce was fully renewed twice?

Correct. Assuming 100 employees at capacity, they went through over 200 new employees a year, meaning the average employee stayed for around 6 months before leaving.

As far as I could tell, there was a core 5 ~ 6 people who stayed on and had been there since the beginning, and the rest were all on their way in or out.

well it would be for a company of 1...

    It's not going to make you more productive, or make you 
    happier with the work you have to do, or the people you 
    have to work with.
In fact, it might help with all of these. Being able to tune out for a couple minutes after some exhausting work can bring you back to a non-stressed state and make it through the day happier; vs sitting at your desk, browsing or making up an excuse to go outside, because you have nowhere to go.

And it definitely helps with team-building. You might find that that grumpy annoying colleague is actually a very nice person, he just get's bogged down by work or something.

We kinda just went through this where I work.

I don't like the foosball and the nerf guns and all of the other distractions, sure it's fun but it's hard to keep a train of thought sometimes.

Honestly I'd rather the company take us out for a picnic or have us all hang out at the amusement park. I would rather mentally know that work is for work, and play is for outside of work. Or for the group of us to go make something physical with habitat for humanity.

At home, computers are not allowed in the bedroom for simular but different reasons. Studies show that once a couple invites a TV or computer into the bedroom, well parts of the relationship suffer.

At the end of the day I won't be building trust with my coworkers over foosball, nurf guns or video games. But if we do something outside of work, well that might be a different story.

In the end I think this is the result of young founders trying to keep the work place like college. For some of us College is a chapter long closed on life and we have other things that are more current in our lives.

One of my friends who owns a company has set it as a perk to do company wide vacations three or four times a year. I think this is awesome. When I worked at Unity, they would try to get every employee to Unite no mater where it was in the world. There were plenty of times to bond over that experience and I think it goes further to my point.

I think the levels of emotional intelligence matter. Some people have an imbalance of IQ to EQ and they don't want anything to do with anyone, just write good code. That's fair, but seeing others socialize and bond doesn't register much like a marketing guy looking at a map reduce function and not understanding.

Another thing that is difficult for lower EQ folks is the ability to see things from another point of view. So, instead of seeing the value and point of team building and interaction it's just a silly waste of time. It's a spectrum, and unfortunately there is no golden ratio to the perfect fit. In this bubble of ours Engineer vs. Sales or marketing is not a new story, but looking at it from an IQ vs EQ perspective at least you can see where each person is coming from.

The best thing for the lower EQ guys is let them be alone, stroke their ego and communicate via IM. Explain to them that just like recursive functions, things have a purpose and they aren't for everyone and people process the world in different ways.

How do you build teamwork with both low eq and high eq employees? Seems to me that it's hard to have a team with people on both extremes since they'll continuously argue about what is important.

My older brother worked at SGI early days. He bragged about their culture - video games in the halls, parties.

I told him "Culture isn't the free perks. Your culture is revealed when times are hard, releases are near or late. What people do then, who flees and who buckles down and works, that defines your culture."

Whatever you're doing, you should stop it and start writing speeches instead.

Although I agree that having things like ping-pong, nerf guns or free soda available does not guarantee that there is a good company culture, I don't think its means there is a bad one either.

Regardless of whether the work is interesting or if you are productive, sometimes you just need to take a break. If during that break, you can have fun with one of your co-workers, all the better (not to mention the benefits of getting out of your chair to get some exercise).

As already mentioned before, some of the best friendships can come out of a working environment. Having fun with co-workers and trying to get to know who people are instead of just trying to understand what they know can lead to better communication and collaboration, as well as a more enjoyable workplace.

Sometimes things like nerf guns are indicative of a culture at a company that would be more fun and upbeat than working in a corporate cube farm. Now, obviously, cube farms can just as easily buy nerf guns and I'm just picking nerf guns because it's in the link-baity title. Free coke, social gatherings and nerf guns might also just be indications that the company values you and wants to provide whatever they can to make you happy. However juvenile you may or may not find them, at least their trying.

I work at a place with a lot of toys, pool tables, free coffee, and beer on tap. When I read the title and the first half of the article I couldn't have disagreed more. I love what I do and I love the environment I'm in. But after finishing your post I realized that I agree with you 100%, nice added benefits don't matter at all unless you work in a nurturing environment, and hey, if that environment offers cool stuff, that's awesome. I love the team I work with and our company culture, and that wouldn't change at all if we didn't have pool tables or free beer.

I think advertising things like nerf guns and free soda in job interviews is just an implicit way to make you think the company has a good culture, but that's really not what you should be centering your view of the company around, you should wait until you actually communicate with the people there and figure out the company culture, then re-evaluate with the extra bonuses to see if it's right for you.

My last job was at small office building with cubicles and sometimes free breakfast, and you know what? I still loved the hell out of it because it was an insanely open environment between employees and project managers, and it was some of the most challenging and rewarding work I've done.

Yes! Keep your toys, your sodas and your junk food. Just give me an office with a door, where I can actually focus on work and be productive.

>I'm seeing it more and more--job descriptions with perks about nerf guns and happy hour, or new grads who joined a startup and are bragging about ping pong tables and free coke. This is apparently something that people see as a fun culture, a sign that this is a place you'd enjoy working at and has people you'd enjoy working with.

Heh. It took me awhile to find these:

>Excellent opportunities with an exciting, fun 6 year old .com company!!! Skills wanted: JAVA, Weblogic, EJB, Solaris, Oracle. Fun atmosphere- pool table, ping pong table, foozball table, and cafeteria. @90-95K plus stock options $$$$$$ Don't miss out!!! This is a hot one, sunny California, in Culver City- very close to Santa Monica and Marina Del Rey!!! Beautiful beaches, blue skies and the ocean! If someone could reply with the correct spelling of foozball, we have a bet going in the office!

>Wednesday, September 27, 2000 19:05

Source: http://www.coderanch.com/t/9714/Jobs-Offered/careers/JAVA-De...

> Free meals when working late; unlimited cold beverages; vacation homes in Lake Tahoe; monthly beer bashes; complimentary use of a Porsche Boxster when designated as "Employee of the Month;" and, additionally, a chance to win a $3000 bonus plus the chance to drive a Porsche Boxster for two years with each participating referral booked in the Employee Referral Program.

> Friday, September 15, 2000 13:40

Source: http://www.coderanch.com/t/9700/Jobs-Offered/careers/jobs-ex...

I agree that these things really don't matter. But to be honest, I'm a little happy to see some of it coming back. The last 10 years has been hard to be a programmer in my area; most of the jobs are large companies, most of the work is boring, and the startups are few and far between.

complimentary use of a Porsche Boxster when designated as "Employee of the Month"

Maybe it's just me, but that seems like a terrible idea. You get one person to feel good about being employee of the month and n-1 people feeling slighted for being passed over. again.

Nerf guns are more the result of an already fun company culture, than someone trying to make it a fun culture.

If you build a company culture that makes people comfortable enough to play and have fun with eachother at work, then you've succeeded.

I'm not sure where the culture shifted to value things like saying you work at a startup or have free beer/lunch VS getting a highly competitive salary and normal working hours? I choose the latter every single time.

I think the one question you should be asking is: Are your employees looking forward to coming to work in the morning?

All these environment variables are background noise if they are not relevant to your workers.

Very intriguing post, Mike! I have to agree that placing too much priority on these things can make a company seem cheesy. BUT I personally would rather work at a place that is not "all business, all the time." People should enjoy their jobs and their careers, and I think that's mostly what these companies are trying to accomplish. Your post is a good reminder, however, about how to prioritize work and play at the job site.

I maintain that the ability to be silly is the measure of office (or community, or family) culture that matters most. It's indicative of being relaxed, confident, and comfortable with yourself and your relationships with others. That doesn't mean disruptive or constant silliness, but a little goofing around once in a while goes a long way.

Some great comments here. I think the main frustration is that these "playful distractions" are being advertised too heavily to the outside through job listings or About Us pages. I'm not opposed to a fun work place if it develops naturally over time and doesn't reduce the quality of work.

Nerf guns matter to me! (I type this while sipping on a free can of Diet Coke)

When HQ came into the office and firing off nerf arrows (no gun required) at all of us and turned Dev and Support into a mini-nerf-warzone, it was one of the best things that happened to us. Of course, it was a Friday and we lost tons of productivity, but after all the hard work we'd been doing... we needed it. Sure, a few people got hit hard in the head and some people took a couple arrows to the mouth -- but it was WORTH IT.


I still remember when the support manager was hired. I remember asking the hiring manager if he'd asked her if she was ok with UFO's in the office. Her: "UFO's?" (quizzical look) Me: "Yeah, uh" (ball nearly misses me) (in the distance), "INCOMING!... Did I get [inafield]" She catches the ball, laughs. Me: "No, you just about hit the new hire, she'll fit right in." [laughter]

With three kids I am excited to go home and spend time with my family anyway. I am trying to stay focused on my work when I am in the office.

Overall I agree with Mike. Well written post.


Hmm, did I come across to strong? I definitely didn't mean for it to seem like flamebait. :/

No, you didn't. It was thoughtful and even-keeled perspective, conveyed in a tone that should be embraced here even if there is disagreement about the actual points made.

Thanks for that. I generally find it difficult to say that I believe something without also saying that anyone who disagrees is stupid, so I appreciate the feedback. The last thing I want to do is make anyone angry or come across as trollish.

It did not to me. It might have seemed so when I was in my 20s, though.

I've been outted -_-

Seriously, though- I agree with the last few paragraphs, but I think there's a "to me" that's missing throughout this article. Anyone working somewhere solely for the ping pong (outside of professional table tennis players I guess...) is probably making a mistake. But a break doesn't have to be a distraction.

When I'm deep in a dev problem, sometimes I need to take a break to digest a problem. At my last job, I didn't have a place to do that. Sitting quietly in the break room was considered strange, and I shouldn't have to make-believe I'm programming to take some time to understand an issue.

The office we're in now has a common area where I can talk to someone, sit quietly, play a casual game of ping pong- and then get back to work. I recognize many people don't want to mix work and play, but shouldn't they recognize it's okay if I do?

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