Your friends at Viget present Flourish, a Viget News & Culture Blog

When the “Casual” Workplace Is Confusing

Like most companies in the tech industry, Viget offers a casual workplace. It’s a big draw for full-time and internship applicants alike. After working with interns for a few years, however, I’ve learned that a so-called “casual” workplace can be confusing for young people starting their careers. That’s because underpinning the informality of our office culture is a profound professionalism that can be hard for interns to recognize. And it’s a professionalism that, for some time, I’ve felt reluctant to articulate because the very word “professionalism” smacks of a Xeroxed dictate emerging from the dusty HR office down the hall. But professionalism is alive and well in the world of tech, and it’s important for interns to figure it out.

Casualness at the office starts with what we wear. The casual dress code common to start-ups and creative agencies—T-shirts, jeans, etc—seems to defy the very term “code.” That’s, of course, an illusion; casual dress is as codified as formal wear and often inches toward formal (blazer plus jeans) for different roles at different times. When it’s time for a client meeting or a presentation, we start looking positively “nice” or “dressy” and, mysteriously, we all seem to know what those vague terms mean (though it’s arguably trickier for women).  Around here, we joke about “the elusive Vigesuit” because, in the right contexts, we’re glad to conform to traditional standards of professional dress—and some of us “dress up” from time to time even without an excuse. Understandably, the subtleties of these choices are hard for young people to pick up on because they require experience over time, which is exactly what they don't have. If they sometimes dress too casually, it’s more often for fear of seeming ludicrously buttoned-up rather than from a lack of concern altogether.

But our casualness goes beyond our clothes. At Viget, we enjoy the ping-pong tables that have become a cliché in our industry, although (tragically or thankfully?), we’ve passed on the indoor slides and the scooters. Our Boulder crew regularly welcomes a cute canine on site. When it comes to how we speak, behave, and interact with each other, we often describe ourselves as “laid-back,” “chill,” and “easy-going.” Spontaneous conversations are the norm, as are jokes, pranks, experiments, and play.

All this is to say that, on the surface, it looks like we’re mostly having fun most of the time. Many young newcomers get the impression that the basic, boring parts of doing a good job at work—like showing up to meetings on time, responding to requests promptly, and proofreading work—aren’t very important. But read past the gifs and jibes, and you’ll discover that our emails—including those mundane internal exchanges that set our daily rhythms—are grammatically correct and well-crafted. We prepare. We meet deadlines. We show up, and we follow up.  We treat each other’s work and time with respect, courtesy, and maturity.

So, if we’re all actually being pretty professional most of the time, why promote a casual environment in the first place? First, there’s some history to this: the tech world’s casual dress code has its roots in the post-war rejection by counter-culture programmers of the “suits” running the legal and government worlds (the divide persists today). Additionally, top programmers are relatively young compared to the leading members of other industries; if top talent comes straight from college campuses, it’s unsurprising that campus fashion trends come too. More significantly, though, casualness has also evolved into just one part of the messy and multi-faceted search for meaning that defines our contemporary understanding of work. Our hope is that, by doing away with formalities and dressing and acting like our “real” or “normal” selves, we’ll come to know each other better, establish more genuine connections with each other, and find more meaning in working with each other.

As a result, when this comes up with interns, I try to convey that we’re not talking about “casual” in the sense of purposeless or indifferent or low-pressure or sloppy. Quite the contrary. Our casual environment is effective only because, at our core, we maintain high standards of professionalism in our interactions with each other and in our work.

At the same time, when it comes right down to it, we’re not really promoting a “casual” mode of behavior per se, but an “authentic” one. One of the promises of our industry is that, in the best case scenario, the two merge. Judging by the popularity of Stefan Sagmeister’s TED talk on sabbaticals, for example, or Elle Luna’s recent blog post (and countless other examples), job, career, and vocation can and should be the same thing. When they are the same thing, the logic goes, you find your work intrinsically meaningful. Doing your job is and feels like just being the person you truly are.

Whether this promise is merely a myth is open for debate. Either way, I find that, for most of us, especially at the outset of our jobs (or careers or vocations, or some combination thereof), “professionalism” and “authenticity” are at odds much of the time. If interns and young professionals find the two hard to reconcile with each other, that’s because they are hard to reconcile with each other. For most of us, building a career means we must learn to strike a balance between the two on a daily basis. There are times when we need to prioritize a more professional mode, and that means feeling less “authentically” ourselves. And there are other times when we need to prioritize “authenticity” at the cost of professionalism. Striking this balance takes a certain measure of experience and good judgement, which is why it’s understandably confusing at first. That’s also why we gladly welcome interns and young professionals onto our staff—to begin helping them get there.

A Look at Viget Turnover

In Human Resources circles, one often hears talk about various companies and their turnover, attrition, or churn stats (terms used interchangeably which all refer to the same thing:  the percentage of one’s workforce which leaves each year).  In the high-tech sector in which Viget belongs, there’s often accompanying commentary that cites a search for variety, impatience with regard to professional growth, and a surfeit of available jobs as underlying factors for high-tech workers leaving jobs at higher rates than in other industries. There’s also a supposition that companies are experiencing the effects of a changing view of employer loyalty by Generation-Y.

The Society for Human Resource Management has a wealth of information on HR-related topics and they produced a benchmarking study in 2011 which cited average turnover in the high-tech industry in the U.S. at 11%.  But, there are lots of studies by lots of organizations -- each of whom parse their data differently.  One can look at turnover rates by industry, of course.  But, one can also look at turnover from the lens of how big a company one is (e.g., 500+ employees, 200-500 employees, under-50 employees).  One can also look at turnover by employee type -- officers, middle management, supervisory, etc.  This article from last year references a 10% target turnover rate that one should aim for -- because some level of attrition is perceived to be healthy.

At Viget, I am often asked about our turnover rate.  Sometimes, new staff members are simply curious.  Sometimes, the recruiting team or our management team ask.  Sometimes, it’s a formal request in the form of a Department of Commerce census or something related to our insurance policy renewal.  

No matter what our turnover rate happens to be, people want to know how it compares to other companies and if it’s a “good number.”  We’re still small enough at 67 people that each departure is noticed and has an impact.  So, to some extent, the response to that question is always “Well, how does it feel? Does it feel like it’s too high?  Do you think we have a problem?”.  There are lots of healthy reasons people leave jobs (including jobs at Viget): they want to relocate to another part of the country; they want to explore an opportunity to do something we can’t offer; they want to change careers completely; they want to stay home with their kids; or, yes, they want to make more money.   

For those interested, here are our turnover rates for the past 14 years (and a projection for this year as we head into Q4):

Relaunching Pointless Corp., the Innovation Lab at Viget

Today, we've relaunched Pointless Corp. -- the innovation lab at Viget.  It's more than a site refresh.  It's a chance to revisit the point of Pointless Corp., which dates back to the founding of Viget itself.

In 1999 we incorporated Viget Labs, LLC intent on changing the way digital products were created.  Pop came up with the company name, which was intended to be a temporary code word, until it stuck.  He pulled "Viget," which means "flourishing," from the Princeton University motto (where he'd graduated 30 years earlier).  More notably, he added "Labs" to reflect the culture we hoped to create.  One of innovation and experimentation with lots of little failures and important lessons adding up to great success for our clients and ourselves.

At the time, "Labs" seemed a fairly uncommon part of a company name.  As our industry grew, we found more and more of our peers launching "Labs" divisions where innovation could happen and internal products could be developed.  Our perspective was a bit different: our whole company was an innovation center.  Soon enough, we found our name creating some confusion, as clients didn't want to just work with the Viget "Labs" division, they wanted the whole company.  To alleviate that confusion and strengthen and simplify our brand, we dropped "Labs" from our public name in favor of simply "Viget".

By 2009, we were a decade into delivering innovative work for hundreds of clients and loving it.  We weren't a services company longing to pivot to products, begrudgingly funding our internal ventures with otherwise unwanted external clients.  We sincerely loved the variety, insight, and challenge that client work provided.  That said, we did have a natural desire to "scratch our own itches" and build stuff on our own now and then, but thanks to Pop's vision we couldn't just tack "Labs" on to the end of our name (it was technically always there).  We were also mindful of our commitment to clients and wanted Viget to be known for great service, so we created a whole new brand: Pointless Corp.

As I wrote at the time, Pointless Corp. is neither pointless, nor a corporation.  It's our way of thinking, talking, organizing, and delivering projects conceived and created by Viget teams without outside clients.  It's our way of harnessing the creativity and drive of our talented team to make real stuff.  Put simply, it's our innovation lab.

We relaunched with the goal of telling this story more accurately and increasing recognition of the relationship between the two brands. If you look closely, you can see that even our beloved pointless bear logo evolved out of the Viget logo.  The redesign also better showcases the projects themselves, in three categories:

  1. Tools like Shorter Order and PowWow that are useful products that we expect to last for years to come.

  2. Stunts like Boom! Carded and OmahaThat that are fun and usually quick to put together.

  3. Experiments like CanScanCans and Tracktor that may be incomplete or in-process but are worth sharing with the world.

Finally, we provided a place for you to learn about archived pointless projects, such as Tincan'd, a super simple group video service we used vigorously for a couple of years before Google Hangouts came along and made it obsolete.

In the coming months, you'll see a lot of good stuff coming out of Pointless Corp. including new projects and major updates to some of our most popular ones.  Keep an eye on @pointlesscorp or join Viget's email list (below) for all the latest.

Refresh Boulder September 2014 - Show & Tell

Working on fun side project? Just launched a client site you're particularly proud of? Interested in getting quick feedback on something that's in progress? At the upcoming Refresh Boulder event, you'll have the opportunity to share your recent work during our community Show & Tell.  

Join us for this event at the Viget office on Thursday September 25th. The evening kicks off at 6:00 PM with pizza, beer, and some good old fashioned mingling.  At 6:30 PM, we'll start sharing work. If you're interested in sharing, you'll have about 5 minutes to present what you've been working on, as well as some additional time for discussion and questions from the audience.

All of the official details

What: Refresh Boulder

When: Thursday, September 25th at 6:00PM

Where: Viget Boulder, 1360 Walnut Street, Suite 100 

Why: To come together and refresh the creative, technical, and professional aspects of our trades.  

RSVP: Please RSVP on our Meetup Page

We look forward to seeing you there and hearing about your awesome work!

Viget Internship Applicant Volume and Sourcing

Since starting our internship program three years ago, we’ve made a point of tracking data along the way. We’ve been especially interested in applicant volume and sourcing since those issues are especially pertinent to launching a new program. And, three years in, we have more points of comparison than ever.

We’re less interested in drawing hard and fast conclusions than in getting a sense for trends and finding ways to improve. At this point, it seems safe to say that Viget can expect a few hundred internship applicants every year. We’ve also learned how much difference the official title of a role can make. And, finally, a lesson that comes as no surprise: our best source of top interns is our own work, culture, and people.

*Infographics by Janice Pang, 2014 Design Intern at Viget.

As the below graphic shows, volume roughly doubled between 2012 and 2013. Then volume fell by about 25%, in 2014.

However, this year’s dip in applicant volume is not a bad thing, as the next graphic helps show.

To understand the decrease, we need to consider the history of our Marketing internship role. In 2013, the “Marketing” internship received 127 applicants, with many of those applicants also expressing interest in the Project Manager internship. We found the majority of those applicants were unqualified for the role. That’s because they were interested in traditional marketing rather than in Google Analytics and working with data, which had increasingly become the internship’s focus.

So, this year, we decided to swap out the word “Marketing” for the more accurate title of “Digital Analyst.” The nature of the internship itself—and our complete description of it in the body of our posting—has not significantly changed. We also decided not to offer the PM Internship at all, for unrelated reasons. We received twenty-four reasonably qualified DA applicants compared to last year’s 125 Marketing applicants. And it seems safe to say that the roughly one-hundred-applicant difference in this category probably accounts for this year’s dip in overall application volume.

From the start, we’ve asked applicants how they find out about Viget and our internship program. This information helps us understand how to recruit for the following year’s crop.

By “Viget Stuff,” we mean anything generated by our people here at Viget: our client work, events we attend or speak at, our blog posts, and word-of-mouth leads. More and more, I find, our top internship applicants hear about us via “word-of-mouth” in particular. When we first started our summer program three years ago, “word-of-mouth” was an infrequent applicant source. Now, I regularly hear, “my friend told me to apply” or “my professor mentioned it.” That’s a great sign that, as our internship program becomes more effective and cohesive each year, so does our broader community of former interns, professors, and friends spreading the word.