MOUNTAIN VIEW, California (Reuters) – The work day has just begun yet some Google Inc. employees are already taking a break to get a haircut in the Internet leader’s parking lot. Rather than lamenting the distraction, Google encourages it.
Every day three refitted Winnebago mobile homes roll into famed Silicon Valley high-tech companies such as Yahoo Inc., eBay Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and Genentech Inc..
The service by Onsite Haircuts illustrates Silicon Valley’s distinctive work culture and is welcomed as firms seek to motivate workers and give them a sense of community. Ultimately, experts say, such an environment boosts productivity.
“Everything that happens here is so different,” Jeral Poskey, 37, the manager of one of Google’s technical groups, said as a barber snipped his locks on a recent Friday morning.
Silicon Valley has long mixed the informality of California beach culture with the rebellious streak of an industry whose success hinges on disrupting established ways of doing things.
Google in Mountain View south of San Francisco offers free organic food, laundry machines, a gym, massages, volleyball court, bike repairs and on-site doctors. Workers with new babies can bill the company for up to $500 for take-out food.
“Here the cultures are much more relaxed,” said Dena Kaufer, 43, a former tech worker who lost her job during Silicon Valley’s last economic downturn and started Onsite Haircuts in 2003.
Donal Mountain, 30, a Google “user-experience” researcher from Ireland, is one of many who likes the flexible approach. He said a game of bocce with co-workers the other day led to some business insights. “I wouldn’t have set up a meeting, but we got around to talking about things,” he said.
He said he does not work a fixed schedule, and toiled the whole night through a few weeks ago.
‘BREAKING THE RULES’
Andrew Hargadon, who worked at computer maker Apple Inc. from 1990 to 1993, recalls perks such as free bagels, beer on Friday, games in the lobby and Nerf tag games and said such items make workers feel better about irregular hours and more productive.
“Those kinds of perks made you feel that “Hey, I’m part of something really special. We’re breaking the business rules, we’ve got pinball in our lobby,'” said Hargadon, a professor at the University of California at Davis Graduate School of Management.
“These are not only perks, they are productivity plays as well. It might take some time for somebody to go down and get a haircut, but it also means that they are not getting in their car and leaving to get a haircut.”
Google manager Poskey said simplifying his life is important as his wife recently had a baby. “My time right now is just work and baby and keeping everything into those two baskets is something that I need to focus on,” he said.
NOT PUNCHING THE CLOCK
Onsite Haircuts works well partially because of the sprawling suburban geography of Silicon Valley. Many area companies are in industrial parks with few commercial establishments nearby, and heavy traffic in the region can make driving offsite unappealing. Because workers do not punch a clock, they can come and go as they please.
“When you have large groups of younger workers, especially in a place like Silicon Valley where most people are not from this area, they are away from family and friends,” said Charles O’Reilly, a Stanford Graduate School of Business professor of management.
Companies with resources were smart to encourage employees to spend time on campus. “It’s part of the culture creation process,” he said.
Onsite Haircuts charges $18 and Kaufer’s business has quickly become profitable after an investment in three $80,000 used Winnebagos, she said.
One of the two Google founders (billionaires Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both of whom keep their hair short) has been by to get a cut, Kaufer said. She declined to say more, adding that she has signed a nondisclosure agreement. She had reason to keep quiet: A company minder monitored her conversation with a reporter.
Still, rich workplace benefits are not enough to motivate all workers.
Jay Davies, 24, is leaving Google soon to seek a job in journalism, saying writing good memos was not enough.
“This was the gravy train; I actually feel guilty,” Davies said. “But even writing the most studied e-mail doesn’t sate one’s writing desire.”