Safe to Play: The Nature of Work and why Zappos' Holacracy Revolution is just a Bandaid on a much Deeper Problem

I recently read New Republic’s feature of Zappos and their transition to running as a completely Holacratic organization. I won’t go into why they are doing so or what Holacracy is here. For more information you can read the article and visit the Holacracy website. I’m a supporter of Holacracy and Tony Hsieh’s attempt to find a different way of organizing Zappos than the standard top-down, pyrimidal management system. And just as he does, I hope that the result of this experiment will be an organization that’s freer, in which the employees have more autonomy and individual ownership of the company’s direction, and in which they are generally happier. At the same time, Zappos’ transformation suggests some deep questions about the reason why we work in the first place and the way we relate to work today. How we answer them will determine the role work will play in our lives in the future.

Sometimes, in order to get to know someone deeply, we ask them, “If you didn’t have to work, what would you do?”  It’s another way of asking “If you could get all the basic necessities met automatically, if you could easily feed, clothe, and shelter yourself and your family, what would you do by choice out of love or enjoyment or passion?” The implication is that, when we strip it down, work is basically whatever we do to survive. There are other reasons why we work of course: social status, to help others, to make our families proud.  But all of these are built on the back of work’s essential function of giving us a livelihood.  And in every case, the value of work is in its utilitarian function to provide us with other things that we enjoy inherently. While some of our work work may provide things that are inherently valuable to others, for us it is generally a means to an end.  But when we do something that is inherently enjoyable, inherently valuable, we don’t call it work. We call it play. The deep ethical conclusion is that we work so that we can set up the conditions that make play possible: ongoing survival, adequate safety, and available time. We work in order to make ourselves safe enough to play, and play is necessarily a higher value than work. 

Back to Zappos. In the article, the reporter describes hanging out in the Las Vegas trailer park where Hsieh and many other Zappos employees live. Some are setting up a stage for a performance that evening. Taking it in, the reporter comments, “This idyllic scene was typical of life in Tony Hsieh’s magical kingdom. Work was fun, which is good, because people never really stopped working. Meetings might be scheduled at 10 p.m. on a Sunday, in the middle of what appeared to be a party but was really just an extension of the all-encompassing Zappos corporate culture. Was this what Hsieh meant by self-organization? Did going Teal [a term from Frederick Laloux’s book Reinventing Organizations, referring to the cultural and organizational ‘up-leveling’ Zappos is trying to undergo] mean selling shoes and designer purses plus open mic sessions and Fernet shots?” Later in the article, the author writes: “Zapponians, as the employees call one another, like to talk about ‘work-life integration’ rather than work-life balance.”

Ignoring the absurd contrast of work with life (we should say “work-play” balance or integration instead), I agree with the underlying ideal: make life full of deeply meaningful activity that contributes to everyone’s welfare. But there are lots of ways to bring more of this kind of work into our lives, not all of which are paid jobs, and many of which are much better than giving all of your time to a company that is basically in the business of selling shoes. To the question we raised earlier, “What would you do if you didn’t have to work?” there are people who would respond, “I’d keep doing what I’m doing, I love it!”  This is wonderful and not to be dismissed. Perhaps work really is fun for Zapponians; perhaps they love having meetings at 10 p.m. on Sunday. I’m skeptical. When someone says they enjoy their work we are often happy for them precisely because this is not the common experience. In any case, what I am most concerned about the larger trend of work swallowing up everything else. Even if I agree with a company’s intentions and enjoy my work, I do not ever want to live completely inside company culture, because any activity on behalf of a company will always serve to accomplish the company’s goals over its employees’ autonomous pursuit of their own multiple desires.

It’s never fair to criticize genuine advances, and the clean distinction I am making between work and play clearly has a grey middle zone and a complex potential for intermixing when meaningful work, especially when done in a community of loved ones, is deeply enjoyable. But it’s always important to appreciatively point towards better or more root solutions. Making work better is awesome, and for this Hsieh and Zappos should be congratulated. But Zappos’ transformation, since it improves work inside a totalizing workplace culture, may actually end up increasing work’s already bloated and damaging significance in our lives. If we aren’t conscious of the priority of play over work, then the desire to make work better could easily become the reality of just making work... everything. And most people will experience work as everything long before work becomes play, if it ever does at all (and it is not necessary that work does become play, as long as we are clear that play is more important).

If you are working hard, are you doing it because it is making you or someone else happy, or will eventually do so? If not, cut it out. So many of us are not happy when we’re working, but we spend so much of our time doing it. To be happy and to create flourishing societies, each of us must acknowledge and prioritize what makes us happiest.  What would it look and feel like to live the life you most want to lead? When you ask yourself why you work, what do you come up with?

Hsieh’s efforts, while positive, are still relatively superficial compared to the foundational re-envisioning of work that is required to recenter play as our highest value. It’s in this spirit that I say that Zappos’ move to a Holacratic organization is good, but not good enough, and perhaps distracting from the deeper point. As long as we keep pretending that work is higher than play not only do we suffer in the present, but we will continue to create systems which generate more and more work and less and less play in the future. This is an inverted life, one that is deeply confusing and subtly empty. On the other hand, remembering that play is higher than work gives us immediate clarity and purpose and will lead to new systems that generate increasing flourishing. Life may never be all fun, and work will always be necessary. But let’s be careful not to delude ourselves for the company’s benefit, especially since life itself is more like play than work (it doesn’t have a utilitarian value outside of itself).  This is the highest ethical imperative: We must make each and all of our lives as deeply playful as possible.