Don’t Pingpong Around on Culture

Table tennis, also known as pingpong, got its start toward the end of the 19th century, when a few upper-middle-class Victorians decided to turn their dining room table into a smaller version of traditional lawn tennis.

In the world of talent management today, pingpong has become the ultimate symbol of the idealized corporate culture of young people. This means millennials, those born between 1980 and 2000.

Step into any office and the sight of young, hoodie-wearing millennials slapping a ball back and forth screams of an innovative, collaborative and modern company culture. With pingpong as their launching point, today’s young companies cannot wait to showcase how cool their culture is in job postings to prospective candidates.

This notion that companies need to double as arcades seems to have come as Gen Y entered the workforce, which coincided with the latest technology boom in Silicon Valley in the mid-2000s.

Perhaps it was Google that first propelled the notion that success is dependent on flashy and wildly untraditional management practices. Most have taken to Google as the standard of modern corporate culture.

Contrary to popular belief, millennials are not the lab rats of corporate America. They are human beings, with very natural human tendencies that transcend all generations.

This isn’t to say that many of the more progressive management practices are ill-advised. If the nature of the work allows, these should be adopted.

It means that the bells and whistles that today’s “progressive” companies tout as cultural differentiators are just that — bells and whistles, aiming to distract people from the cold realities of long hours and high expectations that come with a highly competitive business environment.

As a millennial, I feel passionate about this subject. Each week, I see stories about how Gen Y needs to work in a “family environment,” or can’t receive feedback unless it’s “dressed with praise.” Then, of course, there’s the pingpong: Millennials want work to be their playground.

For talent managers, this sort of expectation makes them overwhelmed at the cost of putting this type of culture in place. For Gen Y, this makes us feel as if we’re perceived as a privileged class of youthful renegades who are entitled to a lot without working for it. 

There’s good news: None of this really matters or is actually true.

Real cultural differentiators come with very little actual cost, other than implementing a change in mindset. A healthy and successful corporate culture is centered on how people are expected to treat other people — no assembly required.

Providing employees with a productive work culture means training managers on how to provide employees clear communication, offer flexibility and set expectations.

It’s letting go of old-world corporate norms, like letting an employee choose to browse Facebook or exercise in the middle of the day. If the outcome of that employee’s effort is meeting expectations, who cares? Some managers may decide that an overly hardened management style is an easier path, and they’re willing to bear the cost to dress up their culture in the hope that employees don’t notice.  

 What path will you choose? The ball — pingpong or otherwise — is in your court.