Posted On: Sunday, 10 October 2010 by Rajiv Popat

One of the things that I absolutely like doing every time I am at an organization, even if I am just visiting it, is getting a guided tour of the organization.

I have talked about my guided tour of Infosys, getting a bad vibe from it and then the bad vibe getting confirmed by a software programmer who joined and quit the organization within three weeks in my earlier post.

A simple tour or sometimes even a blog post or a video of the office tour says a lot about the culture of the organization. There are a lot of these posts and videos out there. Consider for example:

  1. The Fog Creek Office Tour Video on Channel 9.
  2. A simple blog post by Jeff Atwood which describes a typical office at Vertigo Software.
  3. A video tour of 37Signals and Google

The videos will clearly not tell you everything about the organization but there are general indications that are fairly easy to extract out of these videos.

Watch these videos closely enough, read the posts in detail. Chances are that you will be able to draw your own conclusions and facts about these organizations, not just what the tour guide is trying to show you. That is what a quick five minute office tour video can do. An in person office tour says much more.

Malcolm Gladwell explains this approach of extracting information from the environment where people work or live rather articulately in his book, Blink.

He explains:

Imagine that you are considering me for a job. You’ve seen my résumé and think I have the necessary credentials. But you want to know whether I am the right fit for your organization. Am I a hard worker? Am I honest? Am I open to new ideas? In order to answer those questions about my personality, your boss gives you two options. The first is to meet with me twice a week for a year - to have lunch or dinner or go to a movie with me - to the point where you become one of my closest friends. (Your boss is quite demanding.) The second option is to drop by my house when I’m not there and spend half an hour or so looking around. Which would you choose?

The seemingly obvious answer is that you should take the first option: the thick slice. The more time you spend with me and the more information you gather, the better off you are. Right? I hope by now that you are at least a little bit skeptical of that approach. Sure enough, as the psychologist Samuel Gosling has shown, judging people’s personalities is a really good example of how surprisingly effective thin-slicing can be.

Malcolm shows compelling research that sometimes observing the mere environment in which a person functions or lives tells much more about the person than spending time with the individual in person. He explains:

On balance, then, the strangers ended up doing a much better job. What this suggests is that it is quite possible for people who have never met us and who have spent only twenty minutes thinking about us to come to a better understanding of who we are than people who have known us for years.

Forget the endless “getting to know” meetings and lunches, then. If you want to get a good idea of whether I’d make a good employee, drop by my house one day and take a look around.

Peeking into the bed rooms of people you are about to hire might not be very practical advice, but if you are a developer who cares about joining the right organization, one thing you should definitely consider doing is asking your interviewer to take you for a quick office tour before you accept the offer.

Oh and yes, while you are on the tour, pay little attention to what the tour guide is showing you. Keep in mind the cultural questions that are important to you and watch closely for signals you can pick up to answer those questions.

Is the work environment generally quite?

Do the people seem happy?

How much innovation and thought process has gone in building the office?

How much of the budget has really gone in getting the important stuff like developer offices, laptops and rooms where people work right compared to the fluff?

The answers are out there and sometimes a simple office tour will give you enough information to make the right decision on whether you should accept an offer or continue looking. If you are planning on joining an organization, go on, take a tour of the workplace before you accept an offer.

I wish you good luck.

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