Sunday, March 31, 2013

What Major World Cities Look Like at Night, Minus the Light Pollution

What Major World Cities Look Like at Night, Minus the Light Pollution:

San Francisco 37° 48′ 30″ N 2010-10-9 Lst 20:58. © Thierry Cohen.
Last week in Collage, I interviewed Caleb Cain Marcus, a New York City-based photographer who spent the last two years documenting glaciers around the world. When he composed his photographs of glaciers in Iceland, New Zealand, Norway and Alaska, Marcus obscured the actual horizon. It was an experiment, he explained, to see how it affected his viewers’ sense of scale.
The idea was born out of the Colorado native’s own experience with city living. “Living in New York City, unless you live very high up, you never see the horizon, which is really kind of odd,” said Marcus. “I’m not sure we are really aware of the effects of not being able to see it.”
In a similar vein, French photographer Thierry Cohen worries about city dwellers not being able to see the starry sky. With light and air pollution plaguing urban areas, it is not as if residents can look up from their streets and roof decks to spot constellations and shooting stars. So, what effect does this have? Cohen fears, as he recently told the New York Times, that the hazy view has spawned a breed of urbanite, sheltered by his and her manmade environs, that “forgets and no longer understands nature.”

Tokyo 35° 41′ 36″ N 2011-11-16 Lst 23:16. © Thierry Cohen.
Three years ago, Cohen embarked on a grand plan to help remedy this situation. He’d give city dwellers a taste of what they were missing. The photographer crisscrossed the globe photographing cityscapes from Shanghai to Los Angeles to Rio de Janeiro, by day—when cars’ head and taillights and lights shining from the windows of buildings were not a distraction. At each location, Cohen diligently recorded the time, angle, latitude and longitude of the shot. Then, he journeyed to remote deserts and plains at corresponding latitudes, where he pointed his lens to the night sky. For New York, that meant the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. For Hong Kong, the Western Sahara in Africa. For Rio and São Paulo, the Atacama Desert in Chile, and for Cohen’s native Paris, the prairies of northern Montana. Through his own digital photography wizardry, Cohen created seamless composites of his city and skyscapes.

Rio de Janeiro 22° 56′ 42″ S 2011-06-04 Lst 12:34. © Thierry Cohen.
“By traveling to places free from light pollution but situated on precisely the same latitude as his cities (and by pointing his camera at the same angle in each case), he obtains skies which, as the world rotates about its axis, are the very ones visible above the cities a few hours earlier or later,” writes photography critic Francis Hodgson, in an essay featured on Cohen’s Web site. “He shows, in other words, not a fantasy sky as it might be dreamt, but a real one as it should be seen.”

Paris 48° 50′ 55″ N 2012-08-13 Lst 22:15. © Thierry Cohen.
Cohen’s meticulousness pays off. While he could present a clear night sky taken at any latitude, he instead captures the very night sky that, in megacities, is hidden from sight. The photographer keeps some details of his process a secret, it seems. So, I can only suspect that Cohen takes his picture of a city, determines what the night sky looks like in that city on that day and then quickly travels to a remote area to find the same night sky viewed from a different location. This precision makes all the difference. “Photography has always had a very tight relationship to reality,” Hodgson goes on to say. “A good sky is not the right sky. And the right sky in each case has a huge emotional effect.”
It is an emotional effect, after all, that Cohen desires. The photographer wants his “Darkened Cities” series, now on display at Danziger Gallery in New York City, to raise awareness about light pollution. Spoken like a true artist, Cohen told the New York Times, that he wants to show the detached urbanite the stars “to help him dream again.”

New York 40° 44′ 39″ N 2010-10-13 Lst 0:04. © Thierry Cohen.
“There is an urban mythology which is already old, in which the city teems with energy and illumines everything around it. All roads lead to Rome, we are told. Cohen is telling us the opposite,” writes Hodgson. “It is impossible not to read these pictures the way the artist wants them read: cold, cold cities below, cut off from the seemingly infinite energies above. It’s a powerful reversal, and one very much in tune with a wave of environmental thinking of the moment.”

Hong Kong 22° 16′ 38″ N 2012-03-22 Lst 14:00. © Thierry Cohen.

Los Angeles 34° 03′ 20″ N 2010-10-09 Lst 21:50. © Thierry Cohen.

Shanghai 31° 13′ 22″ N 2012-03-17 Lst 14:47. © Thierry Cohen.

New York 40° 42′ 16″ N 2010-10-9 Lst 3:40. © Thierry Cohen.

São Paulo 23° 33′ 22″ S 2011-06-05 Lst 11:44. © Thierry Cohen.
“Darkened Cities” is on display at Danziger Gallery through May 4, 2013.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Diamonds Are Bullshit

Diamonds Are Bullshit:

Diamonds Are Bullshit

“Yeah, they say three years’ salary.”
Michael Scott, The Office
American males enter adulthood through a peculiar rite of passage - they spend most of their savings on a shiny piece of rock. They could invest the money in assets that will compound over time and someday provide a nest egg. Instead, they trade that money for a diamond ring, which isn’t much of an asset at all. As soon as you leave the jeweler with a diamond, it loses over 50% of its value.
Americans exchange diamond rings as part of the engagement process, because in 1938 De Beers decided that they would like us to. Prior to a stunningly successful marketing campaign 1938, Americans occasionally exchanged engagement rings, but wasn’t a pervasive occurrence. Not only is the demand for diamonds a marketing invention, but diamonds aren’t actually that rare. Only by carefully restricting the supply has De Beers has kept the price of a diamond high.
Countless American dudes will attest that the societal obligation to furnish a diamond engagement ring is both stressful and expensive. But here’s the thing - this obligation only exists because the company that stands to profit from it willed it into existence.
So here is a modest proposal: Let’s agree that diamonds are bullshit and reject their role in the marriage process. Let’s admit that as a society we got tricked for about century into coveting sparkling pieces of carbon, but it’s time to end the nonsense.
The Concept of Intrinsic Value
In finance, there is concept called intrinsic value. An asset’s value is essentially driven by the (discounted) value of the future cash that asset will generate. For example, when Hertz buys a car, its value is the profit they get from renting it out and selling the car at the end of its life (the “terminal value”). For Hertz, a car is an investment. When you buy a car, unless you make money from it somehow, its value corresponds to its resale value. Since a car is a depreciating asset, the amount of value that the car loses over its lifetime is a very real expense you pay.
A diamond is a depreciating asset masquerading as an investment. There is a common misconception that jewelry and precious metals are assets that can store value, appreciate, and hedge against inflation. That’s not wholly untrue.
Gold and silver are commodities that can be purchased on financial markets. They can appreciate and hold value in times of inflation. You can even hoard gold under your bed and buy gold coins and bullion (albeit at a ~10% premium to market rates). If you want to hoard gold jewelry however, there is  typically a 100-400% retail markup so that’s probably not a wise investment.
But with that caveat in mind, the market for gold is fairly liquid and gold is fungible - you can trade one large piece of gold for ten smalls ones like you can a ten dollar bill for a ten one dollar bills. These characteristics make it a feasible potential investment.
Diamonds, however, are not an investment. The market for them is neither liquid nor are they fungible.
The first test of a liquid market is whether you can resell a diamond. In a famous piece published by The Atlantic in 1982, Edward Epstein explains why you can’t sell used diamonds for anything but a pittance:
Retail jewelers, especially the prestigious Fifth Avenue stores, prefer not to buy back diamonds from customers, because the offer they would make would most likely be considered ridiculously low. The “keystone,” or markup, on a diamond and its setting may range from 100 to 200 percent, depending on the policy of the store; if it bought diamonds back from customers, it would have to buy them back at wholesale prices.

Most jewelers would prefer not to make a customer an offer that might be deemed insulting and also might undercut the widely held notion that diamonds go up in value. Moreover, since retailers generally receive their diamonds from wholesalers on consignment, and need not pay for them until they are sold, they would not readily risk their own cash to buy diamonds from customers.
When you buy a diamond, you buy it at retail, which is a 100% to 200% markup. If you want to resell it, you have to pay less than wholesale to incent a diamond buyer to risk their own capital on the purchase. Given the large markup, this will mean a substantial loss on your part. The same article puts some numbers around the dilemma:
Because of the steep markup on diamonds, individuals who buy retail and in effect sell wholesale often suffer enormous losses. For example, Brod estimates that a half-carat diamond ring, which might cost $2,000 at a retail jewelry store, could be sold for only $600 at Empire.
Some diamonds are perhaps investment grade, but you probably don’t own one, even if you spent a lot.
The appraisers at Empire Diamonds examine thousands of diamonds a month but rarely turn up a diamond of extraordinary quality. Almost all the diamonds they find are slightly flawed, off-color, commercial-grade diamonds. The chief appraiser says, “When most of these diamonds were purchased, American women were concerned with the size of the diamond, not its intrinsic quality.” He points out that the setting frequently conceals flaws, and adds, “The sort of flawless, investment-grade diamond one reads about is almost never found in jewelry.”
As with televisions and mattresses, the diamond classification scheme is extremely complicated. Diamonds are not fungible and can’t be easily exchanged with each other. Diamond professionals use the 4 C’s when classifying and pricing diamonds: carats, color, cut, and clarity. Due to the complexity of these 4 dimensions, it’s hard to make apples to apples comparisons between diamonds.
But even when looking at the value of one stone, professionals seem like they’re just making up diamond prices:
In 1977, for example, Jewelers’ Circular Keystone polled a large number of retail dealers and found a difference of over 100 percent in offers for the same quality of investment-grade diamonds.
So let’s be very clear, a diamond is not an investment. You might want one because it looks pretty or its status symbol to have a “massive rock”, but not because it will store value or appreciate in value.
But among all the pretty, shiny things out there - gold and silver, rubies and emeralds - why do Americans covet diamond engagement rings in the first place?
A Diamond is Forever a Measure of your Manhood
“The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons.”
Don Draper, Madmen
We like diamonds because Gerold M. Lauck told us to. Until the mid 20th century, diamond engagement rings were a small and dying industry in America. Nor had the concept really taken hold in Europe. Moreover, with Europe on the verge of war, it didn’t seem like a promising place to invest.
Not surprisingly, the American market for diamond engagement rings began to shrink during the Great Depression. Sales volume declined and the buyers that remained purchased increasingly smaller stones. But the US market for engagement rings was still 75% of De Beers’ sales. If De Beers was going to grow, it had to reverse the trend.
And so, in 1938, De Beers turned to Madison Avenue for help. They hired Gerold Lauck and the N. W. Ayer advertising agency, who commissioned a study with some astute observations. Men were the key to the market:
Since “young men buy over 90% of all engagement rings” it would be crucial to inculcate in them the idea that diamonds were a gift of love: the larger and finer the diamond, the greater the expression of love. Similarly, young women had to be encouraged to view diamonds as an integral part of any romantic courtship.
However, there was a dilemma. Many smart and prosperous women didn’t want diamond engagement rings. They wanted to be different.
The millions of brides and brides-to-be are subjected to at least two important pressures that work against the diamond engagement ring. Among the more prosperous, there is the sophisticated urge to be different as a means of being smart…. the lower-income groups would like to show more for the money than they can find in the diamond they can afford…
Lauck needed to sell a product that people either did not want or could not afford. His solution would haunt men for generations. He advised that De Beers market diamonds as a status symbol:
 ”The substantial diamond gift can be made a more widely sought symbol of personal and family success — an expression of socio-economic achievement.”

“Promote the diamond as one material object which can reflect, in a very personal way, a man’s … success in life.”
The next time you look at a diamond, consider this. Nearly every American marriage begins with a diamond because a bunch of rich white men in the 1940s convinced everyone that its size determines your self worth. They created this convention - that unless a man purchases (an intrinsically useless) diamond, his life is a failure - while sitting in a room, racking their brains on how to sell diamonds that no one wanted.
With this insight, they began marketing diamonds as a symbol of status and love:
Movie idols, the paragons of romance for the mass audience, would be given diamonds to use as their symbols of indestructible love. In addition, the agency suggested offering stories and society photographs to selected magazines and newspapers which would reinforce the link between diamonds and romance. Stories would stress the size of diamonds that celebrities presented to their loved ones, and photographs would conspicuously show the glittering stone on the hand of a well-known woman.
Fashion designers would talk on radio programs about the “trend towards diamonds” that Ayer planned to start. The Ayer plan also envisioned using the British royal family to help foster the romantic allure of diamonds. 
Even the royal family was in on the hoax! The campaign paid immediate dividends. Within 3 years, despite the Great Depression, diamond sales in the US increased 55%! Twenty years later, an entire generation believed that an expensive diamond ring was a necessary step in the marriage process.
The De Beers marketing machine continued to churn out the hits. They circulated marketing materials suggesting, apropos of nothing, that a man should spend one month’s salary on a diamond ring. It worked so well that De Beers arbitrarily decided to increase the suggestion to two months salary. That’s why you think that you need to spend two month’s salary on a ring - because the suppliers of the product said so.
Today, over 80% of women in the US receive diamond rings when they get engaged. The domination is complete.
A History of Market Manipulation
What, you might ask, could top institutionalizing demand for a useless product out of thin air? Monopolizing the supply of diamonds for over a century to make that useless product extremely expensive. You see, diamonds aren’t really even that rare.
Before 1870, diamonds were very rare. They typically ended up in a Maharaja’s crown or a royal necklace. In 1870, enormous deposits of diamonds were discovered in Kimberley, South Africa. As diamonds flooded the market, the financiers of the mines realized they were making their own investments worthless. As they mined more and more diamonds, the became less scarce and their price dropped.
The diamond market may have bottomed out were it not for an enterprising individual by the name of Cecil Rhodes. He began buying up mines in order to control the output and keep the price of diamonds high. By 1888, Rhodes controlled the entire South African diamond supply, and in turn, essentially the entire world supply. One of the companies he acquired was eponymously named after its founders, the De Beers brothers.
Building a diamond monopoly isn’t easy work. It requires a balance of ruthlessly punishing and cooperating with competitors, as well as a very long term view. For example, in 1902, prospectors discovered a massive mine in South Africa that contained as many diamonds as all of De Beers’ mines combined. The owners initially refused to join the De Beers cartel, joining three years later after new owner Ernest Oppenheimer recognized that a competitive market for diamonds would be disastrous for the industry:
Common sense tells us that the only way to increase the value of diamonds is to make them scarce, that is to reduce production.
Here’s how De Beers has controlled the diamond supply chain for most of the last century. De Beers owns most of the diamond mines. For mines that they don’t own, they have historically bought out all the diamonds, intimidating or co-opting any that think of resisting their monopoly. They then transfer all the diamonds over to the Central Selling Organization (CSO), which they own.
The CSO sorts through the diamonds, puts them in boxes and presents them to the 250 partners that they sell to. The price of the diamonds and quantity of diamonds are non-negotiable - it’s take it or leave it. Refuse your boxes and you’re out of the diamond industry.
For most of the 20th century, this system has controlled 90% of the diamond trade and been solely responsible for the inflated price of diamonds. However, as Oppenheimer took over leadership at De Beers, he keenly assessed the primary operational risk that the company faced:
Our only risk is the sudden discovery of new mines, which human nature will work recklessly to the detriment of us all.
Because diamonds are “valuable”, there will always be the risk of entrepreneurs finding new sources of diamonds. Although controlling the discoverers of new mines often actually meant working with communists. In 1957, the Soviet Union discovered a massive deposit of diamonds in Siberia. Though the diamonds were a bit on the smallish side, De Beers still had to swoop in and buy all of them from the Soviets, lest they risk the supply being unleashed on the world market.
Later, in Australia, a large supply of colored diamonds was discovered. When the mine refused to join the syndicate, De Beers retaliated by unloading massive amounts of colored diamonds that were similar to the Australian ones to drive down their price. Similarly, in the 1970s, some Israeli members of the CSO started stockpiling the diamonds they were allocated rather than reselling them. This made it difficult for De Beers to control the market price and would eventually cause a deflation in diamond prices when the hoarders released their stockpile. Eventually, these offending members were banned from the CSO, essentially shutting them out from the diamond business.
In 2000, De Beers announced that they were relinquishing their monopoly on the diamond business. They even settled a US Antitrust lawsuit related to price fixing industrial diamonds to the tune of $10 million (How generous! What is that, the price of one investment banker’s engagement ring?).
Today, De Beers hold on the industry supply chain is less strong. And yet, price continue to rise as new deposits haven’t been found recently and demand for diamonds is increasing in India and China. For now, it’s less necessary that the company monopolize the supply chain because its lie that a diamond is a proxy for a man’s worth in life has infected the rest of the world.
“I didn’t get a bathroom door that looks like a wall by being bad at business”
Jack Donaghy, 30 Rock
We covet diamonds in America for a simple reason: the company that stands to profit from diamond sales decided that we should. De Beers’ marketing campaign single handedly made diamond rings the measure of one’s success in America. Despite its complete lack of inherent value, the company manufactured an image of diamonds as a status symbol. And to keep the price of diamonds high, despite the abundance of new diamond finds, De Beers executed the most effective monopoly of the 20th century. Okay, we get it De Beers, you guys are really good at business!
The purpose of this post was to point out that diamond engagement rings are a lie - they’re an invention of Madison Avenue and De Beers. This post has completely glossed over the sheer amount of human suffering that we’ve caused by believing this lie: conflict diamonds funding wars, supporting apartheid for decades with our money, and pillaging the earth to find shiny carbon. And while we’re on the subject, why is it that women need to be asked and presented with ring in order to get married? Why can’t they ask and do the presenting?
Diamonds are not actually scarce, make a terrible investment, and are purely valuable as a status symbol.
Diamonds, to put it delicately, are bullshit.
This post was written by Rohin Dhar. He has a very patient wife. Follow him on Twitter here or Google.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The outrage and sadness of Google Reader's demise

The outrage and sadness of Google Reader's demise:
DNP Editorial The many outrages of Google Reader's demise
Pope Who?
White smoke over the Vatican doesn't stand a chance as a trending topic next to the black smoke over one of Google's most beloved products. Google Reader has landed on the company's sunset list, and will wink out of existence on July 1. Problem is, Reader is not as widely beloved as its most fervid users assume. And speaking of trending topics, the extinction of Reader signifies the mainstream rejection of RSS as a hands-on tool for organizing a living library of real-time information flow. It has been eclipsed by social content discovery. As Brian Alvey, chief scientist of Ceros and creator of Blogsmith (Engadget's publishing platform) noted, "Dear RSS: @Twitter won."
More broadly speaking, Reader's ultimate fail is the latest major rebalancing of the internet's legacy symmetry of "push" and "pull."
RSS is hardcore and nerdy, but was started by one of the potent early popularizers of the internet: Netscape. At that time (1999), the acronym stood for Rich Site Summary, but has come to be known as Real Simple Syndication -- dubbed by Dave Winer who took over RSS development when Netscape lost interest. (Netscape was acquired by AOL, Engadget's parent company, in March 1999.)
RSS has always been a useful time-saver for voracious internet binge consumers. Rather than circling among dozens of websites and suffering through tiresome page loads at each URL, RSS adherents can skim headlines at the hub of a giant content wheel, and in many cases (depending on how the feeds were configured) read entire articles without leaving the RSS service.
The whole arrangement, particularly that last part, was terrifying to publishers, who saw an ad-revenue future burned away in a stark landscape of text-only syndication. At the same time, apprehensive publishers were faced with the issue of relevance, just as they later would face the relevance question when contemplating social distribution -- and, indeed, as newspapers had already faced with the apparent necessity of publishing on the internet at all when it became popular. In other words, most publishers knew they had to put that damn RSS button on their pages, even though they didn't want anyone to use it.
Although RSS-driven traffic to websites is notoriously difficult to track, there is no question in my mind that RSS is good for publishers.
Publishers might be rejoicing at the symbolic defeat of RSS feeds. In fact, they should mourn as much as Reader's users are grieving. There are dozens of content brands that, without my feed folders, I would never visit.
Although RSS-driven traffic to websites is notoriously difficult to track, there is no question in my mind that RSS is good for publishers. It's not just a matter of putting content where the users live. RSS helps build brand loyalty and repeat visits (a major brass ring for audience development specialists) by keeping the brand visible in an environment over which the user has complete control. Publishers feel they have to be in Facebook, too, but Facebook's distribution algorithm prevents them from reaching most of their followers most of the time. That diminished return is solved in Google Reader and other RSS services.
DNP Editorial The outrage and sadness of Google Reader's demise
Google Reader is the ultimate personalized and customizable walled garden of content, and that is why I, and other devoted users, are inflamed by Google's announcement. Removing Google Reader rips a hole in the center of an active user's online life. I spend my share of time on Facebook and Twitter, and receive important content tips every day on those platforms. But Google Reader is where I start my day, even before email. I don't know how many times I check my Industry and Tech folders each day -- 40? It's like wondering how many times I take a deep breath, or look at a clock.
But I believe it when Google states that usage has slowed. I think the company could probably keep Reader going with minimal resources, but I do understand the need to concentrate its bets on the products that point to the future. That doesn't help me align the death of Reader with Google's mission statement: "To organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." For the smallish population of pure RSS lovers, who don't care about the social aspects of news sharing, and certainly have no use for recommendation engines and viral barometers, Reader has been the prime info-organizing companion of the past eight years.
So there is anger, and a certain depression. The internet's defining characteristic, the quality by which the active web historically opposes passive TV, is that you pull from it. TV pushes out to the couch. The internet stares at you implacably until you start pulling. The push / pull divide was austerely laid out in the mid-'90s, when bandwidth was narrow, text was the governing medium and streaming media was impossible in homes. More recently, (that is to say, in the past 12 years or so), the web has gotten pushy -- delightfully so, I hasten to add. I'm no Luddite. When I take a tablet upstairs to continue watching a Netflix show I started on the downstairs TV, I think I'm living in the coolest science-fiction book ever written.
But when the push / pull balance gets so bizarrely disrupted that a key service for pulling content is not used enough to justify continued life support, I become morose. And when the company yanking the plug is valued at nearly $300 billion, and is supposedly committed to organizing the world's information, depression and outrage battle for control of my mood.
I signed a few petitions, a quick burst of activism that's as easy as it is inconsequential. Replacement services will be found. On the night of Google's announcement, The Old Reader and Feedly were staggering under what I assume were massive import requests. Everyone will find new homes for their feeds. But the outrage at Google, and the damage to its mission reputation, might last a while.

Brad Hill is a former Vice President at AOL, and the former Director and General Manager of Weblogs, Inc. He dislikes depressing milestones in the internet's evolution.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

How to Turn Your Hellhole of a Company Into a Great Place to Work

How to Turn Your Hellhole of a Company Into a Great Place to Work:
How to Turn Your Hellhole of a Company Into a Great Place to Work There are some companies people would kill to work for, and you probably know already whether yours is one of them. At some companies, people love coming in every day. At others, the paycheck is the only thing stopping the staff from burning the place down. If your company sounds like the latter, here's what you can do—at any level of the organization—to make your company a better place to work.
Being a great place to work goes deeper than high pay and great benefits: the work environment and attitude of the employees are important too. The best companies appreciate their workers and offer them benefits and perks that make them feel valued. They also train managers to work efficiently, treat their employees like adults, trust them to get their work done, and judge them on their performance. It all sounds logical, but if all companies were so above-board, everyone would love their jobs. Sadly, we know better.
In this guide, we'll walk you through some things you can do, whether you're entry-level, standard staff, middle management, or a manager, to make your company—or at least your team—more friendly. First, we need to discuss what makes a company great.

What Makes a Company a Great Place to Work?

How to Turn Your Hellhole of a Company Into a Great Place to Work Every year, tons of magazines and blogs publish lists of the "Best places to work." Many of them work with the Great Place to Work company to poll employees and evaluate the results. For example, the 2013 Best Companies to Work For list has been published, and you'll see some familiar names at the top of the list. Not all of them have the same things in common though. Great Places to Work says the criteria for a great place is simple:
Employees believe they work for great organizations when they consistently:
  • TRUST the people they work for;
  • Have PRIDE in what they do; and
  • ENJOY the people they work with.
It's important to note that a long list of benefits and perks does not a great company make. You can offer employees free lunches, tons of relaxation space, flexible work hours, and more, and they'll still hate working for you if they don't have the more basic needs met. Photo by Promisa Art Studio.
Great Places to Work goes into detail about this here, but the point is that if you're looking to make your company a better place, benefits and perks only go so far. They have to be used in a way that doesn't just make people happy for the moment, but reinforces the fact that they're appreciated, their work is appreciated, and they're working with people they like and trust. Keep that in mind while we walk through some of the things you can do to improve your workplace.

What You Can Do To Make Your Company a Better Place to Work

How to Turn Your Hellhole of a Company Into a Great Place to Work You don't have to be an executive or an HR director with a budget to make some basic changes that'll improve your work environment (although it helps.) Let's take a look at what you can do on any level of the company to improve things for yourself and your peers, your department, and the whole company. Photo by Russell Yarwood.

Entry Level, Non-Management, or Any Employee

At this level it might seem like there's nothing you can do—or nothing you'd be allowed to do—to brighten up your workplace. That's not always the case. We discussed a few things you can do for yourself when you feel like your job sucks, but there are other things you can do with your colleagues to make things better for everyone:
  • Start small and talk to your manager. Before you go too far, the first thing you should do is make sure that there's something you can do without upsetting your boss, or their boss. For example, your manager may be more than happy to help you organize a potluck lunch or something, but they probably can't cordon off part of your team's work space as an impromptu lounge. They may be able to give you some flexibility to work from home, but they can't make that change for everyone in the company, or maybe even your department. Let your boss know that morale is low and you'd like to do something to bring it up. See what's possible.
  • Break down the walls between your colleagues. Small social activities can go a long way. It sounds corny, but when they're genuine and meaningful (and most importantly, things that everyone wants to do versus things they feel forced to do because management is asking them to do them) they can brighten up a workplace and help foster the kind of trust and collaboration that the best companies have in droves. How you do this is up to you and your office—a lot of companies have potluck lunches, but why not turn it into a chili cookoff with a prize for the best pot? Better yet, have a panel of judges—make them all regular people judging managers' recipes. At my last company, we were all gamers, so every couple of months we all brought in our rigs, set up a small LAN, and held LAN parties. It's amazing how lobbing a grenade over a wall at your CIO makes you appreciate him more.
  • Organize and sit down with management. We're not talking about forming a union or anything, just making sure everyone's on board with a very small set of proposals that you think your manager or department head can help you with, and then see if they're possible. Start slow with small changes that you think will make the biggest impact for everyone, whether it's a place to eat lunch in peace that isn't your desk, a potluck luncheon every month, or something else small that will help everyone warm up to each other a little more. Whatever you do though, make sure its genuine: skip the trust falls and go for the things that people actually enjoy.

Middle Management or Senior Staff (eg, When You Speak, Your Boss Listens)

How to Turn Your Hellhole of a Company Into a Great Place to Work If you're the type of employee that has a little pull with your boss, you've been around for a couple of years and have some friends at work, or you're just in the position to suggest something bigger than a potluck, consider some more substantive changes:
  • Don't forget to start small. Just because you're more senior doesn't mean that you can just jump in feet first. Again, make sure you're clear on what you can and can't do, and start with some of the smaller suggestions. They can get your feet wet, show you how much resistance you'll run into, and whether or not anyone will actually appreciate the changes you're trying to make. You may get more traction starting with something small, like asking if a supply closet can get some lights, a table, and some comfortable chairs so you can have a comfortable place to eat lunch. That'll probably fly before you get a full-on lounge. Similarly, if you can't get a sandwich counter in the office, ask if anyone would care if you asked some local food trucks to come down to the building around lunch time—if you can get your colleagues to go with you, everyone wins: your coworkers get a treat, you get delicious food, your company is suddenly more attractive ("Yeah, we have food trucks come down from time to time,"), and a local business gets valuable customers. Photo by Robert Banh.
  • Suggest policies that encourage happier, more productive teams. See if your department could start a telework program, or ask if everyone can try working from home one day a week. There's been a lot of controversy about working remotely lately, but for most people and most companies, it's still a great option. Plus, it shows a lot of trust when management can say "Yes, we trust you to get your work done even if we can't see you doing it." That's huge, and its impact on individual workers can't really be minimized. If the work that your team does doesn't require you to have your butt in a seat or a physical presence in your working area for eight hours a day, it can go a long way. Telework is a great example here, but it's not the only one: starting a "bring your pet to work day" can help a lot assuming your office isn't dominated by people with allergies, for example.
  • How to Turn Your Hellhole of a Company Into a Great Place to Work Lead the charge. The key to making any place a better one is to be tenacious. You won't be able to just throw a suggestion at your manager or their manager and then walk away assuming it'll happen. You have to be willing to take the reins and do the work required. Bonus: you get to be a leader and show your commitment not just to a project, but to the company, which will go far with people who may not even be involved.
    An example: at my last job, when we moved into a new building, the company built on a bistro as well—a small cold counter where pre-made sandwiches and salads, delivered every morning, were sold to employees and there were plenty of tables for everyone to sit and have lunch. We even had a pair of fountain soda machines, an iced tea brewer, and an espresso machine. Pretty sweet, but none of them would have been there if people didn't ask for them and the CEO didn't agree. Ultimately it was our receptionist and a few others who led the charge in selecting the vendors who provided the sandwiches and salads: the side benefit being that whenever they came in to show off their culinary skills, everyone in the office got to benefit with a free lunch. You don't have to be an exec to help make those necessary decisions, and since the receptionist asked us all for our opinions about the food, we all had a role in making sure the food we got was food we would enjoy. Photo by Mike Beltzner.

Senior Management, Directors, Execs

How to Turn Your Hellhole of a Company Into a Great Place to Work If you're a real power broker in your organization, or you have the ability to influence company policy as a whole (or maybe just your own department), why not use it to make your team happier, and more attractive to new talent? After all, you will need to hire at some point, and your position will be much stronger if you can outline the ways that your team is one of the best teams in the company to work for. If they catch on, or the rest of the company takes notice, you could be responsible for something big that really does make the whole company a great place to work.
  • Chat with HR about the changes you'd like to make. You're not in this alone, and your HR department may be able to lend you some help when it comes to making the changes you'd like to make. Whether you want to give some people on your team the option of telecommuting, or you'd like to give your team a lunch area, you never know—instead of just turning a spare closet into a lounge, see if there are any empty spaces in the building that everyone could use, not just your department. Turn a conference room into an Xbox or Wii room for an hour or two every Friday. Also, if you're planning anything after hours, make sure you're not running afoul of any company policies or regulations around overtime or employee hours in the process. Photo by Tomas Quinones.
  • Don't force your team, let it happen naturally. If there's anything most employees have, it's a finely tuned BS detector. They know when you're doing something because you want to "improve morale and make the department more fun" versus you genuinely want them to be happier and have a good time. Err on the side of the latter, and don't judge your team if participation is low at the outset. If morale is low, you'll have a hard time getting people to stay late for a poker night when all they want to do is go home. Just make sure you get a few people and start building a core group that really does enjoy the activity you've planned. It'll grow organically from there as long as the doors are open and you invite people on a no-stress basis.
  • How to Turn Your Hellhole of a Company Into a Great Place to Work Shamelessly borrow policies from the best. Some of the perks and policies that make other companies a great place to work are actually surprisingly easy to implement. Granted, they'll differ based on the corporate culture you have and the type of work that you do (if you're a director in a shipping company, for example, the benefits at a tech company may not be work for you) but network with other directors at other companies. See what makes their teams successful and how they're handling the challenges of a team that's interested only in their paychecks. Make no mistake, some people will only ever be interested in their paycheck, but you all have to see each other for 40+ hours a week—the least you can all do is enjoy the time you spend together. Get in touch with other companies and managers that understand that and agree with you and see how they made it all work. Not only do you have the benefit of networking, you'll get some valuable insight you can bring back with you. Photo by AoStefan.
  • Build a better working environment from the inside out. Remember, Great Places to Work says that the best places don't just have a laundry list of perks, there's actually a sense of mutual trust and respect among employees, managers, and directors. It can be difficult to foster, and in many cases your HR department can help, but in the end you're the one who knows and leads your team. Treating your employees with fairness and respect, trusting them to do their jobs and evaluating them fairly on their performance, and encouraging them to help and work with one another will all go much further than speedy new computers and free lunches (although all of those things help too!)

Every Great Place to Work Has to Start Somewhere

Let's be honest: It's easier to just quit and find a company that has the perks that you like, or keep searching until you find a corporate culture where you really fit in than it is to actually make these small changes and try to improve your working conditions from the inside. It's why so many of us just give up when things start sucking and start looking for a new job.
Unfortunately, jobs are scarce these days in every industry, and everyone knows it. Sometimes it's better to put in a little effort to keep the one you have, and starting off small and slow like this is a great way to make the kinds of changes that will ultimately make your company not just better for you, but more attractive to other great talent. You need to be willing to stick to your guns, lead the charge, and go out on a limb to make the time you spend at work a little better for everyone. After all, you spend at least 40 hours a week (and many of you said you spend more than that) at the office. It should at least be an enriching experience.
Title photo made using Asa Wilson and Elnur.