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COMPANY CULTURE

Maybe You Want Your Company to Stage the 'Harlem Shake'

It's silly and perhaps already played-out, but the latest viral dance epitomizes an employee-driven culture where fun is spontaneous and teams like to work together.
Employees at Maker Studios doing the Harlem Shake in their NYC offices, February 2013.
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You've seen it, of course, this meme-du-month that swept in around the time of the northeast blizzard. By last week, Shakes were taking place everywhere from college lecture halls to senior centers to Sea World. Every office with an open floor plan seems to have staged one. 

The workplace versions--my subject here--begin with a lone figure in plain, typically tech-support-casual clothes and eccentric headgear (motorcycle helmet, Viking horns, a box). For 15 seconds, he or she grooves freestyle to a track of repetitive synthetic percussion by the electronic musician Baauer. The dancer's colleagues labor on, oblivious. Then cut and everyone's decked out in wacky costumes, flailing, gyrating, cartwheeling, and getting in touch with their inner Mardi Gras krewes. As of Friday, 40,000 versions of the viral sensation--which Wikipedia reports originated with some teenagers in Australia (those in Harlem say it's not the real Harlem Shake)--had been uploaded. No figures yet on the hit to global productivity.

Before the Harlem Shake, employees danced Gangnam Style.

In December, companies were acting out Gagnam Style to the equally-aurally assaultive music of PSY. Imagine Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland as employees in a Silicon Valley startup: "Come on kids! You get the sunglasses and I'll get the tuxedo jackets and we'll put on a show in the lunchroom!"

Over at TechCrunch Josh Constine explains why the Harlem Shake is so ubiquitous. The videos follow a rudimentary formula, are infinitely customizable and, from the perspective of viewers, "remarkably snackable." But I would like to think the workplace versions signify something more. Viewed in the context of organizational behavior, they represent a turn toward organic, employee-driven cultures where fun is spontaneous rather than scripted, and teams work together because they want to--not because they have to. They reveal why Monday mornings aren't universally depressing.

A bottom-up phenomenon (top-down management the Harlem Shake is not).

I suppose it's possible some of these videos originated in a corner office. In his copious free time spent surfing YouTube, a CEO stumbles across the staffs of Facebook or Rackspace or Vertical Response getting jiggy with it. He emails the HR director: "Let's make one of these. It will boost morale in wake of the layoffs and enhance our brand as bold and creative." The HR director gathers a Harlem Shake team in the conference room and brainstorms themes. Someone heads to iParty with the corporate credit card for costumes and props. A memo goes out prohibiting shirtlessness and pelvic thrusts.

But these videos don't feel like that. For all their adherence to formula, they feel loose and anarchic: like the joyful impromptu collaborations of people who genuinely like one another. Individual freak flags fly; but the overall effect is tribal. A shared sense of humor, a shared sense of style, a shared sense that such things are worth doing. And if there's an implicit rebellion against cubicle culture, it's a very mild one. These people may be overworked but they don't seem beaten down.

In a few weeks, the Harlem Shake contagion will likely subside to a low-grade fever. Employees will store away their feather boas and gas masks and bunny ears and get back to work. When they next meme rides through, they will know they are free--even encouraged--to call out, "Come on kids! Let's put on a show."

IMAGE: Youtube screen grab
Last updated: Feb 20, 2013

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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