Burning Man might seem like the last place a company would want to send its employees. The two-decade-old art, music, and communal happening, which begins August 25th in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, has long been known for its very casual attitudes toward (if not outright celebration of) sex, drugs, nudity, and physical danger.
At the same time, Burning Man is a sort of summer camp for denizens of Silicon Valley.
Each year it attracts founders and CEOs like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, former Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt, and others who sequester themselves inside walled luxury camps while many of their employees can be found scattered throughout the playa.
But could the festival actually be a key to unlocking your employees’ creativity and productivity? Shane Metcalf, co-founder and chief culture officer of 15Five, a San Francisco-based employee feedback and management system whose clients include MailChimp, Credit Karma, and the American Red Cross, thinks so.
“We think that going to Burning Man is one the most incredible, profound experiences in your life, that it opens your world to higher levels of creativity than you ever knew were possible,” says Metcalf, 35, who has attended Burning Man 10 times. While he’s taking this year off, Metcalf’s company has offered to pay for its employees’ tickets to the event. Inc. called him to ask about this unusual perk and what exactly a long weekend of art, fire, EDM, and many other things best not discussed in an office setting does for his team.
There’s a bit of an escalating perk war among companies. You have an unusual perk.
We aren’t thinking about this as part of the perk war. I’m doing this because going to Burning Man, I guess 12 years ago for my first time–I’ve been 10 times–continues to be one of the most transformative and beneficial experiences of my life. I would not be the person that I am had I not gone to Burning Man. And for our whole company history we’ve been offering to pay for people to go to different workshops for personal and professional development.
So you see Burning Man in line with going to a class or a workshop?
There are so many misconceptions about Burning Man, but one of the things that’s often overlooked is the enormous educational experiences on offer there. There are literally hundreds of workshops offered every day at Burning Man, on every topic you can imagine. Sure, you can go and dance all night, ride art cars, but it’s pretty hard to go and not participate in some kind of educational experience.
Can you give me an example?
Sure: Authentic relating, workshops on how do you actually be present with other humans and connect on non-superficial levels. There are classes on movement and contact improv and partner yoga. There are classes on singing and death meditation. Classes on emotional healing and overcoming trauma. Lectures on the cutting edge of psychedelic therapy, and the neuroscience of passion. There are workshops on how to create a vision of the future that inspires us to enact global change. If you can imagine it, it’s going on there.
I imagine you can understand, from an outsider’s point of view, Burning Man seems like a strange place to have a company hanging out together.
Sure. We’re not saying, “You’re going as a member of 15Five.” We’re not building a 15Five camp. We’re saying, “this is an invitation to go have an experience that’s famous for creating profound transformations for people.” So much of my own experience has been translated into how we built our culture around granting trust to people, creating freedom and responsibility, vulnerability, authentic connections, being your whole self, not having to lie about what you do on the weekends. Being who you are.
I think a lot of companies might be nervous about that, especially the granting trust part. There’s a lot of drugs, and freedom, and sex at Burning Man, and I bet a lot of CEOs would not want to suggest their team be near it.
Breaking news: Your employees are already having sex and are already doing drugs. If you’re in denial that people have sex or that sexuality exists, you have your head far up your ass.
It’s not like you go to Burning Man and you have to do drugs. That’s the biggest lie! Burning Man has a massive family camp where hundreds of families are camping together and are not doing any drugs at all. Part of what I like about doing this, knowing that people have these misconceptions, is that it’s saying, “Look, you’re just wrong about that.” If you’re saying that by going to Burning Man you have to do drugs or you have to go to the Orgy Dome, then you just don’t understand Burning Man. And the only people taking us up on this offer are the ones that are naturally curious about Burning Man and this kind of alternative culture. We’re not forcing people to go.
So it’s not an enforced company offsite.
Not at all! It’s really saying, for the people who are interested in this, we’re giving them one little nudge of encouragement.
I know people who lie to their company when they go to Burning Man. They say, “I’m going to visit my aunt in Kentucky.”
Right. “And by the way, I won’t be reachable for five days.”
Exactly. Part of my strategy on scaling our culture is hiring more people who are Burners, too. Because there tends to be a higher level of authenticity, self-expression, and of creativity.
As someone who’s gone to Burning Man so many times, do you think it was developed as a way for people to come back to work and be more creative and productive? Was it designed for that?
You can’t really say what Burning Man was designed for. That’s a can of worms. What I will say is that part of what Burning Man was designed to do is awaken people’s creative fire. I think it’s the highest concentration of creativity on the planet. There are so many amazing lessons around leadership and teamwork and collaboration. Somebody goes, and they participate, they join a camp, they help build it. There’re so many leadership lessons to be gained from that.
What do you actually provide your employees?
We pay for their ticket. We don’t buy their ticket for them. Paying for the ticket is the easy part; finding the ticket is the hard part. We leave that up to them.
Do you help them in any way set up their camp, or give them a checklist for what to bring?
There’s a kind of organic peer mentoring that happens from the people who have been to Burning Man before to the people going for the first time. Or they’ll invite them to existing camps, if people don’t have camps. That’s not company policy. That’s just the natural ethos of people who are supporting somebody because they’re excited for them, and know the impact that Burning Man has had on their life–this is an opportunity to share the love.
Is there any kind of company agreement they sign to respect certain boundaries?
What they do is their business. All we’re doing, we’re giving the little nudge of encouragement and permission to go. We’re not trying to over complicate this.
How many employees have taken you up on it?
It’s not like the majority of people are going.I think we have four people going. A lot of people are like, “Oh my God, I wanna go next year.” People for the most part are happy living their own life. Maybe they’ll get curious hearing the stories of the people who went.
Would you want everybody to go?
No. By no means would I want everybody in the company to go. I’m over that phase of Burning Man evangelicalism. Maybe in my first couple of years, I was like “Everybody needs to go to Burning Man,” but that’s just not true.
(This interview has been lightly edited.)
Published on Apr 29, 2019