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How I conspired to undermine a fruit-based currency

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IMG_0964At Silicon Valley tech companies, a free lunch is a given. It is even passé – unless it is vegan, gluten-free and Halal. But whenever I hear about the latest in cruelty-free chicken entrees on offer near the Googleplex, I am reminded of a cautionary tale of corporate generosity of days gone by.

When the world was young, I worked as a contractor for a very successful investment company. They had a marquee headquarters overlooking the Bay, an innovative open-office plan, an onsite gym, an in-house masseuse, access to vacation homes in prestigious resorts, a morale manager, and, of course, free lunches. Additionally, everyone started the week with a basket of fruit on their desk.

By the time I got there, the high-growth days were waning. The free lunches became highly-subsidized lunches. The fruit baskets went by the wayside in the cause of efficiency and hygiene – nothing like an office full of uneaten fruit at the end of the week.

But free fruit was ingrained in the corporate culture. While it seemed acceptable to charge a modest amount for lunch, free fruit was sacred. However, if everyone was no longer getting a fixed amount of fruit per week, the food service folks needed a mechanism to know how much fruit to order.

Perhaps it is only logical that a financial firm would solve the problem of fruit-on-demand by creating a fruit-based currency. Balsa wood fruit tokens could be exchanged for a fruit of your choice in the cafeteria. Problem solved: Fruit for all and no flies in the offices.

Everyone was issued a standard quantity of fruit tokens, but when yours were exhausted you could request more or barter with your office mates. I think I got five along with my office assignment and computer.

Eventually, a major tax law overhaul undermined the company’s core business of selling tax-advantaged investments. A series of reorganizations, an acquisition, and lots of management changes ensued. Friday happy hours on the terrace by the Bay, the masseuse, and even the morale manager were all eliminated.

However, through it all, the core value of free fruit survived. But it wasn’t the same. With morale down and coworkers gone, munching free fruit seemed, well, a bit unseemly. A poignant reminder of better days gone by. As a result, fruit tokens started accumulating in desk drawers throughout the building.

Everyone responds to stressful times in their own way, and in this case the head of admin directed her frustrations over the downsizings towards the problem of fruit token hoarding.

We started getting company-wide messages detailing the number of fruit tokens in circulation, the number that had been redeemed in the prior week, and the perils of currency hoarding. Kind of like our version of a memo from the Federal Reserve.

Things with the company went from bad to worse. The parking lot grew emptier, the earnings releases became gloomier, and prices of the lunches went up to market rate. And the weekly messages on the M1 of fruit tokens continued (maybe that should be FT1), increasing in urgency with each passing week.

Finally, my team took action.

In the PR department, quarterly earnings releases meant late night vigils while the financial team finalized the numbers. This exercise always gave us lots of down time, which we usually filled with Sspace Iinvader games or naps on the sofa.

This particular night, after receiving the latest fruit token update and with a long night of waiting ahead of us, we decided to it was time to undermine the fruit token economy once and for all. Gathering our respective hoards, we took our fruit tokens out to the terrace by the Bay and set a ceremonial fire, taking them out of circulation forever.

That was our way of coping. We figured we’d all be gone by the end of the next quarter, and I’m pretty sure we were. But at the end of the day when the head of admin was going through empty desks trying to reconcile the fruit token balance she would come up short by at least a dozen.

As a footnote, I did not give all of my fruit tokens to the conflagration. I kept one that still sits on my desk as a reminder of what can happen when there’s no more free lunch.