There have been many accounts about what it was like to work at Bell Labs, here's another short one by speech-processing researcher Man Mohan Sondhi.

Two notable quotes, emphasis mine:

The department that I joined was ostensibly concerned with various aspects of speech signal processing, coding, and transmission. Everyone in the department was interested in one aspect or another of speech. But as far as I could tell, almost none of the members of the department joined the lab with prior credentials in that area. There were a couple of electrical engineers, a physicist, a physical chemist, a mathematician, and so on. And yet, together they were able to produce some of the best work in the field.
Freedom to choose the line of research one wished to pursue was one of the most enticing aspects of working at Bell Labs. I can say without hesitation that in my 39 years there, I was not once asked, let alone imposed upon, to work on some specific problem.