Who Gets To Have Fun At Work?


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Last Tuesday, on the day that Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before congress, Brian Armstrong, the CEO of Coinbase, tweeted this:

The tweet itself is likely bait. I’m going to take it anyhow.

Armstrong is a semi-active presence on Twitter who speaks his mind on tech issues and occasionally makes headlines for his apparent aversion to what can best be described as ‘identity politics.’ You may remember back in September 2020, he wrote a blog post telling his employees not to engage in political discussions in the workplace because, “they have the potential to destroy a lot of value at most companies, both by being a distraction, and by creating internal division.” Without completely stereotyping, Armstrong sometimes expresses an attitude that’s frequently attributed to high-ranking folks in the tech and venture capital space: a skepticism of the media and what they view as political correctness culture run, at least slightly, amok.

Most of the reaction to this tweet and the 8 others that accompanied it was of the world’s-smallest-violin variety. Armstrong is worth billions (he sold $291.8 million in Coinbase shares on his company’s IPO day in April), which makes it a bit hard to feel sorry for him when he’s talking about having fun at work. Most of his tweetstorm is ignorable founder-grousing. Yet his decision to focus on the CEO job as “fun” has stayed with me over the last few days. I think it’s reasonably telling!

“America could be losing some of its best talent from this,” Armstrong wrote. He assures us in the thread that “of course, every company deserves to have scrutiny and should take an honest look at what it's doing well and not well.” If he’s at all like some of the like-minded tech executives with whom I’ve spoken candidly over the last few years, his frustration with the press is not about the validity of specific reports but the idea that the tech press and many politicians are actively going after Silicon Valley and hunting for and amplifying scandals. They argue that these business leaders can, in fact, take the scrutiny — but all of this? It’s something more than just scrutiny.

When I press execs on this argument, they usually counter with something along the lines of “the press hates us and wants us to fail.” They take the criticism as personally motivated — and, in some cases, they’re not wrong. But broadly, most technology reporters I know actually love the internet and cool new things and authentically marvel at tools and platforms that make it easier to connect and live our lives. These same people would also like these tools to have fewer societally negative effects.

So why do people in Armstrong’s position take this criticism personally? Startup culture asks for people to blur the lines between their personal and professional lives and make work a large part of their identities. This maxim is especially true for founders: the reward for making foundership your identity (besides the prospect of a big, lucrative exit) is that you are valorized by your industry but also by your fellow employees for your leadership and ideas. You are the head of the company, the job creator, the architect of your own little universe. It is hard, demanding, sometimes inspiring work. But, in return, your position inside your company is the definition of comfortable. You are in control of substantial parts of your destiny. And, if you’re building something people are genuinely excited about, that shit is energizing. It is very fun.

When I use the word “comfortable” I am referring specifically to how it feels to work in an office when you are setting the culture or are part of the dominant culture. I am referring to the way that it feels when you know exactly where you stand in an organization and everyone else knows it, too. You don’t have to be a founder or CEO to feel this way. A few months ago, I wrote about feeling similarly at one of my old jobs:

So much of what I missed about the office was actually just my ability to project a bullshit type of status in my organization. At BuzzFeed, I was a somewhat early employee in the news division which conferred some ‘old guard’ status and a lot of comfort. I’m also naturally extroverted and got a lot of satisfaction from seeing people and being seen in the office. I grew up in privileged environments that taught me how to shoot the shit (or, to use a cursed term, “network”) with a certain type of career professional to the point that doing it in the office it was second nature for me. I felt comfortable joking with my bosses, even with the CEO, and had no qualms seeking those people out informally. Plenty of my colleagues did not have that privilege or comfort. Most importantly, few of those interactions had much to do with my creativity or productivity or my being a good employee — it was mostly about ego and status.

I can personally attest that going to the office and projecting this status was…fun! It made me feel good and also important.

Armstrong’s tweet is specific to start-up culture, but I also think he’s offered us a window into the mindset of a lot of executives, especially those with significant success in their fields. The work of these founders is, in many cases, quite important. Their companies very well may depend on them for truly visionary leadership. In the best cases, these executives are helping to create jobs and value and even meaning for employees. But the job is also fun. It may be stressful and a total grind. But it’s also fun (I realize plenty of people will take issue with this framing).

In American work culture, there’s a general acceptance of this notion of fun as an earned element of the job for those near the top. It’s part of the reason why people become entrepreneurs. They want to be their own bosses because that’s where the perks are. Rarely, though, is this mindset extended to general employees.

Take this response from one-time Silicon Valley Thinkfluencer Guy Kawasaki, written for the New York Times back in 2015. He’s responding to the prompt was “Can companies excel without making workers miserable?”:

Work isn’t supposed to be fun. It’s not play. In the best case scenario, it’s rewarding in financial and psychological ways but it’s not like going to Disneyland. Everybody doesn’t win. Trying hard isn’t enough. It’s not always the happiest place on earth. This is why people get paid to go to work.

2015 Guy Kawasaki might argue that he’s talking about difficulty of building businesses and that his comment applies in spades to executives, too. But what he’s really saying in this piece is, ‘expect to grind and don’t complain if you want to be involved in important work.’ I’m guessing he’d cite the fact that founders don’t run away from challenges or complain. And that’s fair. But also…they’re in the driver’s seat. It’s their company! They’re in control of their destiny. It is scary to be in control of your own destiny, but when it’s going well, it’s also, again, fun. A number of founders of successful companies have described the hyper growth phases of the early startup as intoxicating.

In the ‘Return To Office’ debates, I’ve seen executives trot out arguments similar to Kawasaki. Work is work for a reason. You get paid to do it; it’s not daycare or camp. Fun is not the object and if you don’t enjoy going into the office then tough shit!

Left unsaid is why, beyond an executive mandate, are people going into the office (often, as Annie reports, to sit at desks and do Zooms)? Who is that for? To be clear, in some cases, work does needs to be done in person. I enjoy in-person collaboration! But that in-person collaboration isn’t necessary — who are people being made to go back for? Surely, some people crave office life. That’s fantastic. But the decision is not being made for you, the employee. It’s being made by and for the people who are most comfortable at the office. The executives.

Last week, Slack's Future Forum (a research group inside the company that’s dedicated the last year-plus to studying remote work) published their most report. Over the summer, they surveyed 10,569 knowledge workers across the U.S., Australia, France, Germany, Japan, and the U.K., and found:

• Most executives (66%) report they are designing post-pandemic workforce policies with little to no direct input from employees.

• While two-thirds of executives (66%) believe they’re being “very transparent” regarding their “post-pandemic” policies, less than half of workers (42%) agree.

• Of those currently working fully remotely, nearly half of all executives surveyed (44%) want to work from the office every day, compared to 17% of employees (2.6x difference). And 75% of these executives say they want to work from the office three to five days a week, versus only 34% of employees.

• Executive overall job satisfaction is now 62% higher than non-executives, driven by higher scores on flexibility (+51%), sense of belonging (+52%), work-life balance (+78%) and work-related stress and anxiety (+114%).

The first bullet point is the one that worries me the most, because I don’t think sustainable hybrid work is actually possible without input from employees. My conspiratorial side thinks that some employers are designing miserable WFH situations so that they’ll fail and employees will want to come back to a full-time office. But that may be reading into things too much.

It also seems, at least according to this survey data, that employees want something different out of the work experience compared to employers. The executive/employee divide gets even more stark when it’s broken down by race and gender:

• Eighty-seven percent of Asian respondents and 81% of Black respondents want flexible or hybrid work, compared to 75% of white respondents.

• Eighty-five percent of women currently working fully remotely want flexible or hybrid work, compared to 79% of men.

And there’s some data to show that not only do some non-white employees want this flexibility, they’re also happier and feel better about their work when they have this flexibility.

• In particular, since the broad adoption of remote-work policies, employee experience scores for Black knowledge workers have risen most sharply, with Black men making the biggest quarter-over-quarter gains in employee experience out of all demographic groups in the U.S

Flexible work would seem, based off this (admittedly small) pool of respondents to be a part of workplace inclusion conversations.

Future Forum’s surveys over the last year have demonstrated a consistent desire for at-home or flexible work from non-white and female knowledge workers. And while the reasons are varied and nuanced, past reporting that Annie and I did for our forthcoming book, Out of Office (shameless plug pre-order now!!!), suggests that part of the reason has to do with the idea of who gets to decide the dominant office culture. Not all office cultures are toxic but many are set by a very specific demographic of people, and constructed, purposefully or not, to be easily navigated by employees from similar ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds. Even if you are doing work you love — work that is meaningful and deeply fulfilling — it is difficult to enjoy yourself if you feel that you fall outside the dominant culture. It’s not, to be reductive and borrow a word, very fun.

As we rethink certain norms about work, then, it’s worth asking: who gets to have fun at their jobs?’ Is that a privilege reserved for the job creators and the C-suite? If ‘work is hard and that’s why you get a paycheck’ is the credo, then shouldn’t the people at the top making with the biggest paychecks be the ones for whom the work is the biggest slog with the fewest perks? Or should we attempt to conceive of work in a way that offers dignity and acknowledges we’re all human beings who deserve to feel comfortable in their professional pursuits? Just asking questions here!

Advocating for more equitable, flexible work sometimes feels pie-in-the-sky, given, well, capitalism. But what we argue in Out of Office (shameless plug pre-order now!!!) is that more equitable, flexible work is actually good business in the long-term. Because the same Future Forum survey that highlighted the executive/employee disconnect on hybrid work also found this:

•More than half of knowledge workers—57%—are open to looking for a new job in the next year. And for those who aren’t satisfied with the level of flexibility they have in their current role, the number is substantially higher (71%).

• In the U.S., people of color and working parents are greater flight risks—66% of Hispanic employees, 64% of Black employees and 63% of Asian employees say they’re interested in new opportunities, compared to 56% of white employees

Executives cite preserving company culture as a reason to bring workers back to the office full time. But you know what’s bad for business and company culture? High employee turnover and the cost of recruiting and re-hiring and re-training.

‘Who gets to have fun at work?’ is a question that we haven’t had to ask for some time because the answer has been blindingly obvious. ‘Fun’ is actually a bad term for what I’m describing and what I think Armstrong was getting at with his tweet. What we’re really talking about here is comfort. Who gets to be comfortable and why?

What is so interesting and energizing about late-pandemic knowledge work is how it is forcing a re-examination of the way we work. In some cases, we’re watching knowledge workers apply pressure with their own resignations. Which is all to say that the old way of serving at the pleasure of the executives is being challenged. That is, without doubt, a good thing.

I’m not sure anyone needs to have ‘fun’ at work. But a lot of people are sick and tired of showing up and struggling simply to underwrite somebody else’s fun.

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