In a lot of ways, tech is often a science experiment for the broader corporate landscape. Things tend to be magnified here, accelerated, sometimes caricatured. Could be the personalities it attracts, the money, or the ease of jumping in juxtaposed with the difficulties and sacrifice of getting to a billion-dollar valuation.
Which should mean that tech would be the place to try doing things differently. Build things better and change the focus of business. Create improved relationships among workers, and between the company entity and staff.
And yet . . . not so much. I think that’s because of the one big constant in tech: drive. Which can really suck.
My last column went into some detail about the contortions women put themselves through trying to get it right in tech. To be good enough, respected enough, doing enough. Now I’m thinking about the ecosystem that most of us contort ourselves to fit.
See if any of these ring a bell:
You really like your job, your co-workers and your office space. But your commute sucks, and sometimes, being stuck in the same place every day drives you nuts. You see articles about digital nomads, and would love to be able to work from Berlin or Bali, but your manager would never go for it. She doesn’t even believe people are productive working from home. You want to see the world before you get all tied down with life stuff, but you don’t want to have to quit your job to do it.
Your team is completely burnt out, and there’s no end in sight. Evenings, weekends, cold coffee, takeout. But this project has to get done and out the door. A lot is riding on it. Or so management keeps saying. No one’s really explained how this will benefit the business or customers. It seems mainly like some executive’s brainchild. And since you’re a team, you have to be there, even if half the people involved just seem to be poking away at busywork.
The company you work for feels more like two companies occasionally intertwined. You work hard and have been known to crack open the laptop at home. But you’re not willing to never see your partner, let someone else raise your kids or sacrifice your health and sanity. So no espresso and Soylent-fuelled 100-hour weeks for you. You’re also not party to a host of in-jokes, key decisions made at 2 a.m., or important information about the product/service/site that someone never got around to documenting or communicating.
One of your co-workers just left the office again. It’s 2 p.m. Family dentist appointments? Someone started barfing at daycare? Who knows? Happened last week, too, and she missed a couple of fairly important meetings. And now the team will have to waste more time getting her up to speed when she’s back in the office, whenever that is. Is her manager keeping track of this?
Another woman on the team has a bunch of little kids. Since they’re all in school or daycare they get sick constantly, and then so does she. She’s only been back from mat leave for a few months. It’s mid-February and she’s already burned through her sick days and vacation for the whole year (hopefully her husband still has some).
The team that woman works on has basically written her off. She’s never reliably there, can’t keep up with projects, and who knows if she’ll be contributing to upcoming deadlines. Could she work at home? Please. Anyone who would ask that question has never been alone with a toddler, let alone several. Which means the others have to pick up that slack, cover for her, or throw her under the bus. Of course, her manager has no additional headcount.
Speaking of mat leave, another team has someone leaving for one soon. They’re scrambling to find time to interview replacements, but really, since it’s a short-term contract, they’re not attracting first-string candidates. And let’s face it, the person will be halfway through the contract before they’re even competent, and by the time the teammate returns from mat leave, no one will want the replacement to leave, since they’re basically back to square one and having to treat the returning mom like a new hire (if she comes back at all).
Some have the luxury of staying home with the kids, but a lot of people don’t. Except that plenty of people end up working in good part just to pay for daycare. I could put my dog in daycare five days a week for a third of what it costs for one child. Unless you live in a magical subsidized land like Quebec, having people take care of your children while you work (not to mention the guilt and anxiety inherent in doing so) is basically like paying another mortgage.
If you’ve had a corporate career and never come across a single one of these situations, I’d be shocked. And that’s not even a comprehensive list.
As I was saying: drive. It all goes back to that. Drive becomes the centre of everything, but serves very few. It determines priorities, which end up very rarely being the people who make the company work. We’ve bought into or accepted with resignation this “fast-paced environment” and all-in culture, plus policies that don’t work for a lot of people.
Now I will freely admit to having been the annoyed, eye-rolling co-worker who gets screwed over and has little sympathy for the “breeders” (yes, people do use this term). I’ve been resentful at being asked to take care of something after the moms and dads have headed home, or when some pestilent parent has come to work sick again and is likely to spread it to all of us.
But over time, I’ve seen that business can survive, even thrive, when not everything gets done yesterday. I’ve had team members offline partially or completely for weeks and . . . the world doesn’t end and we haven’t gone bankrupt. Sure, for a traditionally imprinted North American tech person, it’s weird and hard to get used to, but after a while it’s just so much more sane and humane.
The people who founded the company I work for had a specific type of business and lifestyle they wanted, and so that’s what they built. I think that differs a lot from most companies where it’s about drive from the get-go. It’s about growing the company and acquiring customers and making lots of money . . . and then tacking culture and values on somewhere as an afterthought because you’re supposed to and HR keeps whining about it.
Fundamental to building a company from the culture and values up is getting the right team and the right dynamic so that we can live where, when, and how we want to. Yes, people can be viable and productive team members in Berlin and Bali and with toddlers or without. We also operate under the “hit by a bus” theory, so taking one person out of the equation at any time for any length of time won’t cause anything major to grind to a halt.
Now, sure, we’re a small company, so I can imagine my enterprise-employed friends rolling their eyes at trying to scale it, but how would they know? Try naming a global company that was built from the ground up with that focus. (And sorry, but even the Googles of the world are a lot more traditional than you might think.)
Imagine a company where mat leave and kids getting sick and wanderlust or just wanting a life are no big deal. They’re expected, because that’s what many people do. That’s what people have always done, since women joined the workforce in large numbers (but are still expected to run families and households).
In light of that, why do we treat how people struggle to live as an inconvenience in the way of corporate success? How hypocritical is it to bemoan the leaky STEM pipeline for girls and women when the corporate reality often is “be all that we tell you to be”?
Happy staff will be more creative, more productive, more loyal, and more than willing to pull their weight or pick up slack when they’re available and able. I’ve seen it. I’ve been one of them. When the company is about the people, they tend to have each other’s backs instead of just sniping behind them.
Yes, it all sounds very hippie socialist blah, blah, blah, but let’s face it; most people don’t have ambitions of running international conglomerates or founding the next Google. They want a job that’s interesting, enables them to develop their skills and experience, has cool co-workers, and lets them have a life.
For the Elon Musks of the world, drive on.
For the rest of us, tech could be a great science experiment in how to achieve great innovation and great life.
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech.