The Cost of Blurring the Work/Social Line

A recent blog post by Basecamp chief executive, Jason Fried, has been causing quite the stir on both social and traditional media the past couple days. In it, Fried describes some recent policy changes enacted at the company, the most notable or at least controversial being that “societal and political discussions” are no longer welcome at work, at least in the corporate chat spaces:

we’re done with it on our company Basecamp account where the work happens. People can take the conversations with willing co-workers to Signal, Whatsapp, or even a personal Basecamp account, but it can’t happen where the work happens anymore.

And Fried isn’t the first to express this kind of view, the CEO of Coinbase recently posted a similar blog post about staying “mission focused” while at work. It seems that a lot of people are echoing these sentiments that politics and social issues, and especially people discussing them, simply don’t have any place in the workplace.

Personally, I find this more than slightly hypocritical.

American workplaces, especially in the tech sector, have for decades been progressively blurring the line between an employee’s work life and their social life. By providing at-work benefits like cafeterias, showers, gym facilities, dedicated social spaces like basketball courts, encouraging social activities like “beer Fridays” and wine or scotch tasting, and even building entire shopping malls on company grounds; companies have been encouraging employees to spend more of their social time at the workplace. I documented in my post Office Perks are There to Keep You at Work, that this is a trend that has been going on in Silicon Valley since at least the late 1980s. And it isn’t a secret, at least to the heads of these titanic corporations, that the motivation for this isn’t employees “living their best lives at work,” it’s simple profitability. If an employee spends more time in work spaces or with coworkers, they’re going to get more work done than if they only put in their eight hours and go home to their families and social circles completely divorced from the workplace.

Companies that are “remote work friendly” or entirely remote companies like Basecamp have their own ways to encourage this same kind of pattern. Most companies have special interest groups, also called “affinity groups”, that form around activities like sports, motorcycles, cars, chess, video games, knitting, dad jokes, or parenting. Where brick-and-mortar-oriented companies give physical space to those groups, remote work companies do things like encourage people to set up chat channels or email lists for these groups using company resources.

A lot of companies in the tech sector talk about and have slogans around “being a family” or “bringing your authentic self to work.” These slogans are specifically designed to encourage employees to, at best, see their work at the company being an extension of their social life or their personal identity and, at worst, buy into a modern-day reimagining of the company town where one can spend all day and all night on company property and guided by company policy.

Yet now it appears that some of the corporate elite are starting to get tired of people’s “authentic selves.” They feel that:

It’s become too much. It’s a major distraction. It saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places. It’s not healthy, it hasn’t served us well.

In short, all this social stuff is getting in the way of getting “real work” done, so you should all stop that non-work stuff at work … because this is a workplace, understand?

You made your bed tech CEOs, lie in it.


Copyright © 2010-2021 by Lee Dohm