Not By The Exercise Of Power

But the sense of power among those led

Quote of the Moment

Leadership is not defined by the exercise of power but by the capacity to increase the sense of power among those led.

| Mary Parker Follett

Today’s selections share a common thread, which is perhaps not so clear. But the recent autocratic turn at Basecamp and the ongoing pressures at large corporations to compel workers back into the office, perhaps before it is safe, are alike in one regard: how little voice employees have in corporate decisions.

Perhaps fitting to publish this on May Day.


More Fall Out At Basecamp

More news from Basecamp, following the policy changes at the company, which includes banning political discussion on work communication tools (most notably, on Basecamp’s internal instance of Basecamp). Casey Newton produced a great blow-by-blow reporting of what was going on, which centered on a ‘Best Names Ever’ list: a collection of ‘funny-sounding’ names of Basecamp customers.

I wrote about the political discussion ban in Companies are Private Governments the other day, saying

When considered along with the five other changes announced, it feels more like a rejection of being a democratic organization, and is instead demanding that the company exists to make products, and not to be a community of people.

It appears that these changes — and the unilateral way they were introduced — led to continued grumbling, and at an all-hands meeting, Jason Fried, co-founder and CEO offered severance packages to those who remained opposed to the changes.

So fifteen or so of the company's 57 employees are departing, including some senior management. Perhaps they don’t want to work at a company uninterested in anything but selling products. As Fried put it in the original memo,

We are not a social impact company. We’re in the business of making software.

Except we all exist in the world that lies just outside the walls of the business, and it’s simply not possible to turn ourselves into uncaring automata when we clock in. And perhaps just as problematic is the idea management can assume the prerogative to end all political speech at work.

I noted in the previous post that Elizabeth Anderson developed the concept of businesses as private governments that seek to establish policies to which employees must conform. She also made the case that workers are not perfectly free to leave their jobs if they don’t like the company’s policies. But by offering reasonable severance packages Basecamp has at least adopted a democratic model for workers to defect in the face of autocratic and domineering leadership.

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Google Heading Back To The Office

In Google’s Plan for the Future of Work: Privacy Robots and Balloon Walls, Daisuke Wakabayashi explores some of the new thinking at Google about the workplace post-pandemic. Alas, much of the science is outdated, such as the concerns about touching surfaces, which has proven to be less of a threat than thought.

According to earlier statements made by Sundar Pichai is expecting workers to spend three days a week in the office, once the company calls 'all clear'. They may have to revise that, based on workers’ preferences and a new understanding of how the virus spreads.

But Pichai has made it clear wants people back in the office, stat.

Much of Google’s 'new' thinking is fairly tame, like a meeting room dedicated to balancing a mix of on-site and remote participants.

To deal with an expected blend of remote and office workers, the company is also creating a new meeting room called Campfire, where in-person attendees sit in a circle interspersed with impossible-to-ignore, large vertical displays. The displays show the faces of people dialing in by videoconference so virtual participants are on the same footing as those physically present.

What isn’t shown is the experience of a remote member of a Campfire. Is it just another Meet call for the remote member? Still, it seems that it would decrease the likelihood of remote members being subtly ignored.

Some of Google’s ideas are fairly weird, like a balloon wall:

If a meeting requires privacy, a robot that looks like the innards of a computer on wheels and is equipped with sensors to detect its surroundings comes over to inflate a translucent, cellophane balloon wall to keep prying eyes away.

“A key part of our thinking is moving from what’s been our traditional office,” said Ms. Kaufmann.

Yeah, but the most traditional aspect of the office is having to go there in the first place.

And they have accepted the six-foot distancing rule, which new research suggests is unlikely to be an effective deterrent against Covid. The droplets spread over time, so even being 20 feet away won't matter: the only hope is active venting of the air. As Martin Bezant, one of the authors of the research wrote,

We argue that, in the context of airborne transmission in a well-mixed space, the benefits of the six-foot rule are limited. As everyone in the room is breathing the same air, they share the same risk. Social distancing may thus be giving you a false sense of security. However, we note that the six-foot rule is valuable in limiting transmission by respiratory jets [like coughing], which pose a heightened risk when people are not wearing masks.

The researchers point out that, in some settings, the six-foot rule is not necessary, and in others, it is inadequate to guarantee safety. As a result, the following statement is completely misguided.

In its current office configurations, Google said it would be able to use only one out of every three desks in order to keep people six feet apart. Mr. Radcliffe said six feet would remain an important threshold in case of the next pandemic or even the annual flu.

It's just going to be much more architecturally challenging than 'one out of three desks'. If we are to have offices at all, going forward, they will have to be reconsidered at a more fundamental architectural level than moving the desks farther apart. Expect more walls, more and better venting, and minimal time in the office.