The year 2020 had a lot going on, but we'll always remember how it forced a collision between work and our personal lives. Events such as the pandemic to protests to the election had impacts at the office, where we saw an overwhelming majority of employers take a stance on societal issues and encourage empathic dialogue within their organization.
New generations of workers want to work for not just a successful company but one that also aligns with their beliefs and values. Silence from employers regarding serious societal and cultural issues became unacceptable--and rightfully so. Employees want to feel good about where they work, and that requires confidence in their leaders. When employees feel isolated, unheard, disenfranchised, there are consequences.
Last month Basecamp, a popular software company, became the latest company to discover this for itself, after announcing significant policy changes in response to an internal incident. Employees balked at the move, and when the dust cleared, more than one-third of the company's employees decided to leave, and CEO Jason Fried apologized. As well-intentioned as the Basecamp leadership team was, they made a few key mistakes right away--mistakes that were easy to make, even intuitive, but certainly could have been avoided.
When a leader is faced with a problem--when anyone is faced with a problem--the human reaction is the desire to solve it right away. But gut reactions aren't always the wisest. During my time at LinkedIn, I saw some of the same issues Basecamp is currently facing, issues such as communication breakdowns between the executive team and employees, and the question of how to best incentivize workers. At LinkedIn, as a leadership team, we got through the hardships by applying these three things to our approach.
During a crisis, aim for collective solutions
A crisis is the best time for employees to see what their leadership team is made of. It's also the best time to see how well your team works together. As a result of an internal incident, the Basecamp leadership team decided to lock down unrelated work communication and do their best to keep out future problematic behavior. But the exec team made that decision in a vacuum, not with their employees. What felt like a solution created a bigger problem. By making unilateral decisions for the company and sharing them via blog post, they changed the rules without offering employees a chance to provide input. If the employees at Basecamp had been consulted on the policy changes, their reactions may have been very different. Whether you're acknowledging a crisis internally or externally, it's important to focus on building trust and looking for solutions, not shifting blame.
Let your employees build the culture they want--and listen
Employees today are looking for competitive salaries, good benefits and a culture fit. While that may look different to individual personalities, everyone wants somewhere they feel like they belong. We're in a period where every work culture is evolving.
More to the point, a workplace's culture is not a balance sheet of 360 reviews and wellness perks--it's a relationship built out of equity and trust. Some employees may want gym memberships included, or access to meditation apps and acupuncture, and those are definitely nice perks. But at LinkedIn, I found that far more people wanted to participate in a company culture that they were helping to build. I always tell my clients--if you're not surveying your employees frequently, you're not surveying them. Once a year doesn't cut it.
You may remember hearing about the company-sponsored buses in San Francisco a few years ago--traffic was so bad in the city that huge companies leased or hired their own buses and were using them to offer free commutes to their employees. That way, employees could conduct meetings on the way home, and use company Wi-Fi to finish up work in transit. Suffering from the same traffic-related issues, employees at LinkedIn brought this to the attention of the leadership team--was this something we could provide to them? So I did the math. I reached out to numerous transportation firms to find out how much LinkedIn buses would cost, and I surveyed the employees to find out who exactly would benefit from a pooled commute. As it turned out, the buses would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars--and only 7 percent of our employees lived in the city proper. When I shared my findings with everyone, they immediately understood why LinkedIn buses didn't make sense. I explained that it was not really fair to sink a huge cost for a small portion of the company to benefit. It was a decision we could all agree on--because we reached it together. When their opinions are taken into consideration, people are more likely to feel a sense of ownership and belonging, even if you say "no" in the end. Educating and providing transparency to your staff on how you make decisions is a healthy exercise.
Get to know your company from the top down
Unicorns and IPOs seem to be popping up all over the place, and the Silicon Valley mentality has dispersed around the world along with its workers. Everyone wants to work for a winning team with a winning product--especially when there's a potential for significant stock options involved. But a laser focus on the profits and the success of a company is different from focusing on what makes employees motivated and gets them engaged. These things feel like they should go together--motivated, engaged employees should make for an engaged, profitable work environment, right? But we know that every company has problems, even extremely successful ones. The key is to have some trust equity built up over time between leadership and the staff so when the challenges arise there is a focus on solving the problem.
What Basecamp's leadership team failed to grasp is that one size does not fit all when it comes to success. Basecamp is great at making software; people, however, are more complicated than producing a product, no matter how great the product is.
When you run a company, of course you feel responsible for it--for its successes, failures, and the people who keep it running. You want to keep them out of harm's way. The long game for a successful company, however, is building trust in your employees--knowing that they'll have your back, check you when you're wrong, and work with you toward your goals. It's a recipe for success. As long as you show them they can trust you, too.