Compartmentalization is a privilege

Much has been made and much ink has been spilled over Jason Fried’s team memo at Basecamp this week asserting new cultural values and direction for the company. Rightly, most of the attention has been focused on the first declaration that “societal and political discussions” are banned from the company Basecamp account. There’s a lot to engage with here and the generational aspect to the conflict has been surfaced already by many others, so for the sake of weekend brevity (not usually my strong suit), I’m going to focus in on a particular dimension of this first declaration. This idea that employees not only should but must take these discussions elsewhere is deeply problematic and reveals some blindspots that need some light.

That sociopolitical conversations have NO place in an organization, that deeply personal dialogue that affects every aspect of a person’s life are not to be brought ANYWHERE into an organization reflects a desire to compartmentalize that is a feature of safety and privilege that not everyone is afforded. Saying “that conversation is getting in the way of our work — have it elsewhere” pre-supposes that it can be separated, that it has nothing to do with power dynamics or creativity at work, and that the company is immune from social dynamics and better off without the pressure of the demand to make them healthier.

We have lived through a deeply transformative year where distraction was the norm for most of us, and where that distraction took the form of public health and sociopolitical crises we could not ignore. The desire to reclaim some measure of control and predictability within a workplace is natural: 2020 was unrelenting but America has been unrelenting for many for a lot longer. That certain channels of work discussion in a software company need to sustain focus on topics like product features or process problems makes a great deal of sense. That all conversations have their place and time and that focused communication is necessary for productivity are simple, fair organizing principles for collaboration.

Regardless, the demand that we remove discussions of broader social and political topics rather than make productive spaces for them (by setting clear Codes of Conduct and creating intentional spaces) reflects a willingness to see the workplace only through the lens of whiteness and maleness and the ability to be indifferent to these questions and conversations. It represents the institutionalization of a level of denial that feels like a feature of liberal NIMBYism that we cannot afford if we hope to meet the moment we are facing.

Work is a thing humans do as part of both survival (given the nature of our economy and social contract) and at times a mechanism for the expression of purpose. That work is so central to our time and identity and so inextricably linked to social and economic dynamics of power and privilege is a profoundly problematic consequence of that social contract, but it means that all companies are social impact companies — whether they intend to be or not. No one is neutral: your company impacts your community for the better or for worse. Because they are so deeply linked, we cannot and should not expect to be able to keep the dynamics that define them out of our workplaces. If they are going to be so central, they must reflect the best of what we want from society and that means making space for reform and transformation while getting work done.

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