Basecamp co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson wrote the book on remote work and company management.
In fact, they wrote several of them, including a 2010 New York Times bestseller, “Rework,” 2013’s “Remote: Office Not Required” and 2018’s “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work.”
Besides advocating for remote work — Basecamp employees are 100 percent remote — the authors also recommend ways to make business culture more employee friendly in their books.
But when the company, which makes productivity software, announced a policy to ban political conversations on work channels, more than a third of its staff of 57 resigned in protest and social media lit up with the news. Was this leading by example?
In reaction to this self-ignited implosion, a California-based leadership coach tweeted a photo of a highlighted section of one of the Basecamp co-founders’ books, punctuated with an eye-rolling emoji: “The worst thing you can do is pretend that interpersonal feelings don’t matter,” the highlighted section reads. “That work should ‘just be about work.’ That’s just ignorant. Humans are humans whether they’re at work or at home.”
Yet insisting that work be just about work is exactly what Fried and “DHH” (as Hansson is known to his 439,000 Twitter followers) did, against a turbulent American backdrop of Black Lives Matter protests, anti-Asian violence and Republican efforts to restrict voting.
“No more societal and political discussions,” Fried wrote in his April 26 blog post that revealed the new policy. “Every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant. … It’s not healthy, it hasn’t served us well. And we’re done with it on our company Basecamp account where the work happens.”
Hansson chimed in with a post of his own: “There are many places to be involved, exposed and engaged in [political conversations]. Basecamp shouldn’t be one of those places.”
‘More turmoil in the long run’
While some may find it at least understandable that a small tech company would want to step back from the treacherous swirls and eddies of political discourse in the U.S., what the Basecamp co-founders did not explain in their public posts is that their new policy followed employee-initiated attempts within their own company to confront diversity issues, as revealed by the newsletter Platformer.
While the (white, male) founders had initially given their OK for an internal committee to examine in-house diversity issues, they eventually closed a Basecamp thread on the topic and shut the committee down, according to employees cited by Platformer.
Accounts from employees “suggest that efforts to eliminate disruptions in the workplace by regulating internal speech may cause even more turmoil for a company in the long run,” the Platformer article noted.
Indeed, according to the research company Gartner, employees want their companies to be engaged, and communication on social issues can drive employee engagement.
To date, at least 20 Basecamp employees accepted the three- to six-month severance pay offered by the company to those unhappy with the policy changes, according to Platformer. Among those who left were the heads of design, marketing and strategy.
Fried reacted to the resignations in a May 4 blog post with surprise.
“Last week was terrible,” he said. “We started with policy changes that felt simple, reasonable and principled, and it blew things up internally in ways we never anticipated.”
Still, “the new policies stand,” Fried added.
‘All organizations are political’
Reactions from other business leaders and consultants have been mixed. Brian Armstrong, the CEO of cryptocurrency-transaction platform Coinbase, instituted a similar ban on workplace political discussions last year. He applauded Basecamp’s decision on Twitter.
“Another mission focused company,” he tweeted. “It takes courage in these times.”
Others characterized the Basecamp leaders’ moves as “unproductive,” evidence of “professional immaturity,” probably unenforceable and ultimately naïve.
“There is no such thing as being neutral or completely non-political,” said Alix Guerrier, CEO of a crowdfunding platform, in comments to CNBC. Furthermore, he said that cutting off potentially productive conversation would not take the pressure off companies.
“It’s going to explode in some way, like by having a third of your staff leave, for example,” he warned.
Alison Kemper, an assistant professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, agreed.
“I don’t think it’s possible to not be political,” she said. “All organizations have a political, social and moral dimension. … They can’t pretend they have no impact. And to be intentionally agnostic is to intend to maintain the status quo or allow those who have power to exert their power in the direction they want to.”
So what should Basecamp have done?
In a contribution to Forbes, Agnes Uhereczky, head of a research and consultancy company, noted that Fried, as a CEO and co-author of books on work, is considered and probably considers himself an authority on workplace issues.
“It is often challenging for senior leaders, who are viewed as authorities, to take on a beginner’s mindset and adopt a learning approach,” she said.
To counteract a rigid mentality, she recommends entering conversations with “a natural curiosity and the intention to find out more” and “unlearning old ways of thinking and doing things.”
Similarly, executive coach and author David Noor, says leaders should “listen louder” when employees raise challenging topics.
“This isn’t about you,” he said. “Stop talking and just listen.” Simply shutting down political conversation is “self-centered,” he said.
It’s the economics, stupid
Kemper, of Ryerson University, notes that there are special considerations for leaders managing remote workers in these unstable political times.
“There’s no way to convey human emotional connectivity in emails,” she said. “Emoticons just don’t convey interpersonal concern in the way that proximity can.”
Therefore, leaders need to “work hard to understand dynamics in remote-work situations,” she added. “Something that might seem trivial might be extremely problematic in a remote-work environment.”
In addition, remote workers could be punching the clock from anywhere in the world, she noted.
“They’re all dealing with very different issues and time zones, the danger of Covid is different, the reaction of governments is more or less extreme. So companies need to be much more cognizant of geopolitical reality,” Kemper said.
Another thing she noted about tech workers in particular is that they’re “enormously valuable employees.” In the case of the Basecamp employees who resigned, she said, they knew they could leave the company “and be re-employed within days.”
This is true of remote workers in general, who tend to be more highly educated and better paid than workers who are unable to work remotely, research shows.
Casey Newton, founder and editor of Platformer, made a similar reference in an NPR interview.
“The tech industry is where American workers have the most power and agency. They’re well-paid. They have savings. They’re highly skilled. They can go out and get good jobs in other places,” he said. “So they’re less afraid of speaking out than maybe a blue-collar worker might be.”
In fact, many companies seem to be choosing how to establish corporate social policies based on employee retention, Kemper says.
“What makes people want to come work there? What makes people want to stay? How do they maximize their access to the most talented and biggest pool of employees?” she asked. Increasingly, that means having to take a stand on the issues of the day, she says.