Shhh—This Is the Workplace of the Future


There has been much hand-wringing about the future of work and where humans figure in the workplace with advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and automation. Futurists and workplace experts agree that both are coming and will change the nature of work. Liselotte Lyngsø, founding partner of Denmark-based consultancy Future Navigator, recently told Fast Company that AI will even likely help determine the optimal size and makeup of workplace teams.

At the same time, James Manyika, chairman and director of McKinsey Global Institute, says the tasks that require uniquely human capabilities such as judgment and empathy will still be the work of people—and that’s where job growth will be (although the transition will not be without difficulty).

So it follows that workplace environments that nurture our human qualities make sense now and in the future. Jason Fried, CEO and co-founder of software company Basecamp, has studied workplace innovation for two decades and argues that in some cases, technology, not humans, needs to be downsized. He also says that retaining employees through reasonable expectations, fair pay and flexibility can drastically cut the large costs associated with training and turnover, helping companies become more sustainable for the long haul.

“Technology was supposed to make everything better, faster and easier, but it hasn’t,” Fried says. “The things it’s making easier are the wrong things,” such as instant messaging, social media and video conferencing, which conspire to chop up our day and divide our attention. With this distraction, people’s lives are being consumed by work.

At Basecamp, workweeks are capped at around 40 hours, most employees work remotely, meetings are discouraged, calendars are private, and there is no expectation that messages must be responded to immediately.

Instead of pushing for longer hours, unrealistic “dreadlines” and more team meetings, Fried says CEOs should be more squarely focused on results and helping rid employees of the interruptions that keep them from finishing their work in an eight-hour day.

This hands-off model might not work for every company, but it has helped Fried retain employees six years longer than the industry average, and it has helped Basecamp remain profitable for the last 20 years. In some ways, Fried’s workplace of the future is a nod to the past.

To shed some of the distraction of modern living, Basecamp’s Chicago headquarters runs on “library rules,” with everyone conspiring to keep a quiet, calm environment that’s conducive to thinking, focus and work.

“People who visit our office for the first time are startled by the silence and serenity” in the open-plan office, Fried says, with conversations held at a whisper. The quiet is deliberate. “It’s my job as the owner of a business to make sure everyone has adequate time and attention to do their best work,” says Fried, who distills his philosophy in his upcoming book “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work” (HarperBusiness, 2018).

At Basecamp, there are no Ping-Pong tables, catered dinners, nap rooms or on-site chair massages, perks of the last tech boom, which he says are just tricks to keep employees at the office longer. Rather, he says, it’s just a group of people working hard and respecting each other’s time so they can all have a life outside the office.

Eliminating distractions


What gets Basecamp’s 154 employees off work on time is its supreme focus on eliminating interruptions. If someone is working at his desk, Fried says, he assumes that he is deep in thought and focused on work. Fried doesn’t make a practice of walking up to ask him something, especially if it can be handled in a note on the company’s web-based project management software.

If there is a need for a collaborative discussion or a private phone call, Basecamp has a handful of enclosed rooms in the center of the office.

The goal is to help employees carve out at least four hours of uninterrupted time a day for work rather than the 15-minute increments many workers now get to tackle their deadlines between meetings, instant messages and other conversations. Basecamp employees do take breaks, but they do so at their own discretion.

For those in the company who have special expertise needed by others, weekly “office hours” similar to those in academia are posted so these employees can handle requests without being constantly bombarded.

Communicating without meetings


Another way Basecamp preserves human productivity in this always-on age is its focus on “asynchronous communication,” or reading and responding to messages when schedules permit, usually in the next day or two.

“You may be working on something that’s more important than what I have to say right now,” Fried says. “You should decide when you get back to me.”

Until they receive an answer, he says, employees generally work around that issue, focusing on other things they can get done. Only if it’s truly urgent, he says, would a co-worker send a second message or pick up the phone.

Similarly, regular status meetings are discouraged because they waste too much time. Rather, employees on each small team—typically three people—post daily and weekly public updates about what they’re working on and take questions and comments in online notes. There’s no need for a team leader or manager.

No one can view or put something on your work calendar unless he or she sends you a request that you accept, Fried says, which allows you to better control your time.

Avoiding burnout


Another effective strategy has been breaking down teams and projects into smaller blocks. Rather than working on six-month or 12-month product enhancements, teams work on smaller features for six weeks at a time, then take two weeks away from a specific project to roam between projects or work on their own priorities, such as fixing a bug in the software.

That way, he says, even if a specific project is something an employee despises, he or she knows it will be over soon. And the short duration allows for more course correction in the long haul to get the best outcome.

If this attention to employee well-being sounds unbelievable, consider the company’s perks, which include targeted pay in the top 10 percent of the market for each position, paid vacations (up to $5,000 a year) as well as Summer Fridays (or Mondays) and a monthlong paid sabbatical every three years. Gym memberships, a monthly massage and money for continuing education also are covered but done outside of work.

Creating relationships, not a family


Fried says the goal is for his employees to have a life so they are happy, productive and don’t feel the need to leave for greener pastures. The corporate culture at Basecamp isn’t built around the traditional team building of recent decades, including catered lunches or trust falls at corporate outings, especially since it has employees in 37 different cities. Rather, employees are encouraged to individually nurture their working relationships with other team members in whatever way works for them.

“People here are very friendly and helpful,” Fried says. “But we stay focused at work during the day and enjoy our time off.”

While technology will surely replace many repetitive jobs, it will be more important than ever, Fried says, to find and retain valuable employees who provide creative human solutions to complex problems. Increasingly, he continues, this will necessitate changes to today’s way of thinking about the workday, workplace and value of the individual. Could the future not be as bad as we fear? Could our future take more cues from the past?

“There’s this bravado around being the last car in the parking lot. Why are we celebrating that exactly? We could be celebrating the most inefficient work,” Fried says. “Think clearly, work well, respect others and then go home at a reasonable hour and have a life.”

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