Forced Togetherness Fridays: Rainy Afternoons

A rainy afternoon like this one at HQ can be a delight.  Listening to the polyrhythms of the droplets outside, the gray sky and the shadows, all from a warm comfortable space with a purring cat and favorite music.  It can be a great time for focusing on creative projects, or just lying around and experience the “disintegration of thought.”

Rainy days at an office can be more challenging, especially when said office is one of the worst offenders of “forced togetherness.”  I retreated into my work, getting better acquainted with the Swift programming language and listening to music on my headphones using the mobile music-play I was tasked with building.  To this day, I associate Shuggie Otis’ “Strawberry Letter 23” with rainy days and the mental and personal space I created for myself.

In my mind, I was in a dank 1970s wood-paneled den with a stereo with large speakers – maybe a lava lamp or two – as the gentle rain outside provided a foundational background noise.  A bit melancholy but also happy and contented.  I also played a lot of Ornette Coleman on our app as I was building and testing it.  It was no accident that Lonely Woman rose in the play statistics against the insipid contemporary pop tunes form our top charts and staff picks.

Another aspect of rainy days at this particular office was that our external network often went down.  It is rather difficult to work at or run a technology company without internet, so this logically led to an exodus with most of us working from home the remainder of the day.  On one occasion, one of the co-founders exhorted us all to come with him to his apartment building with the selling point “we have a rec room!”   This was quintessential forced togetherness, as it is unclear what possible benefit a rec room would have to do with getting our work done.  Now I don’t know what was going through his mind – perhaps he was just lonely, and maybe he even thought he was being generous – but it was par for the course for a company whose culture seemed about hanging out together.  This was, after all, the same company with the coercive lunch behavior that I described in the previous installment of this series.  Even before joining, when I balked at an embarrassingly low offer, part of their response was a series of emails and links to blog posts of them hanging out and partying, presumably intended to show me “how cool they were.”  This should have been a red flag, but I did not take the warning.  A bit older and wiser, I do take such warnings very seriously now when I evaluate business and career opportunities.

However, it still remains an open question as to why young companies, particularly with young founders, tend to put such a premium on togetherness to the point where others are pressured to participate.  We will continue to unpack this in future installments of this series.

Forced Togetherness Fridays: Beyond Zucktown

Facebook has been in the news quite a lot of late.  None of it for good reasons.  But buried amidst the articles on data privacy and the Cambridge Analytica scandal I found the story “Welcome to Zucktown. Where Everything Is Just Zucky.” in The New York Times. Basically, it discusses Facebook’s plans for a new community adjacent to its Menlo Park campus, with housing, shops, and such.

CA Highway 109As seen in the above screenshot from our Highway☆ app, Facebook’s campus is at the remote northern edge of Menlo Park, straddling the Bayfront Expressway (California Highway 84).  Even by the standards of sprawling Silicon Valley campuses, this one is isolated, with access primarily by car or company busses.  The proposed development, which is formally called “Willow Village” (Facebook dislikes the nickname “Zucktown”)  would be to its east, between CA 84, Willow Road (unsigned CA 114) and University Avenue (unsigned CA 109), and adjacent to the neighboring town of East Palo Alto. While ostensibly an open community with public access and some affordable housing units, it is clearly being designed for Facebook employees.  And although the benefits of living close to work – and cutting down on commutes – are abundant, there is a difference between living near work and living in work.  And that is why it touched a raw nerve with me.  One of my main critiques working the industry, besides the subtle but rampant sexism, is what I call forced togetherness.  In the culture of many tech companies, it isn’t enough to do good work every day or even work long hours.  There is tremendous pressure, implicit or explicit, to be socially present at all times, to treat the company as one’s community, one’s “life”.

Forced togetherness comes in much smaller ways than planned communities of coworkers.  At a previous job of mine in 2014 at a tiny startup, everyone ate lunch together almost every day.  Ostensibly, it was supposed to be Monday, Wednesday, Friday, but it quickly became clear that Tuesday and Thursday were expected as well.  One day early when I politely passed on lunch – and was looking forward to going out by myself for a little bit – the CEO seemed perplexed and kept trying to offer one option after another for ordering lunch in.  I had to finally just say “Look, I’m a big girl, I can feed myself!”  This was met with some quiet and awkward laughter.  It’s not that lunch was mandatory, but there was a social expectation, and implicit coercion, that eating together was the right thing to do.

I have come to look for red flags in this regard.  In my current job search, another very small company reached out to me with an interesting opportunity.  But they were located in Redwood City.  I have more than once stated I would sooner move back to New York than take another job on the peninsula – but I played along and politely explained that I prefer to work in San Francisco proper, but did they have flexible or remote work options.  I got the following reply.

We do not do remote. It hinders the culture of the company we are building and we love hanging out with each other.

There are many good reasons that some companies require employees to be on site.  But what this message told me was that the policy was based not on a business or practical necessity, but on a virtue, a belief that this is how people should be.  It says they are more interested in a culture based on “hanging out with each other” than on “getting things done.” It says that to succeed in that culture, one must be someone that they like to hang out with.  And this suggests how cultures of forced togetherness go beyond just wiping out the boundaries between work and the rest of one’s life, but also how the monoculture of Silicon Valley is perpetuated.  If one is looking for “people we love to hang out with”, one is probably going to hire people that share a similar set of backgrounds, styles, and personalities.  Hence, we find bands of mostly young men of white, Indian, and East Asian backgrounds who perpetuate college dorm life into their post-collegiate adulthood.

Of course, these are just simply two anecdotes, along with the concept writ large in Facebook’s Willow Village.  I hope to dive deeper in these phenomena in future articles for the “Forced Togetherness Fridays” series, along with some positive stories of how things can go right instead of wrong with only a few cultural changes.  And I welcome thoughts from others as I move forward, either sharing your own stories of forced togetherness in the workplace, or even counter-arguments in its favor.  Until then, I plan to enjoy some quiet time working hard, by myself with just my cat for company.