13 / 05 / 2021

Basecamp and Its Discontents (Or What’s Remotely Wrong with that Memo?)

After firing off a controversial memo that caused a third of his employees to take buyouts, Basecamp CEO Jason Fried has apologized. But what’s he got to be sorry for? Employees are paid to work, after all, not grumble. Maybe, though, the company’s current predicament can be traced to a more basic problem.

Carey Smith | Founding Contrarian

So, the founders of a software company with fewer than 60 employees decide they want their people to limit workplace-forum conversations to work, of all things, and from all the uproar, you’d think that Bill and Melinda Gates were getting a divorce or something. Coverage of Fried’s “controversial” memo instantly shot to the top of the most-clicked charts.

In addition to outlining changes to the benefits package with the stated goal of butting out of employees’ personal lives, the memo contained a seemingly innocuous, clearly accurate description of where a certain segment of the world finds itself now:

“Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant. You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit, or wading into it means you’re a target.” 

So Fried had decided to ban talk about those topics from the company’s internal forums. The nerve of that guy! It’s as if he’s Archie Bunker, telling Edith to stifle herself!

Within a matter of hours, stories appeared offering details of the events within the company that led to the fateful communique: an old list of customer names deemed “funny” by some but viewed by others as racist; a new hire offering to explore issues of diversity, equity and inclusion; and a company-wide calling out of an employee who now denounced the list but had previously been a collaborator. People complained that the founders ran the business for their own “enjoyment.”

After more employees objected to the memo, there was an all-heads Zoom meeting; heated words were exchanged, and one top head rolled out the door.

A few days later Fried apologized, after a third of Basecamp employees indicated they wanted to accept a universal buyout offer. And why wouldn’t they? They’ve attained celebrity status. Recruiters are reaching out, assuring them they can bring “their whole selves” to new workplaces. Pardon me for asking, but whatever happened to the concept of keeping your work and private lives separate?

As someone who at one time employed more than a thousand people, I can tell you, I only want that part of an employee’s whole self that is willing to put in a good day’s work. At the fan company, we offered all kinds of benefits to keep people happy and motivated, but we insisted that they focus on work during working hours. Every day we came together to design, build, manufacture and sell fans. That was our purpose as a company, and we took it seriously. But we also kept a beer fridge well stocked, and at the end of a good sales day, everyone could have a cold one and discuss whatever they wanted. 

Fried may have been trying to reassure his customers with his apology, but in this case he has nothing to be sorry for. He managed to get his problem employees out the door — those who’d rather discuss their feelings than discuss the work itself — without having to fire them, or confine them to the basement with their stapler, a la Office Space.

Basecamp operates 100% remotely, 100% of the time, and that might just be where Fried’s real problem lies. When you come into an office each day, cleaned up and dressed for work, you assume a different, more focused persona; but when you work from home, dressed in sweats and a bathrobe, it’s much harder to discern a line between work and your personal life.

The Basecamp founders consider themselves such experts that they penned a best-selling “bible,” as they call it a few years back, extolling the benefits of working remotely. Maybe it’s time for an updated edition?