This week: Basecamp banning employees having political and societal discussions at work points to new challenges for leaders deciding what their business stands for.
Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
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Sandra I guess we have to talk about Facebook and Trump, don't we?
Kai Yes, overnight, Facebook's Oversight Board came back with its decision and it has upheld Facebook's ban of Trump's account.
Sandra Facebook had indefinitely suspended Donald Trump's account, after he had used various platforms to support the actions of the capital rioters. And as Mark Zuckerberg mentioned at the time to "incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government". And Facebook's oversight board, which is a quasi-independent body that's got a number of high profile academics and politicians on it has agreed that Facebook was right to suspend Donald Trump's account. But.
Kai But there's a caveat. And that is that the Oversight Board has not delivered a final ruling. Rather, it has given back the decision to Facebook, telling it to go back and be more transparent about how Facebook makes these assessments, come up with clear rules and apply them to all users in the same way. So in essence, yes, Facebook could make that decision. But the Oversight Board also says that they shouldn't be the last instance in making those decisions. Rather, Facebook should come up with better rules and regulations.
Sandra And while we don't want to spend the time today talking again about Facebook, or Trump, there are three additional things worth noting. One is that the Oversight Board did say that Facebook was wrong to make Trump's suspension indefinite and that when people get kicked off these platforms, there should be a very clear and transparent policy as to when they would, or under what circumstances they would be allowed back. The second one was, as you've mentioned, that they have called for more clear and transparent procedures, and they have highlighted that context is actually important on these platforms. So it's difficult to say you're applying the same rules to someone who has a platform of millions and millions of followers and the kind of reach and influence that someone like Donald Trump would have, compared to someone who might have five followers on the platform. And maybe the third thing to note would be the difficulty of having something like an oversight board, because Trump is one of millions and millions of decisions that Facebook has made over the last year and is one of the few decisions that do end up with this oversight board. However, given the reach and the use of Facebook making these decisions, the remit of an oversight board is not really feasible in the long term and at the scale that Facebook needs it to happen.
Kai So there was lots of questions beforehand whether the Oversight Board would prove its independence. Some said that if it will just rubber stamp Facebook's decision to ban Donald Trump, it clearly shows that it isn't independent. But to me, the Oversight Board has shown remarkable independence by basically telling Facebook that it cannot absolve itself from difficult decisions by just handing them over to the Oversight Board, but that rather it has to actually strengthen its policies and abide by them. So I think that's a really good outcome.
Sandra And now to something completely different.
Sandra On rooftops. I think this was worth a mention, there were a couple of articles around Singapore and serious urban farming. Urban farming has been an endeavour that even companies like Google have taken up and since abandoned as they couldn't grow stable crops, but it's something that we are looking into here in Sydney with the development of the new airport, but Singapore is actually a good example of what urban farming could look like. And the story features the Edible Garden City, EGC, that's an 8000 square metre urban farm. And it's located inside a former prison compound and that was Singapore's largest prison complex, the Queenstown Remand Prison. And it's one of Singapore's attempts to strengthen the city's food security and food resilience, as the government has been designating rooftops as agricultural spaces in the public interest in Singapore, most apartment complexes are public housing, which allows the government to requisition rooftops in the public interest as agricultural spaces.
Kai Well, speaking of using unused space for green solutions, there's also an article in Wired which contemplates using the large open spaces and large rooftop spaces that airports have, to basically engage in solar farming.
Sandra Why airports in particular?
Kai Well, first of all airports have large, unused open spaces. You could argue why not use other open spaces. One reason is that airports are usually located near urban centres. And they could easily house the infrastructure used to produce the energy and then deliver it to those urban centres so they could produce electricity to power the airport itself, but then also export a lot of electricity into the grid, which would be much more efficient than putting solar panels on each individual residential building.
Sandra Somehow, I'm tempted to ask about the glare, people have to land planes, you'd have these massive buildings with solar panels on top of them.
Kai Yeah, or even, you know, solar panels in the areas around the runways. As the Wired article argues there are actually solutions for this, special coatings that make those panels non-glare. So this seems to be something that from a technical point of view would be feasible. The problem is more that airports have all kinds of rules and regulations that would have to be changed to make this feasible. But another story that shows that there are lots of people thinking about how to creatively reuse space to increase sustainability.
Sandra And speaking of space, just a few hours ago, SpaceX successfully launched and landed its Starship prototype rocket.
Kai Yeah, version 15 of its Starship rocket finally made it back in one piece. It landed, it stood, it didn't fall, it didn't explode. There was a minor fire on the ground. But hey, success.
Sandra And this is obviously a huge milestone for SpaceX, which has flown prototypes before, but hasn't yet had a test where everything remained the intact at the end of it.
Kai It's a huge rocket, it's a 50 metre tall monstrosity, which apparently is a big deal to land this rocket. We know that SpaceX has landed booster rockets before but people are very excited about this. But this is not the only really valuable thing that we brought back from space.
Sandra And I can't believe we're risked flying it up there to begin with, but wine.
Kai Wine, a bottle of Chateau Petrus 1990, a really good bottle of wine has spent 14 months on the International Space Station, space-aged wine, which will now be auctioned off, take that NFTs.
Sandra So unlike most of the proceeds from the recent NFT sales that we've seen, the estimated million dollars that this bottle will probably go for at auction will go to funding more space stuff. And speaking of things make a comeback, we have to mention this one, offices seem to be making a comeback. Jamie Dimon, the CEO and Chairman of JPMorgan Chase says that he's fed up with Zoom calls and remote work. And he says the offices coming back. So he's commuting by the sounds of it. And while he does appreciate the need for greater flexibility and working from home or alternative work arrangements, he does know that there is no substitute for being in an office. Some of this going back to the conversation we had with Marc Stears a couple of weeks ago on this podcast and the discussions we've had around hybrid work.
Kai And that is in stark contrast to Australian tech firm Atlassian coming out this week announcing that its employees are only expected in the office once per quarter. So four times a year is now how often Atlassian employees will have to go to the office. That doesn't of course preclude them from going in every day. But pretty much you can work from home at this company if you want to.
Sandra So clearly a very fragmented landscape, the CEO of JPMorgan saying that they want people back to work in September/October at the levels they had before the COVID pandemic and noting that many of his clients said that JPMorgan lost business to its rival because other bankers had visited them and they hadn't. Highlighting the importance of face-to-face relationships and the role of the physical office.
Kai And speaking of companies.
Sandra This is actually another workplace story that we want to talk about today. And this has been developing over the last week or so. But we think it points to a much larger conversation that we're going to have today.
Kai And this is tech company Basecamp banning its employees from talking politics and social issues at work.
Sandra Let's do this.
Kai Let's do it.
Intro From The University of Sydney Business School, this is Sydney Business Insights, an initiative that explores the future of business. And you're listening to The Future, This Week where Sandra Peter and Kai Riemer sit down every week to rethink and unlearn trends in technology and business. They discuss the news of the week, question the obvious, and explore the weird and the wonderful.
Sandra So we thought we'd discuss today a story that broke last week around Basecamp. And Basecamp is a relatively small company that makes productivity software. And that last week announced some internal changes, including one that we're going to focus on in more detail here, which was banning all talk about politics, advocacy or society at large on internal discussion forums in the organisation. Basecamp's Chief Executive wrote a blog post in which he said that "every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large, quickly spins away from the pleasant. And you shouldn't have to wonder if staying out of it means you're complicit or wading into, it means that you're a target". In addition to discouraging this type of conversation on work platforms, Basecamp did announce a number of other changes, including that they would end paternalistic benefits, such as fitness reimbursements, or education allowances. But rather than just giving people the money and letting them decide what to do with it, they would ban committees and stop dwelling on past decisions.
Kai So what happened next is that, first of all, this garnered a lot of interest in the media, it's made its rounds. But also 1/3 of employees walked out on the company, that is 20 employees, some of which were very senior members had been with the company for more than 10 years, built some of their core products, basically resigned in protest of this new regulation.
Sandra And while some employees clearly want to keep having those conversations at work, and their activism, or their opinions, or stances on social and political issues are as much part of their work life as their individual life, companies like Basecamp have framed these new policies in terms of removing conflict, removing tensions and distractions from what is a workplace and where employees are expected to direct all their energies into the products or the services that they're working on.
Kai Tech companies like Google, Facebook, and others have for a long time been quite open and allowed employees to have candid discussions in the workplace, in workplace forums. And so it comes as a bit of a surprise, and as a counter example, that Basecamp would go in so hard, and many of the employees that are leaving have come out in public and Twitter, basically said that this is an overreaction by the founders, that it's very sad to see that they would shut down what was important discussions around diversity, inclusion, and that they fundamentally disagree with this hard-line stance.
Sandra So really, what we have seen for the past almost decade has been quite the opposite trend, more and more companies and employees getting involved not only in social purpose, and we've seen increased support and commitment for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including here at the Business School. But we've also seen companies getting more and more involved in what would be considered societal issues, corporate activism and speaking up on topics that matter beyond the immediate activities of the organisation.
Kai Oh, and I remember, didn't you do one of your very first Sydney Business Insights episodes on this, and didn't Alan Joyce, the CEO of Qantas get publicly involved in the discussion around gay marriage in Australia?
Audio - Alan Joyce "Well, I do believe there's a role for CEOs and a role for companies to get involved in social issues. And I do, that I, believe that one of the things that businesses should get involved in is taking on some social issues and having a voice on them. And Qantas has been vocal on gender equality, Qantas has been vocal, and I have, on on LGBT rights, but also on indigenous rights. And when this debate came up, I should say that as an openly gay man, I felt I had to be part of it, my board was very supportive. And a lot of our employees from the LGBTI community, a lot of our customers are."
Sandra And that was the CEO of Qantas, Alan Joyce. And since then Qantas had said that it will continue to campaign on social issues, including gay marriage and indigenous reconciliation and gender diversity. And they said that they believe that these issues are about the fundamental Australian values of fairness. They are the national carrier of Australia. And they said, just as they do on economic matters, that they will continue to speak up on social issues that are important. And again, this was a conversation we were having back in 2017. And this really has been the prevailing trend over the past five years. We mentioned earlier the Facebook ban on Donald Trump at Facebook, there have been demands from employees to take a tougher stance against Donald Trump, there was even a virtual walkout. Twitter employees, similarly, were involved in political conversations, Amazon had had employees calling on the leadership of the organisations to take a tougher stance on political issues. Just a couple of weeks ago, hundreds of companies signed the very public letter in defence of voting rights, including companies like Amazon and Google. Last year, we've seen companies like Nike or even Slack, Pinterest get involved in conversations around racism in the wake of the George Floyd murder in the US, and very much being in favour of internal conversations around these subjects.
Kai And some companies have even restricted their business offerings to take a stance on important issues. For example, online recipe hosting platform, Epicurious, in a move that it calls ‘pro-planet', came out and said that it will disallow the posting of any new beef-related recipes, given the large carbon footprint that cattle farming has.
Sandra Indeed, I remember a story we did on WeWork a couple of years ago when they banned all meat from any of their corporate functions, nor was it going to reimburse any meat-related expenses by any of its employees. But let's not talk about WeWork.
Kai No, given subsequent developments, we will stay away from a discussion of WeWork here.
Sandra So let's go back to Qantas in 2017, and also Basecamp last week. Both those CEOs framed their decision to speak or to ban speaking around these issues, in terms of what they consider the relevant thing to be for their business. In the case of Basecamp, to remove distractions so that people can focus on more work, in the case of Qantas, as this being the concern of their employees, of their broader stakeholders, and of society at large, hence very much a topic that they should speak up.
Kai So it really goes to the heart of the matter of what is a business for? What is the role of a business? And how should the business behave?
Sandra And let's be clear, the question of what is business for has always been an important one. Going back to Milton Friedman, who famously argued that the only social responsibility of business was to make money, then pay taxes and let government deal with the rest. This was a famous article in The New York Times in 1970, where he argued that the social responsibility of business was to increase its profits and concluded that maximising profit while not breaking the law was the only thing businesses should do. And since then, we've seen people like Michael Porter or Mark Kramer, who often wrote in the Harvard Business Review, that, "shared value is not social responsibility, philanthropy, or even sustainability, but a new way for companies to achieve economic success", and that businesses can create economic value while addressing social needs and challenges. And this is indeed what we've seen with all these stories, companies increasingly getting involved not only in discussions about having a purpose or having a social purpose, but also actively engaging in corporate activism.
Kai So shared values, not just shareholder value, if you want to put this in bumper sticker terms.
Sandra But we don't talk and fridge magnetisms here.
Kai Speak for yourself. But seriously, I think an important issue here is that many employees these days expect a lot from their companies in terms of taking a political or a societal stance and doing the right thing. We've seen this in employee opposition to controversial contracts like Google, or Microsoft when working with Defence, or Facebook employees speaking out about misinformation, fake news, against some of the things that the company does.
Sandra But also sexism, racism, sustainability, climate change, human rights, we've seen companies being active in all sorts of societal and political arenas that are not directly related to the product or service that they offer. Hence, we were stumped by this story. And just to mention that Basecamp is not the only company, there have been a couple of similar stories, including Coinbase. And Coinbase CEO has come out in a similar way against social activism. And he said that the reason for this was that it has the potential to destroy a lot of value for most companies, both by being a distraction, and creating internal divisions. And he pointed to companies like Google and Facebook and what this can do to productivity. So then the important question is, why are these companies now seemingly going against the grain? What is happening?
Kai Well, some important things have changed.
Sandra And that has flown under the radar, because with all the efforts to have these conversations more mainstream, the context in which these companies, especially many of the American companies, operate has changed dramatically over the past five years.
Kai First of all, this comes at the end of two very divisive national election campaigns in the US that has further polarised political factions.
Sandra It comes on the back of increasing polarisation on social media. We've seen the rise in misinformation, dis-information, but also in more and more extreme points of view and extreme content on social media.
Kai And part of the changes in public discourse has been an increasingly aggressive call out culture and an uneasiness with topics that are difficult or indeed offensive.
Sandra And we've had on the podcast people like Jonathan Haidt talking about the fact that this call-out culture, these confrontations between people, especially on social media, has been really amplified by Gen Z, those born after 1995 and until about 2010, entering the workforce, and this being the first truly digital generation that has grown up with social media as a very large part of their life and who might lack the resilience to have the really difficult conversations to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty.
Kai And so it presents this perfect storm where companies find themselves presented with this tension of on the one hand, wanting to engage in public discourse wanting to allow employees to speak up, but having increasingly to deal with the fact that employees refer discussions to HR, that some of the discussions are being escalated and present real distractions from work as these conversations become more and more divisive and polarised in workplaces as well.
Sandra And that is what makes stories like Basecamp, or Coinbase, changing their policies really interesting because they highlight the subtle changes that have been going on in the context that these companies operate in over the last five years and present some real tension for how companies can engage authentically with these issues.
Kai So corporations now have to navigate speaking with an authentic voice in public discourse, while at the same time making sure that internal discussions remain civil and at a level that do not distract from productive work, that do not turn employees against each other in divisive discussions, when in fact, you want to build productive teams and collaboration. And so companies will have different reactions to this.
Sandra And here is I think, again, why Basecamp is such an interesting story to look at. Because again and again, in these conversations, we do seem to come back to large businesses, whether it's Qantas, or Google or Facebook or Nike, we always end up in these conversations with the big businesses. And yet small businesses make up most of the businesses in most economies, and they're businesses that will have a much harder time addressing conflict and polarisation within their organisation. Large companies with very strong corporate cultures who also have the ability to attract and maintain a certain type of talent have always been much better at navigating these difficult conversations.
Kai And Basecamp presents an extreme example of what can happen when leaders resort to the blunt instrument of just shutting down any discourse related to political or societal matters, having lost now 1/3 of its workforce as a result.
Sandra So very much an open conversation and a challenge to leaders now more so than ever as they grapple with uncertainty and more and more complex context to articulate what their business is for.
Kai And that's all we have time for today.
Sandra Thanks for listening.
Kai Thanks for listening.
Outro This was The Future, This Week, an initiative of The University of Sydney Business School. Sandra Peter is the Director of Sydney Business Insights and Kai Riemer is Professor of Information Technology and Organisation. Connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter and Flipboard, and subscribe, like or leave us a rating wherever you get your podcasts. If you have any weird and wonderful topics for us to discuss, send them to email@example.com.
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