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.