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What Sheryl Sandberg shows us about the future of work

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The New Yorker‘s recent profile of Sheryl Sandberg purports to be a piece about women in technology and doubles as a fine executive profile. But it’s also a glimpse into the evolving state of the workplace in an entrepreneurial and highly connected world — what I think of as the future of work for the professional class.

The New Yorker profile hints at these topics, rather than exploring them directly, but within the nine pages of the article, Sandberg’s decisions about going to Facebook, her leadership style, the life she has created in order to be the COO of a hot startup and the reaction she gets from women and her employees all paint a certain picture. Here’s a good example of how Sandberg views her work, from when she was evaluating moving from Google (s goog) to Facebook:

“It was like dating,” says Dave Goldberg, Sandberg’s husband and the C.E.O. of the online company SurveyMonkey. Sandberg says they asked each other, “What do you believe? What do you care about? What’s the mission? It was very philosophical.”

It was philosophical, because the professional class today doesn’t join a company with a nine-to-five work ethic anymore. They are also joining a group of people that they will spend long hours with either at the office or online. They’re entering a relationship with these people, so those people better mesh with their values and ideals.

Work has become like a family

This isn’t just at Facebook. Many workers have been forced by an uncertain economy and an overall shift in employment to become more entrepreneurial, which means there are more people setting their own agendas and hours. But as Generation X and the millennials rise in the workforce, there also more people who are motivated and driven by their own goals, rather than a company’s goals.

So we have a shift in why people work and how they choose their jobs. How do you build a company and a culture that works with this shift instead of against it? Clearly forcing people to work from nine to five in a cube seems like it would be destined for failure, especially since self-motivated employees generally work best when left to follow their own ideas and projects. So options such as telecommuting, Google’s (s goog) famed 20 percent time or Facebook’s Hackamonth are good for providing outlets for entrepreneurial people.

But I don’t think that goes far enough. I believe work is changing to be more like a family. Just like in families, where there is an ethos around everyone pitching in and working toward a common goal, a company needs to have people who are all dedicated toward a company goal. I’m not talking about some hokey mission statement, but rather a tangible result that everyone agrees with. At GigaOM, it’s delivering good analysis on major stories. We’re all pulling for the same thing, together. This also means people are more willing to work longer or odd hours when needed, because they believe they’ll get time off when they need it. Employees have a loyalty to the company that is rewarded with loyalty back to the employee.

And if something falls apart, just like your home-family, your colleagues will support you. In startups and entrepreneurial workplaces, there’s very little blaming and throwing people under a bus because of their “family values.” It may seem idealistic, but smart, creative people don’t have to hang around in bad environments, and they often won’t. In the Sandberg profile, plenty of people mentioned her ability to push junior staff members forward and encourage people to succeed. That’s the style of leadership required for creating these workplaces.

Today’s professional class are driven by their own goals, so like Sandberg did with Zuckerberg, they look for a deeper connection with their workplaces. They are looking for a good fit — in lifestyle and culture besides merely previous experience and career goals — not just a job. This change is seen as a good — especially within the tech community.

Not everyone wants two families

But there’s a darn good reason most people don’t want two families. It divides your loyalties, and it’s hard to prioritize when you have divided loyalties. To accommodate this, there needs to be a corresponding cultural shift in the home, something the Sandberg profile also illustrates.

She said, “The No. 1 impediment to women succeeding in the workforce is now in the home. . . . Most people assume that women are responsible for households and child care. Most couples operate that way — not all. That fundamental assumption holds women back.” The second impediment is guilt, she said. “I feel guilty working because of my kids. I do. I feel guilty. In my TED talk, I’m talking to myself, too. I’m not just talking to other people. I have faced every one of those things myself.”

As women play a greater role in the professional world, they also tend to expect more from their partners at home. So when Sandberg talks about her husband sharing the workload, that’s not an idle comment — it’s essential to her success. But it also allows her husband to achieve a level of participation in his home life that many of today’s younger men say they want. And when both partners are trying to have it all instead of just women, the social dynamic changes, ideally in a way that allows more women to take on leadership roles without being stigmatized for having a family.

That works on a macro level. But it’s the day-to-day — or sometimes, minute-by-minute — conflicts that put the true pressure on both work- and home-families, making me (and I’m sure other people like me) wonder why we even bother trying to balance both. Something as simple as a huge story breaking on weekend when your husband is out of town creates instant conflict. But when it works, it’s the most satisfying feeling in the world, and as a skilled worker, I can’t imagine going back to some nine-to-five existence where my projects and priorities are dictated by others instead of something I care deeply about.

Image courtesy of the World Economic Forum.

10 Responses to “What Sheryl Sandberg shows us about the future of work”

  1. peter mcdonald

    please! stop that utter nonesense! how could anybody join facebook for philosophical reasons? that would mean you agree with facebook’s shady business practices and foremost with its user-unfriendly terms & conditions – clearly a very unethical move. no, it’s simple and classic: it’s all about power and money. if, like sandberg, you get a big enough share of a (now) 100 bn cake with the ipo still ahead, you don’t think twice. i don’t condemn this, but please be honest about the real motives and stop telling that politically correct nonesense.

  2. Lorne Watley

    Please stop using family….I have had this drilled into my head for decades. Maybe an incredibly dysfunctional family. If my family treated me like I have been treated over the years, they would have been disowned long ago.

  3. Sirius

    Partial descriptions and somewhat convenient omissions of the fundamental differences across most firms and non-agrarian/modern-day families – particularly the linkage between performance and profit. The “insight” provided here is only validated by offering up a few startups as examples, along with a few Silicon Valley tech cos, while ignoring the more obvious proposition embedded in partnership-based or perhaps family-run firms (that have been around for hundreds of years). But folks probably prefer to read about Facebook and Google instead of Ernst & Young or Wilson Sonsini. Rather than a sneak preview of some unseen socio-economic change, the NYT piece is truly just a fine executive profile and a view of women in technology.

    • I disagree. I think the nature of work is changing and thus the relationship between the employee and employer will also shift. Not everywhere and not all at once, but gradually. I don’t think this style gives a pass to folks who slack or underperform, so maybe family is too warm of an analogy, but I do think cutting good performers some slack and fostering a sense of loyalty matters and will get a company workers that will help deliver to the bottom line.

  4. There are so many things wrong with this notion of what work is. The first problem is the myth that working more results in more… something. It does not. It has been proven time and time again.

    Furthermore, the notion that there’s a touchy feely relationship is predicated on younger, inexperienced people thinking that the company actually has some emotional investment in the employee. I’m sorry, but even at clever startups, this investment simply does not exist, or if it does, it only persists when there’s money available. I’ve been laid-off more times than I can count, and I have no delusion of commitment on behalf of my employers.

    Does that mean you just work for the paycheck? Absolutely not. At least, it doesn’t have to be that way. It does mean that you should be prepared for the “divorce” with your employer, because one way or another, it will probably come.

  5. The “we’re just like family” ethos is lovely as long as things are going well. The model falls apart in two ways: first, healthy families don’t fire underperformers. A well run company can’t succeed if it coddles slackers but most every family has a beloved black sheep who just can’t pull it together. Second, as soon as the money gets tight and the discussion moves to layoffs… well, all sense of “family” goes out the window.

    I think of my companies more like a village or a community than a family. Members of a community support each other and work together in a dynamic fashion but, and this is a very big but, in a community members need to pull their own weight or they’re ostracized.

  6. ” I believe work is changing to be more like a family. ”

    Stacy, you’ve been spending too much time around incredibly well-funded web startups. Maybe they have the M.O. you describe, but the giant multinationals (and the smaller wannabe multinationals) run their businesses a lot different. They have compartmentalized every job as if all of the employees are robots, reducing them to boring, scripted existences that make people dream of retirement at 50. They are typically run by accountants that believe every decision (including the spec of a product) can be reduced to a formula, or sales people who cynically believe that the only thing that matters is their brand and channel. They talk a lot about the environment, the community, their employees, but they really don’t care about any of that – they say those things because it’s politically correct. They don’t like change, they abhor it, because it means their products or services will have to adapt, and their profits are not guaranteed. The people who run those companies do it not for the employees, shareholders, or customers, but for their own benefit, and don’t care about those other stakeholders.

    Yes, people with specific skills that are in demand by bubble companies can make demands to meet their lifestyle needs, but for everybody else, it’s a buyers market, and they don’t have the same leverage. More companies will emulate Exxon and Wal-Mart than Facebook, and I have a hard time believing they give their employees as much freedom as the over-hyped, over-funded, and over-valued dot-coms give theirs.

    • Ken, I think it’s a function of skills and attitude by the worker. Most of the best people I know, even at bigger companies have a lot of freedom and flexibility (my friends at Dell has perhaps more internal politics than I deal with but that’s a tradeoff they make to be at a big, stable company).

      • Stacy, I agree that a lot is up to the worker, but in most places, the workers have been programmed to be drones. The management wants to minimize risk and mistakes, so they create a rigid structure for their employees to operate under.

        If work wasn’t so boring for most people, they wouldn’t spend hours watching horribly insipid and dreadful movies and (alleged) reality shows, playing games like Farmville and angry birds (not to mention spending money on them), and wasting hours updating and reading the endless streams of trivia and minutiae that comprise 98% of the content on sites like Facebook and twitter. They wouldn’t fantasize about retiring from their jobs so they could spend more time on mindless time sinks.

        I think companies like Dell only appear to be stable. Nokia appeared stable up until a year or so ago, and now they are in danger of obsolescence. RIM is on their path, and I would be surprised if Dell isn’t just five years behind them. The formula-driven management and devotion to risk avoidance at companies like those is what dooms them, and ultimately makes working there miserable. Of course, maybe you’re on to something when you compare them to families, as for all we know what passes as a dysfunctional family may actually be the norm.