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 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 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.

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