The Basecamp Debacle Shows Why Companies Shouldn’t Hinge Their Identity on Being Remote

A remote work darling faces an uncertain (public) future

For years, Basecamp marketed itself as a wondrous place to work. They pioneered the “calm” company concept and even wrote the literal book on remote working. Now it seems a lot of that might have been a facade - or at the very least was not exactly how things were portrayed. 

Casey Newton wrote a great in-depth analysis of the Basecamp debacle (where the company all-but banished political speech in the name of keeping things “calm”).

There have also been many tweet threads from Basecampers (present and former) explaining their side of the story and how they feel about the change. 

So, I am not going to wax poetic on the decision. I have my personal opinions (I don’t think it will accomplish what they hope it will accomplish), but in this newsletter I want to talk about impacts of this decision in a remote work environment. 

The bad side of remote work is limited visibility

This is one of the downsides of remote work. You can’t see people talking or not talking. 

Let’s pretend that Basecamp (or Coinbase, for that matter) were all in-office when they decided this was their go-forward policy. A few things might have happened:

Dead silence as a statement: People refusing to talk about anything that is even remotely non-work. This would seriously hinder creativity, since so many ideas involve at least some non-work element - even if you were just walking to work, saw something, and it triggered an idea. Well, that idea would no longer be welcome at work.

You would feel this awkwardness. It’s more difficult to feel remotely, since you can ignore it if you want.

Boomerang impact: I mean this with the utmost respect and admiration: Has an American (or a very loud Dane on Twitter) ever stopped talking when someone tried to exert authority over them and tell them to stop talking? I’m getting images of spilt tea in my head, though my American history is fuzzy as I am Canadian and never took American history.

All this to say: if Twitter is any indication, Basecampers are very much not shutting up about politics. They are just moving it into the public sphere where Basecamp “has no business.”

Talking about the decision and not about work: When you plunk a big decision like this onto staff (and reports were that this was indeed plunked), the team has to spend emotional energy processing it. That means even more disruption. In an office environment, this could easily go on with every coffee break and walking meeting. Remotely, it could be even worse with DMs and private chats.

Why would this decision happen at all?

The conspiracy theorist in me wants to say this was done for marketing purposes. Because there will be enough people who… 

  • Outright support it (like Brian Armstrong from Coinbase, who similarly got lots of press for his announcement)

  • Feel like it’s being blown out of proportion on Twitter and thus tacitly support it

  • Be driven to support it by latent personal issues where they take Twitter commentary on DHH and JF as a personal attack, so supporting it is the only way to shore up their identity in their eyes

… for Basecamp to do just fine. 

But the realist in me doesn’t quite think this. It seems odd to throw your company off a PR cliff just for the sake of a bit of marketing (though, hey, Americans have seen that it works. It reminds me a lot of the card game Hearts. Collect one spade card and you lose. Collect them all and you win by default). 

Instead, I tend to agree with one employee’s commentary to Casey Newton: That JF and DHH are kinda selfish and only want to build a company that purely benefits them. That’s why they went remote and that’s why they’ve banned all speech they don’t want to engage with in the workplace. From a purely capitalist perspective, this is fine. You’re always granted enough rope to hang yourself with - it’s perhaps the one thing that’s free in a capitalist society. 

What does Basecamp’s decision mean for remote work?

Like it or not, Basecamp was a model of remote work for years - and likely will still be cited as one. So what does this decision mean for remote work in the future?

We’re already in a topsy turvy world where pandemic lockdown work is more restrictive than in-office work (again: pandemic lockdown work is NOT remote work).

So what does this mean for new companies thinking about their remote work future? Will people equate remote work with speech-banning policies after two remote work darlings created similar policies? That would be an interesting future, to say the least.

If you’re curious about my own personal takeaway from this: it’s a great reminder that remote work is a tool - and should only ever be thought of as such. If it works (which it does in many circumstances), great. But don’t make it part of your identity. Dogma usually doesn’t end well.

Thanks for reading! 

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