yesAnna KramerNone
×

Get access to Protocol

I’ve already subscribed

Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

People

The year our personal lives took center stage at work

2020's blurring of professional and personal boundaries exacerbated disparities, humanized leaders and put personal values front and center.

WFH

In 2020, the personal and the professional became inextricable at work.

Photo: Tom Werner/Getty Images

For those of us lucky enough to keep our jobs and privileged enough to be able to work from home, our whole selves were bared at work this year. Our homes and faces were blown up for virtual inspection. Our children's demands and crises filled our working hours, and our working mothers became schoolteachers and housewives, whether they wanted to or not. Our illnesses became vital public information, and our tragedies shared. Our work lives ate into our social lives until there was no boundary between them.

In 2020, the personal and the professional became inextricable at work. Remote work might be the most sexy 2020 trend, but for the CEOs and leaders I spoke with, the de-professionalization of work could be the most important effect on a personal level. It's the one that has caused the most harm to women in the workplace and destroyed work-life balance for basically everyone. It's also what has contributed to the majority of work-from-home Americans being more satisfied with their work lives than they were before, mostly because they feel more connected to their families, they're able to set their own schedules and they're more comfortable at home, according to a Morning Consult poll. While we can't know exactly how many and who will be going back to the office just yet, as long as there is some kind of flexible work schedule, people's personal lives will be part of their work lives and vice versa.

"In some respects, it has created intimacy in a way we didn't expect. Because you can't hide your life. You can't hide your whole self," explained Erika Fisher, chief administrative officer and general counsel at Atlassian. This can allow people to set their own schedules around their needs and increase empathy between workers and their managers. The increased intimacy also became an equalizer in meetings, because it democratizes participation and gives everyone the same physical space online, according to Fisher. "You don't have to worry about the man-spreading that happens in meetings, literally or metaphorically," she said.

Personal politics and activism at work are also an element of newly blurred professional boundaries. The summer of protests following the killing of George Floyd, combined with the chaos of the 2020 election cycle, spurred more than just diversity pledges by corporations; it created a new wave of people bringing their politics and values to work. While Brian Armstrong stirred up support in some corners when he declared that political and social beliefs had no place at Coinbase, his memo also crystalized for others that personal identity and personal values should be welcomed where they work. Company leaders at SF-based edtech startup Outschool encouraged their employees to get involved in the 2020 election, while people like Kary Campbell, Airbnb's former director of design, told me that "companies and societies can no longer just exist to create profitable numbers for their shareholders. We need to evolve as human beings to be more creative than that."

While global comms provider Mitel has never taken explicit political positions, the historically quiet company saw a big jump in activism, affinity group creation and values discussions among its workforce this year. "I think we can agree that people need to be treated fairly and that we should embrace and welcome who people are," said Mary McDowell, the company's CEO. "That is part of people's whole selves. It's part of what they bring to work now, when it wasn't before."

But while falling professional boundaries have been good for some people and some parts of work, they've seriously damaged others. Just because personal lives are now dictating work schedules and kids, pets and houses take center stage on screen doesn't mean that workers' relationships with peers and managers are as healthy or social as they were before. Instead, intimate personal information is shared without the buffer of friendship and companionship that can be found in the office, making most workers feel more lonely, isolated and judged, not less.

"Increased intimacy also makes differences much more acute," Fisher said. And it's those differences that contribute to the fact that one in four women in corporate roles have considered downshifting their careers, according to McKinsey's Women in the Workplace 2020 report. The "always-online" remote work norm has made caretaking responsibilities, which fall more heavily on women, increasingly visible at work; now, "worry that their performance is being negatively judged because of caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic" is one of the key factors affecting why working mothers are considering downshifting their careers, according to the report.

But falling professional boundaries could also help solve the problem, said Lareina Yee, McKinsey's chief diversity officer and the report's leader. Many companies have policies that encourage flexibility and leave-taking, but workers don't see their leaders take advantage of those policies. If leaders are clear that they are fighting the same battles, they can "de-risk this perception that their career will be hurt if they actually say they need to use something that a company already offers," she said.

Fisher is focused on physical space in her search for solutions. Some workers are comfortable in their home spaces and willing and even eager to share them on video, but others may not have privacy, or a clean room, or enough space to be conducive to work and to help them feel comfortable at home. Twitter's RoomRater and other Zoom-rating accounts, while mostly funny and well-intentioned, made that abundantly clear, literally assessing the quality of a person's room and helping legitimize the judgment and subsequent shaming of people's personal spaces.

So, whether people go back to the office full time, Fisher wants to find ways for Atlassian to provide a physical space that allows people to enjoy the flexibility of work-from-home while reducing the disparities and judgment that can come with the increased intimacy. "Space is one of the choices that you can extend to people," she said.

In 2021, the conversation about work will be a conversation about the choices we make in physical spaces, and about whether we want to rebuild the walls between our personal and professional lives. Fisher described it best: "There's this wave happening. Even when the wave comes ashore and washes back out … There will be a different direction."

Here at Protocol, we've written more stories about the future of work than I have the energy to count (I got to 20 before I gave up, and that only took me as far back as May). So if you're looking for more on what we learned in 2020, I selected some of the most interesting and important articles we've written this year:

Issie Lapowsky wrote about how remote work is hurting mothers, and Mike Murphy delved into why the future is probably not entirely remote. David Pierce profiled Dropbox's Drew Houston, who hopes to capitalize on a new world of work and interviewed Superhuman CEO Rahul Vohra on how to run a remote company on our podcast. I talked to Salesforce's futurist Peter Schwartz about why companies will lose talent if they aren't flexible about work and dug into how new ideas about work will make it easier for companies to diversify their workforce by investing in places like Atlanta.

People

Amazon’s head of Alexa Trust on how Big Tech should talk about data

Anne Toth, Amazon's director of Alexa Trust, explains what it takes to get people to feel comfortable using your product — and why that is work worth doing.

Anne Toth, Amazon's director of Alexa Trust, has been working on tech privacy for decades.

Photo: Amazon

Anne Toth has had a long career in the tech industry, thinking about privacy and security at companies like Yahoo, Google and Slack, working with the World Economic Forum and advising companies around Silicon Valley.

Last August she took on a new job as the director of Alexa Trust, leading a big team tackling a big question: How do you make people feel good using a product like Alexa, which is designed to be deeply ingrained in their lives? "Alexa in your home is probably the closest sort of consumer experience or manifestation of AI in your life," she said. That comes with data questions, privacy questions, ethical questions and lots more.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

People

Google’s productivity guru has some advice for you

Here's how Laura Mae Martin helps Google's top execs work smarter.

Laura Mae Martin, Google's executive productivity adviser, works one-on-one with the company's top brass.

Image: Google

If productivity were a product at Google, then Laura Mae Martin would be its product manager.

She's Google's executive productivity adviser, a job she created following a successful 20% project about managing inboxes that she debuted while working in keyword sales. As the company's top expert on productivity, her remit seems simple enough: Make Googlers more efficient in their day-to-day work lives. But in practice, that means working directly with the top executives of a trillion-dollar company to make some of tech's most sought-after talent better at what they do.

Keep Reading Show less
Kevin McAllister

Kevin McAllister ( @k__mcallister) is an associate editor at Protocol, leading the development of Braintrust. Prior to joining the team, he was a rankings data reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where he oversaw structured data projects for the Journal's strategy team.

People

Nine tricks from Google’s productivity guru

These productivity tips were voted as some of the best by Google employees. Now they're yours.

Google Workspace, G Suite's successor, has plenty of integrations to take advantage of.

Image: Google

Each Friday, Google's top productivity expert, Laura Mae Martin, sends a note to more than half the company globally describing ways that different departments are using their own tools to be more efficient. Here's a list of the favorites, as upvoted by Googlers themselves.

Read more about how Martin coaches Google's top execs to work smarter.

Keep Reading Show less
Kevin McAllister

Kevin McAllister ( @k__mcallister) is an associate editor at Protocol, leading the development of Braintrust. Prior to joining the team, he was a rankings data reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where he oversaw structured data projects for the Journal's strategy team.

People

How tech leaders changed in 2020

We asked some of tech's most forward-thinking people how their work lives changed in 2020, and how their 2021 plans are shaping up.

One of 2020's most lasting effects: A total overhaul of how we spend our time.

Image: Clockwise

It can be hard to know what to take away from 2020. It was an utterly unique year, with so many changes forced on so many people. And hopefully, 2021 and beyond won't have too much in common with the year that passed. But everyone in tech seems to agree that whatever the future looks like, it'll be different because of what happened in 2020.

In that spirit, we asked a number of leaders across the tech world to reflect a bit on a crazy year, and to tell us a few things they've learned, what's changed, and how they're bringing the new normal into 2021. Here's what they told us.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Politics

Here’s how Big Tech is preparing for regulations in 2021

Companies know that the heat is only going to increase this year.

2021 promises to be a turbulent year for Big Tech.

Photo: Ting Shen/Getty Images

The open internet. Section 230. China. Internet access. 5G. Antitrust. When we asked the policy shops at some of the biggest and most powerful tech companies to identify their 2021 policy priorities, these were the words they had in common.

Each of these issues centers around a common theme. "Despite how tech companies might feel, they've been enjoying a very high innovation phase. They're about to experience a strong regulation phase," said Erika Fisher, Atlassian's general counsel and chief administrative officer. "The question is not if, but how that regulation will be shaped."

Keep Reading Show less
Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (@ anna_c_kramer), where she helps write and produce Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

Latest Stories