Currents with Kriss is a regular column by Tides CEO Kriss Deiglmeier.
San Francisco is abuzz with debate about the responsibility tech companies have to the cities where their workers live and the cities in which they operate. The visible culprit, provoking a wave of public protest, is private shuttling of employees at the Bay Area’s lead tech companies to and from San Francisco and Silicon Valley, in luxury buses that pick up workers at public bus stops along the city’s main transportation corridors. In fact, the bus protests have gotten national attention. People are attributing a host of societal problems to high-profile tech companies: skyrocketing housing costs, widespread evictions, unwanted gentrification, and displacement of long-time residents who have nowhere else to go.
Questions of housing, economic opportunity, and safety nets are important and need to be tackled. The conversation I see missing from the debate, however, is much more nuanced and far-reaching. What are the consequences, both intended and inadvertent, of the new business model that is under-pinned by isolation and separation?
I grew up in Seattle, where Boeing, Nordstrom, Starbucks, Costco, and Microsoft all got their start. As I remember it, businesses brought jobs, tax revenue, and growing demand for the services and products of local merchants. Community entrepreneurs provided things that company employees wanted, like dry-cleaning, deli sandwiches, and shoe repairs. And the symbiotic relationship between business and community fostered an ebb and flow between work and home that felt integrated and mutually dependent. As a Boeing employee my dad volunteered year after year with the Special Olympics, and I was expected, never requested, to join him in contributing time to the cause each summer. In my home, as in many others, contributing to our local community was an expectation of doing business there.
Our new tech companies, in contrast, seem to be built more like castles, valuing self-sufficiency and employee convenience so highly that the divisions between the office and the surrounding communities are like walls around a fortress. Within a fortressed castle, the inhabitants did not need to mingle with the world around them. The farmers, cooks, millers, weavers, and iron-smiths resided outside the walls, sending only the best food, entertainment and daily goods inside the castle. Consumer-to-producer interaction was limited at best and royalty could easily fall out of touch with real life in the countryside.
Today I see an eerie parallel in the bounteous comfort of today’s top tech employers. Security to enter their compounds is tight and, once within the walls, all employee needs—food by celebrity chefs, massage, gym facilities, on-site doctors—are taken care of by a select few who are authorized to pass. This new way of work is now the norm for many tech firms, and start-ups emulate the model as they attempt to compete for top talent.
What I find puzzling is that a number of my friends who work at these companies would never want to live in an exclusive gated community. They value “real” neighborhoods and say they want to be a part of diverse, walkable communities. So why are they so complacent in the gated fortresses of work?
For society to thrive, we indeed need businesses to thrive. We need the innovation, investment and jobs that the private sector provides. The tech sector in particular has made the world a better place by enabling unprecedented access to information that can help level the playing field, innovations for improved health, and well-paying jobs that have never before existed in far-reaching corners of the world. Moreover, many tech companies contribute directly to the social good, with employee matching funds, company foundations and employee volunteer programs. Businesses are fundamental to prosperous communities – they bring jobs, tax revenue, new products, enhanced services and innovation.
However, when companies isolate themselves from the communities where they are located or where their employees live, there can be unintended consequences.
What do we lose in an era of business isolation?
The benefits of random, open interaction
Tech companies strive to develop solutions that bring new value to users. The most creative ideas often emerge from bringing together diverse talents to tackle a problem, from fresh observations of something outside our daily routines, or from conversations that reach beyond our usual patterns of thought to reveal possibility in uncharted places. Imagine what we will lose if our work week becomes so insulated from the world that opportunities for uncharted interactions with our neighbors are stifled?
The positive culture of being a genuine part of solutions
Most companies espouse their intent to contribute to making the world a better place, especially when seeking to recruit top talent. However, a work place that is isolated from its social context is disconnected from the goal of being a good community citizen. And the responsibility of business is not just to the city where it resides, but also to the communities where it finds its employees, sources its materials, and sells its products. Reaching beyond the walls of the workplace and engaging with our communities offer opportunities to make social responsibility more than a platitude.
The opportunity to support locally driven entrepreneurship
Entrepreneurs and small businesses are the lifeblood of today’s economy. They make an impact in our lives, in our families and in our communities. If we can unleash tech workers’ individual purchasing power on the streets of the communities where they live and work, it will boost local economies and help drive urban and suburban development.
The empathy that comes from being part of a community
It is easy to ignore difficult things when we are not exposed to them. If we never have to take public transportation we don’t need to care that it does not work. If we have 24/7 access to fresh, unprocessed meals, we don’t need to worry that families can’t find unpackaged food in the neighborhood outside our office building. If we never have to speak with a homeless veteran, we have little understanding when asked to vote on issues of housing or veteran services. Because we aspire to be a society that cares for one another and because we believe that progress must include all strata of society, we can’t afford to sit behind our desks (or in the air conditioned comfort of a luxury private bus) isolated from the rest of the world.
This is a call about going forward, not backward. Our region’s top employers compete like crazy for the best global talent, and have created alluring castles of work-week comfort to draw them in. The private bus issue seems to me to have started as an honest attempt to meet employee needs and keep cars off of the freeways, with the unintended consequence of burdening public bus stops and exaggerating the differences between users of public transit and tech employees.
Going back to my hometown example, in the late 1800s Seattle was a busy port with a jumble of privately-owned shipyards, docks, and private railways. It took collaboration from a variety of stakeholders in business and government to design a more thoughtfully planned system. The new port and transportation infrastructure positioned Seattle to expand in 1944 with the Seattle-Tacoma airport and to introduce containerized shipping. The updated and integrated transportation system was central to Seattle’s ability to expand business with Asia, which continues to fuel the regional economy. Imagine the potential if tech companies across the world would wield their problem-solving prowess to collaborate with government on the shortcomings of public transportation and other public goods that are outdated or inefficient, rather than rely on one-off quick fixes to meet short-term needs. The benefits could be impressive, meeting the needs of company employees as well as our society at large.
We need to harness the talent, resources, and innovative culture that today’s tech companies have brought to change the world for the benefit of our local communities. As we strive to build employee loyalty and assure excellence in our work, we need to remember that our community extends far beyond the walls of our offices. Bono’s refrain sums up my call for more understanding, empathy, and commitment to shared action. “There is no them, there is only us.”
It is time to unleash the belief of ALL, not US versus THEM.