Working It: Can you speak your mind in the office?

Written by: Isabel Berwick, Sophia Smith
Published on: 13 Sep 2022

This article is an on-site version of our Working It newsletter. Sign up here to get the newsletter sent straight to your inbox every Wednesday

Thank you for all the kind words, suggestions for improvement, questions and workplace dilemmas sent in response to the first Working It newsletter last week. It’s exciting to see our community grow — please keep your thoughts coming, and do share this newsletter with other FT subscribers.

The challenge when launching a newsletter, or any new product, is to keep a handle on workflow and progress. My newsletter colleague Sophia Smith is based in New York, while I am in London. How do we communicate asynchronously — when the time is right for us — as well as in virtual meetings and real-time chats online? And how can we improve transparency across all our work streams so that there’s an “at a glance” view for everything?

Confession: in common with many people in creative industries, including other editors here at the FT, I rely on Google Docs. They are easy, they are shareable, and they update at once. But Slack, Trello and other workflow, productivity and collaboration tools are better-suited to post-pandemic hybrid work.

Sophia is going to help sort our FT team out — she’s an expert in workflow management — but I’d be interested to hear what workflow and collaboration tools work best for you.

And what are the productivity hacks that keep you on track? To say I am easily distracted by Twitter, WhatsApp and the like is an understatement. I’ve only just got around to switching off notifications on my phone — the “Focus” option that’s appeared in the latest iPhone upgrade was definitely tailor-made for me.

In today’s newsletter Sophia explores free speech in the office, and what should — or shouldn’t — be off limits in the workplace. Read on for details from our podcast on disability in the workplace that didn’t make the episode.

You can reach me at isabel.berwick@ft.com. See you next week.

Join us May 7 at our inaugural US edition of the FTWeekend Festival, where Henry Kissinger, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, William J Burns, Tina Brown, Jennifer Egan and more will be in attendance. Claim 50 per cent off your pass using our exclusive newsletter discount FTNewslettersxFTWF22. We look forward to welcoming you, in Washington, DC or virtually.


The sweet spot between censorship and ‘anything goes’

sweet spot
© FT montage / Getty

Last week, The Intercept reported that Amazon would ban words like “union,” “compensation” and “diversity” from an internal employee messaging system which is set to pilot later this month. The possibility that Amazon might suppress certain topics in the workplace is reminiscent of the decision made last year by software company Basecamp to prohibit political discussions, which infuriated employees. Statements from both Basecamp and Amazon pointed to a desire to create a happier, less stressful work environment — but do employees truly feel happier at work when the boss is dictating what they can and cannot discuss at the virtual water cooler?

On the other side of this spectrum is Elon Musk, a self-described “free speech absolutist” who is now the largest shareholder of Twitter. Before Musk reversed his decision to join Twitter’s board, he had employees worried that he could use his influence to scale back their long-term efforts to moderate healthy conversation on the platform.

Disney has also been in the news for speaking out on social issues. Earlier this month it said it would push to have Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill repealed, after initially keeping quiet about it. And while Musk and Disney aren’t arbitrating workplace conversations directly, their public stances on what is and is not OK to say certainly set the tone for what’s permitted in the office.

“Repressing issues doesn’t make them go away,” says business psychologist Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg. “Err on the side of freedom,” she advises, but beware that total freedom can devolve into majority rule and frat party culture. Setting boundaries can benefit employees, but if leadership goes too far, they risk stifling conversation about the real dilemmas and needs of their workers. For the best policy, she says, “make it about ‘values and tone’ rather than detailed regulation,” and involve employees in crafting the rules. (Sophia Smith)


Listen In: Should we be more open about disability?

listen in
Isabel Berwick and Pilita Clark discuss the Great Resignation at a Working It live event in London © Ben Walsh

This week on the Working It podcast we discuss disability — something that’s not talked about enough in the workplace. My guests are Caroline Casey, a campaigner for disability inclusion at work, and an FT colleague, Naomi Rovnick. We discussed Naomi’s mid-life diagnosis with dyspraxia, a neurodiverse condition. We had to cut it for the podcast, but I hope we can return to Naomi’s story — she is a fantastic advocate for the benefits that neurodiverse colleagues bring to teams. She’s incredibly organised and focused and can see patterns where others don’t — but she finds it challenging to pack a bag and get to work at a specific time.

For Naomi and many others, hybrid and flexible work has been liberating, and has allowed them to do their best work ever. Let’s hope it can continue.

Next week’s episode is all about the Great Resignation. Pilita Clark and I did a dry run for the recording at our first Working It live event at The Hoxton’s co-working space in Southwark, near the FT office.

It was a wonderful location with a very engaged audience, some of whom have already taken part in the Great Resignation. We answered some of their questions in our recording later that day at the FT office, where Emma Jacobs joined us. Hear more on next week’s episode, which will be released on April 20.


Elsewhere in the world of work:

  1. Good managers: The rise of remote and hybrid work has raised the question of whether managers have become redundant. Indeed, whenever managers are in the public eye, it’s often in a negative light — as the butt of a sitcom joke or because they’ve been embroiled in a mismanagement scandal. But Andrew Hill argues that the pandemic has also reinforced what makes a good manager, and why they matter more than ever.

  2. Ditch the jargon: Corporate gibberish has long been the bane of many an office worker’s existence, but baffling climate change terms, such as the United Nations’ recently announced “High Level Expert Group on the Net-Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities”, are actively harmful, writes Pilita Clark. In short: don’t needlessly convolute your point.

  3. Workplace families: You may have heard of the “office husband” and “office wife”, but relationship dynamics in the office don’t end with spouses. Some have office mums, office dads, or office siblings. Work & Careers columnist Emma Jacobs muses on the rivalries, squabbles and support that these “relatives” bring to work.

  4. Diversity drives: The BBC hopes that by 2028 a quarter of its workforce will be from “a lower socio-economic background” — but that’s a fuzzy definition depending on which metric you’re using. Similarly, KPMG wants 29 per cent of partners and directors to be from working-class backgrounds by 2030. And, in an unusual move, Expensify has pledged to donate 25 cents to a social justice cause for every dollar it pays to white, male employees.

  5. Rethinking the Great Resignation: The labour force participation rate among 25-54 year olds has risen back to 2019 levels. Why, then, is the labour market so tight right now? Paul Krugman explores a couple of factors that we’ve all been missing in the popular narrative of the Great Resignation, including self-employment and immigration rates. (New York Times)


Words from the Working It community

Thanks for sharing your stories of professional culture shock this past week. Here is a look at what Working It readers had to say:

Tasha Williams shared what it’s like when race plays a role in professional culture shock:

"It’s not a shock so much any more, but being among a handful of black people, if not the only one, in most professional jobs I’ve had [and] learning how to cope with being both ignored yet constantly watched."

Sarah Lafferty commented on her experience moving to a much larger company:

"My first meeting was with all the department heads involved with a transformation programme I would be responsible for. I had NO idea what anyone in the room was talking about at all. They seem to have invented their own special language to describe projects and processes; the fact that I was new and had no context was not taken into consideration . . . When I confided in a friendly person about my experience she said, ‘Oh don’t worry, it took me six months to figure out what the hell anyone was talking about here!’”"

Scott Dussault began his job during the pandemic. Finally being in the office with his team was a pleasant surprise:

"I had never witnessed the type of reactions I saw from team members after seeing each other in person for the first time after a year and a half of working remotely. It was amazing to see how emotional everyone was to finally be together again. Even people who had never met in person had built such a strong bond remotely that it was like family members finally reuniting. People were hugging each other, crying and genuinely happy that they got to be together. It was shocking in the best way!"

And let us know . . . 

As Isabel mentioned above, please enlighten us about your productivity tools and hacks that help keep you on track, particularly if they help you collaborate across different locations and time zones. I always like to hear about shiny new tools, but tried and true methods you’ve used for years pique my interest, too.

You can write to me at sophia.smith@ft.com or tweet us at @FTWorkCareers and we’ll feature the best responses in a future edition.

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