I have mentioned Basecamp on this blog twice before, both in 2015 when they moved from 37signals to Basecamp. Yes, that is how long I have been tracking them. On 26th April 2021, Jason Fried, founder & CEO of Basecamp, announced yet more changes. However, this time, unlike before, my reactions are not all positive. I expressed disappointment when I first read it, but over time better understood the reasons behind them. These changes bring Basecamp back on this blog again (6 years later). As Jason says in his announcement, “And when you get to a certain count — customers or employees or both — there’s no pleasing everyone. You can’t — there are too many unique perspectives, experiences, and individuals.” Fair point.
There are six changes announced at Basecamp–three I don’t care about much and three about which I have something to say. To save you the trouble of reading Jason Fried’s note and then returning here for my opinion on them, I am adding snippets from his note here followed by my opinion.
1. No more societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account. Today’s social and political waters are especially choppy. Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant. You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit, or wading into it means you’re a target. These are difficult enough waters to navigate in life, but significantly more so at work. It’s become too much. It’s a major distraction. It saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places. It’s not healthy, it hasn’t served us well. And we’re done with it on our company Basecamp account where the work happens. People can take the conversations with willing co-workers to Signal, Whatsapp, or even a personal Basecamp account, but it can’t happen where the work happens anymore. Update: David has shared some more details and more of the internal announcement on his HEY World blog.
I am not adding David’s note here but I would strongly encourage reading that before you form an opinion. Before I read it, I was aghast. After, not as much. There is one part I disagree with but I understand the value of creating a space where one can walk into without wondering how they’re going to be judged for their opinions. It is an indication of the times. I recently finished reading ‘Good Economics for Hard Times’ (a book I loved & highly recommend) and it opens by saying “… the civilization as we know it, based on democracy and debate, is under threat.… Democracy can live with dissent, as long as there is respect on both sides. But respect demands some understanding.”
Yes, debate is healthy yet as the authors said, we are now in an age where people are increasingly becoming less tolerant of opposing views. While an organization can attempt to change that, maybe the pragmatic path is to create the safe space instead. The part I am disappointed in is Basecamp’s decision as a company, to no longer going to weigh-in publicly on societal political affairs, outside those that directly connect to the business. While they will engage on topics like antitrust, privacy, employee surveillance, they will probably stay mum on issues like police brutality, human rights, climate change, etc. The past 18 months, I have been questioning if organizations should hold a value system vs stay neutral. While I like the idea of them staying neutral, I have realized that given the power organizations hold; it is becoming increasingly dangerous for organizations to not take a public stand. Let’s not deny the fact that organizations can do more to make the world a better place. Their responsibility no longer ends at the limits of what pertains directly to their products. While Basecamp alone cannot change the world, if other organizations follow suite, it will be irresponsible indeed. The danger is that others likely will. Coinbase took a similar stance in late 2020.
2. No more paternalistic benefits. For years we’ve offered a fitness benefit, a wellness allowance, a farmer’s market share, and continuing education allowances. They felt good at the time, but we’ve had a change of heart. It’s none of our business what you do outside of work, and it’s not Basecamp’s place to encourage certain behaviors — regardless of good intention. By providing funds for certain things, we’re getting too deep into nudging people’s personal, individual choices. So we’ve ended these benefits, and, as compensation, paid every employee the full cash value of the benefits for this year. In addition, we recently introduced a 10% profit sharing plan to provide direct compensation that people can spend on whatever they’d like, privately, without company involvement or judgement.
Now this is a shift. Imagine Google taking away free food and replacing it with meal allowances as a part of the monthly pay. Will it ever have the same effect? There’s the psychology of additional pay & there’re benefits. Would I want a tax adjusted amount in my salary? Sure. Will I miss the nudge to stay fit or shop at the farmers’ market vs Tesco? Definitely. Would I look longingly at other organizations that offer these? Hell Yes! I will now be tracking Basecamp’s success with this change even more closely because damn–they’re moving in the opposite direction to everyone else.
3. No more 360 reviews. Employee performance reviews used to be straightforward. A meeting with your manager or team lead, direct feedback, and recommendations for improvement. Then a few years ago we made it hard. Worse, really. We introduced 360s, which required peers to provide feedback on peers. The problem is, peer feedback is often positive and reassuring, which is fun to read but not very useful. Assigning peer surveys started to feel like assigning busy work. Manager/employee feedback should be flowing pretty freely back and forth throughout the year. No need to add performative paperwork on top of that natural interaction. So we’re done with 360s, too.
I am now wondering if Basecamp has an HR team and if yes, how did they react to this. I have a hypothesis that all HR professionals secretly agree with the pointlessness of peer feedback but wouldn’t be caught dead saying so. While some peer feedback is useful, most of it is just a pat on the back or worse, gibberish. If the manager is doing a good job, he knows how peers feel about you and doesn’t need a formal mechanism to collect verbatim feedback. Yes, peer surveys can feel like busy work. What I would have liked Jason & David to do instead is retain 360s and fire the folks running it. 360s need a revamp and if anyone can do it, it is these guys. Abolishing it feels like saying – the government doesn’t work and hence we shall have anarchy. So yes, abolish the paperwork and instead establish a powerful mechanism to keep manager/employee feedback flowing freely. Leaving it to good intentions and saying that you’re going to abolish (vs revamp) may not be the smartest move. But hey–organizations have demonstrated success without 360s so this move will most likely have a net positive impact on Basecamp.
Jason Fried’s announcement contains many more nuggets of gold. It isn’t a long read. If you made it to here, hope on there to read the rest. Also, before you leave, do me one last favor and let me know in the comments below which you agree/disagree with. It’s been a while since I heard from you.