“Work needs to stay in its place.”

Tech and design workers don’t just have pandemic burnout. They have pandemic clarity. It’s time for organizations to catch up.

This article is a summary of some of the findings from our new report, “Work needs to stay in its place.” Get the full report here.

I started noticing it sometime last year: the conversations I was having about work were changing. During the first year of the pandemic, I’d had plenty of coaching clients express feelings of stress or loneliness, of course. But they were also still focused on career goals: taking on challenging projects, gaining visibility, building influence. By 2021, though, I started noticing something else coming through. I’d hear things like, “I wanted this promotion so badly, I worked late every night for a year. Now I look at how leadership treats employees and I don’t know why I ever gave them so much of me.”

It wasn’t just pandemic burnout (though that was part of it). It was a sense of reckoning — a realization that work simply wasn’t working, not in its current form.

Meanwhile, I was reading tons of articles about work culture. Some of them were great! But few of them were talking about these kinds of internal shifts. Instead, they were focused on the external changes: how long will the Great Resignation last? What will the remote landscape look like long-term? Will we ever go back to wearing “business” clothes every day? (I sure hope not.)

With my colleagues at Active Voice, I launched a qualitative survey for tech and design workers focused not just on external shifts, like quitting a job, but on internal shifts—changes to their mindsets, motivations, and boundaries at work. We asked things like:

  • How has your relationship to work changed over the past two years?
  • How do you define success now? How’s that different than it was two years ago?
  • What do your goals look like now?

I thought we’d get some interesting answers. What I didn’t quite expect was just how much the 236 people who responded would have to say — paragraphs and paragraphs of thoughtful, nuanced reflections.

Over the past few weeks, my team and I have spent countless hours analyzing these responses — the vast majority from people working in design/UX, engineering, content, research, and product. The results are powerful.

Over and over, we heard things like:

“I don’t want a promotion anymore. I want to work 3–4 days instead of 5, I want free time and vacation time, and I’m done putting my whole self into work.” — Senior product designer

“I won’t tolerate harmful, oppressive, toxic environments. I don’t have to.” — Senior content designer

“If I chase more money, I want it to be in service of retiring earlier. I want to work less and live more.” —Product manager

The loss of routines and norms caused tech and design workers to reflect on their lives — and many didn’t like what they saw: 11pm Slack messages. DEI lip service. Calls for “self-care” followed by reminders that even though the team was understaffed, the Q2 roadmap wouldn’t be changing.

People told us how their eyes felt open for the first time to how bad things really were — and it led many to reassess everything. They might not have the answers figured out yet, but one thing feels clear: they’re never going back to “business as usual.”

Here’s a brief summary of what we heard.

Shifts in mindset

How have people’s relationships to work shifted? What are their beliefs now?

Many respondents told us that they used to identify strongly with their work — but after feeling exploited or unsupported during one of the most difficult moments of their lives, they were working on “disentangling” or “decoupling” their work from their identity, and investing in their health, wellness, and relationships instead.

In my previous role, my identity was very wrapped up in the company and the team and it became increasingly difficult to separate myself from it. My company/team paid lip service to self-care, taking the time off that you need, but during the pandemic when every support I had (particularly childcare) fell apart, my team’s workload doubled almost overnight and it was left to individuals to sort out for themselves what they could and could not do, with no responsibility taken by management. I burned out, catastrophically.
— Product manager

Thinking about work as an exchange of time and expertise for money clarified things for many respondents, and enabled them to look elsewhere for joy and meaning.

I’m way more transactional now. Labor in, money out. Less focused on personal learning and growth, and less concerned by performance targets.
— Head of digital marketing

We heard from many respondents who are looking at the past two years — from the pandemic to the climate crisis to racial justice movements — and rethinking the priority work should have in their lives.

My goal now is de-centering work and capitalism. I genuinely think coming back to ourselves is the greatest form of resistance and societal healing. That is my goal, work is only a means of keeping the lights on.
— UX writer

Tech and design orgs are recruiting hard, and remote work has opened up new options. People are realizing they don’t have to tolerate bad workplaces.

I work for a great company, but at the end of the day, business is business — so if I’m sacrificing my rest or sanity, it’s time to take a step back or get out, because no job is worth that.
—Senior content designer

Shifts in motivations

What motivates people now, versus what used to motivate them? How are goals and definitions of success changing?

Many people told us that they were less interested in traditional professional achievements, and more interested in just getting by at work. Aki Ito of Insider recently referred to sentiments like these as “coasting culture”—the antithesis of the “hustle culture” that dominated work conversations pre-pandemic.

I need a well-paid job that I can work as little as possible.
— Senior user researcher

Related to coasting, we also saw many people report increased interest in jobs that felt stable, not stressful.

I think previously success was defined more by “progress” — increasing salary and responsibilities, working on new and challenging projects. Today it is more defined by stability — delivering consistently good work even if it’s not particularly novel, and an absence of workload stress.
— Senior developer

We heard from many respondents who were redefining “success” for themselves in much more people-focused ways. They wanted to support and be supported by their colleagues, and find joy in working with good people.

I’m less motivated by promotions and less impressed by the recognition of my workplace, but I am deeply invested in my work relationships and bringing ideas to life in my role.
— Content designer

Despite reporting an overall lower investment in their careers and companies now than two years ago, many reported a greater investment in feeling like their work met a social good, or at least wasn’t doing harm. If they were going to expend energy speaking up at work, it was more likely to be in service of their values than in service of climbing the ladder.

Success to me now is keeping myself and my teams accountable and pushing back on work that could ultimately cause greater harm than good.
— UX writer

Shifts in needs and boundaries

What do people expect or demand from a workplace now? What will they no longer tolerate?

One of the most common needs people expressed was time. Time for their families, time for their wellness, and just time for themselves. A large number of respondents told us that to get that time, they’re now willing to set firm boundaries on their work for the first time in their lives — and even to walk away from a company that doesn’t respect them.

I am not nearly as invested in the politics of the workplace, nor do I care as much about the bottom line. I do my work, I do it well, but I’m not committing nights and weekends for capitalism.
— Senior content strategist

Nearly 1 in 10 respondents mentioned a four-day week explicitly, and many others mentioned part-time hours.

I would like to advance one career level, but my main goal is to find a role which will let me work a four-day week without taking a major pay cut. Whether that is possible at my current role will determine whether I stay or search for new opportunities.
— Senior data scientist

Retirement came up constantly, often from respondents in the 35–44 age range who said they’d never thought about it before, but now find themselves thinking about it constantly.

I have never cared so much about retirement in my very long career as an engineer. I am accepting opportunities that pay [extremely] large salaries just so I can max out my 401k and invest so I can stop working.
— Staff engineer

People do still want to grow in their skills — but they want to be listened to about what their interests are, and not have the company assume what professional development should look like for them.

I wish I had more career development support and enthusiasm. We spend way too much time just solving problems. I also never received any training and very little guidance as I moved into managing people.
— Product director

In difficult times, having clear priorities and expectations is incredibly valuable. At the same time, respondents don’t want to be micromanaged in their work — they want to be trusted.

I wish they’d make expectations clearer for my role, so I can stop feeling like I have to overachieve to move up.
— Senior content designer

Many respondents told us that working remotely was a relief from biased “professionalism” standards and the need to “mask” their identities in the office, and their goals now were to never go back to the old ways.

I found myself overachieving, masking, and burning out while consistently being underpaid, overworked, and uncredited. Remote work has given me the liberty to optimize my work to meet my neurodivergent needs and limited my need to mask in the workplace and deal with diversity and inclusion bullshit that does not benefit the folks corporations think they’re serving.
—UX writer

One sentiment we saw repeatedly, and that was particularly strong amongst BIPOC respondents, was a frustration with their organizations’ shallow and ineffective support for antiracism and DEI work.

The racial reckoning and the way companies pledged diversity and inclusion and then so badly failed to deliver left a deep scar. I need some distance from all of those corporate efforts that took my humanity and made it into a commodity.
— Content designer

When we asked respondents what their work/career goals were for the next one to two years, a huge number focused not on traditional goals like promotions or salary increase, but on healing. They wanted to improve their mental health, recover from burnout, and find more balance. And they were disappointed by the shallow support they’d received from their companies.

[I wish my company had] acknowledged that we were working at full capacity through the trauma of a pandemic with something besides Zoom workouts and meditation apps… We got a book on “Grit.” I mean, really?
— Customer experience strategist

But the bottom line we heard again and again from these 236 tech and design workers was simple: They want work to stay in its place.

So if you’re a workplace leader, I hope you download the full report, and take its message seriously. Use these stories—and the recommendations that accompany them—to reflect on your policies, management practices, and retention techniques. Because people have changed. You’ve probably changed, too. The sooner we all accept those changes, the sooner we can start building whatever comes next.

Cover of the “Work needs to stay in its place.” report from Active Voice
There’s so much more in the full report, y’all. Go get it here.

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Tech + UX + feminism + racial justice. Coach, strategist, author, speaker. Founder of Active Voice. She/her. More: sarawb.com + activevoicehq.com.

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Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Tech + UX + feminism + racial justice. Coach, strategist, author, speaker. Founder of Active Voice. She/her. More: sarawb.com + activevoicehq.com.

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