Diving Into The Bay Area Work Culture — My Reflections

I have been trying to write this post for about 2 weeks and I have found it hard to connect the dots, because I was trying to write the “perfect” article, with all the clever things about work culture — the one story about Work Culture in The Bay Area.

Today I watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of One Single Story” and it reminded me why I went on this trip with Paula Vivas-Avila in the first place. Because I believe we need to have more conversations about work culture, at work. And I was curious if they had those conversations at work in the The Bay Area.

In her talk she says “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” As I listened I realised that I have been trying to compress the 3 weeks of A LOT of different stories into my one story about The Bay Area Work Culture. There is no one story about Bay Area work culture—There are the different stories of all the people Paula and I have talked to.

Paula and I have been collecting stories and perspectives for 3 weeks and I was trying to make sense of it, too see patterns and find a single truth about The Bay Area, but the truth is that everyone we talked to has the “right” story about work culture. They told us the story of the work culture at their office and their perspective of the work culture of The Bay Area. The more I think, for me this project was about understanding that there is not one work culture template that I could use to measure and analyse. These 3 weeks have been about seeing, listening and understanding that each culture is a different story and I should not try to compare them.

A work culture is unique to the company and an employee will measure that culture on how well it fits their needs at work. I don’t feel I can be the judge of the companies I now know more about have good or bad work cultures.

We have talked to 1 employee at a lot of companies and if they like that their work culture is individual. Everyone has different needs and opinions on processes, why I know we could get a completely different story from another employee at the company, dependent on how the work culture lives up to that person’s needs and wants.

Based on work cultures I have been fortunate to hear about during the 3 weeks I was impressed by the story of Andrew at Facebook (that we unfortunately could not share in writing) and from Kelly at Airbnb. I believe Facebook and Airbnb understand the value of working actively with your culture and that communication and transparency is a big part if that. Based on my belief of what a good work culture is, I would say that Facebook and Airbnb have it, mainly because they have the conversation at work about culture and understand that you should work actively with it. Especially Airbnb. If you asked Paula she might have two different ones and think differently about Airbnb and Facebook.

My Observations

About making generalisations about Work Culture in The Bay Area, it’s even harder. It’s so complex and differs from industry to industry. I have gotten most stories about the Tech Work Culture and the influence it has had on the The Bay Area. But everyone has their own belief on what the influence is, if it’s good or bad and if they like it or not.

First, I’m born and raised in Denmark. Even after having lived abroad for some years I still compare most things to Denmark. Being in San Francisco and Silicon Valley I have not seen diversity challenges, because compared to Denmark (and Sweden), it’s a very diverse place, in people, food and culture. That doesn’t mean there are none, just that they might be less obvious to me — but I am aware of that. What I do notice is the inequality, between genders, pay checks and opportunities. So I have probably unintentionally asked a lot of questions about that and focused on that. It’s hard not to.

After these 3 weeks looking into the work culture in The Bay Area, I am left with a sense that talking about personal struggles and how you feel at work is not the norm (but that’s not unique to the Bay Area). Especially in the tech world, I got a sense that the work culture is a lot of work, all the time. It’s a hustle, especially with high rents and living expenses. But at the same time most people we talked to are ambitious, inspired, driven and passionate people, giving their all to their work, their dream, making their work-life balance = life.

Another observation is that most people talk about the Bay Area as a place of opportunity, It’s where the money and talent is and there is a willingness to help each other. With the inequality of opportunity in the US, I can understand why that bring people there. But pursuing your dream has it’s risks, and maybe being honest about struggles and the opposite of success can be hard to talk about openly. I didn’t see a lot of spaces to share those things. Because there is a lot of talk about success, growth and the unicorns. There are meetups about “How to … “. Researching meet-ups at meetup.com, there were not any “Here is what you should do when everything is going to shit”. But there are some brave souls on Medium writing, like Maren Kate saying Silicon Valley has a vulnerability problem .

Validating My Learnings from Digital Business at Hyper Island

One of our first interviews was with Justin Lokitz, who is co-author of Design A Better Business. He wrote the book with Patrick Van Der Pijl (Business Model Generation) and Lisa Kay Solomon from Singularity University. We heard Lisa speak at an event in Palo Alto the last night of the project and I was so happy to hear her present the tools, skills and the mindset of bringing design practices into business. Justin, Patrick and Lisa’s book is a book full of the skills and mindset I have been developing and learning at Hyper Island for the last year. The skill of facilitation is important, being visual and telling stories are important to bring people with you. Dealing with and using uncertainty to your advantage is important.

I have left the Bay Area full of stories, new perspectives and a so much admiration for all the people we have met, who were curious and supportive of our project. I truly value that part of The Bay Area Culture. There is a lot of passion and drive to solve problems.

Being back in Copenhagen, ready to start new adventures I feel certain that what I can offer is what is needed today. So I am excited for the future and having more conversations on designing business and making sure we include a conversation about work culture.

Thank you!

/H