A Silicon Valley CEO Response to Talia Jane’s letter

Over the weekend, (now former) Yelp employee Talia Jane’s letter to her CEO — decrying her low pay and struggles to afford living in the San Francisco Bay Area — went viral.

Ensuing commentary took sides on whether Talia’s letter was fair or epitomized Millennial stereotypes. I won’t get into that debate because the real issue here isn’t generational attitudes; it’s an unsustainable workforce model and imploding urban infrastructures. We’re on an incessant treadmill of daily commutes, housing crunches and tight budgets, but does it make sense? Here’s a big question: Would the majority of us choose to live where we live today if we could do our work from anywhere we want? Would you? Update: My company ran a Twitter poll asking this question and 63% said they’d move if they could work from anywhere.

I’d like to:

  1. Propose a solution
  2. Make a commitment to my own employees in Silicon Valley

1) My proposed solution: Free us from being tethered to where our work is located

To help our economy function better here in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond, so that people like Talia can create sustainable lifestyles, we need to break the outdated constraints of location-based work. An increasing number of jobs are in big cities (the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City especially). In these cities and the surrounding areas, the cost of living is skyrocketing, yielding a corresponding decrease in purchasing power and quality of life.

The Bay Area is especially saturated, with housing costs surpassing those of any other U.S. city and people shoeboxing themselves into absurd living situations that cost more than home mortgages in most of the country. New construction to try and catch-up with housing demand is coming way too late. As people get pushed further away from the city core — where most companies are located — we’re also creating some of the worst commutes in the nation. A list of the 50 worst commutes in America includes eight Bay Area cities. Commuting is so hellish, Wired even created an animated map illustrating it.

And while Talia was complaining about her salary, many Bay Area salaries are sky high compared to the rest of the country or even communities a hundred miles away, such as Stockton and Vallejo. Both of those cities faced bankruptcy in recent years despite the lucrative work that is just beyond a typical person’s acceptable commute distance.

Add to this imploding urban scene the fact that Silicon Valley companies are vying for limited local talent, and we start to see ripple effects. This is because the behavior of businesses, when they can’t find the qualified workers they need, is to look at other similarly successful cities first. So Facebook opens up a big office in Seattle and hires people away from Microsoft and Amazon, then local prices go up and history repeats itself. Under the current workforce model, this vicious cycle happens again and again.

There has to be a better way. Most solutions have been attempts to move people to work, but I’m proposing an alternate solution: moving the work to the workers. Technology has already made access to goods incredibly more fluid than it used to be. The same can be done with work. Most knowledge work does not have to be done onsite — it can be done by qualified workers from wherever they’re located. Technology advances (broadband connectivity, webcams and video conferencing software like Skype or Google Hangout, for example) are making it increasingly easy for distributed team members to collaborate.

One of Talia’s complaints was not being able to pay for transportation to work. Why, I have to wonder, was Talia even required to go into an office when she was doing customer service — a role that functions primarily via a phone and internet connection? I urge other companies to support more flexibility that allows people to craft their lifestyles in a realistic way. We are ourselves…

2) My commitments to my own employees in Silicon Valley

Obviously, there is no easy and overnight solution. In “A Millennial Response to ‘An Open Letter to Yelp CEO,” Tai Tran comments:

“As a millennial who is studying and working in the [San Francisco] area, I strongly believe that every tech company should take the initiative from this letter to have an open dialogue with their employees…”

I agree, which is why I want to respond by sharing these commitments to my employees at Upwork:

  • We are lucky to work at a company that believes in work without traditional time and place limitations. We will continue to evolve where and how our team is empowered to live — we want to make our approach more sustainable as our urban areas grow unsustainably.
  • More specifically, we have already and will continue to allow many team members whose roles can be done remotely to work remote oftentimes, especially each Wednesday when most of the company traditionally gets the day to work from wherever they’d like.
  • Further, we will regularly review the cost of living for our employees and adjust salaries to be in line with the employee’s geographical location, level and performance — we did this a few months ago out of concern for the increasing costs faced by those working from our Bay Area offices.
  • I will listen to you and be transparent. You are always welcome to email me directly and I will find time for any of our employees, at any level, to talk in person if you’d like — our team is my priority.

I want you to grow and thrive at Upwork and in life. I want to hear about any concerns or challenges facing you long before they push you to a breaking point, because we can be so much more helpful if we have open dialogue early. No one can fix what they don’t know about and I assure you, we want to know and we want to help. So many of us are motivated to be at Upwork by the mission of helping people, and that starts internally — we need to all together help one another.