The Cold Shoulder of the Tribe
“Without the alignment of lunch and commuting schedules, Victor quickly lost touch with the handful of coworkers he liked.”
While I felt this excerpt’s depiction of “start up life” was a little bit closer to Office Space than any modern experience I know of, this line deserves special attention.
If there is one consistency amongst tech startups more pervasive than their claim that they are “changing the world,” it’s their belief in the idea that their team is a “family” — that workplace bonds should extend outside of the walls of the office. In other words, a proper team eats together, parties together, and sometimes even lives together. The all-consuming nature of tackling hard problems makes this inevitable to some degree, but its centrality to the tech company narrative is what makes it such a unique phenomenon.
Speaking nothing of whether or not this is healthy, one undeniable outcome is that it makes leaving a job (voluntarily or not) just as much of a social action as an economic one. You’re not just leaving behind a source of income or a set of professional duties — you’re leaving behind your tribe. When things like pick-up basketball, dinner, or weekend concert plans emerge from random office chatter, simply losing access to your Slack account means someone now has to remember to invite you. What starts as, “Sorry bro! Forgot to invite you. We’ll be here for another hour or so if you want to stop by?” slowly turns into not being invited at all.
Exacerbating this is the fact that many (if not most) new entrants into the tech ecosystem in hubs like Silicon Valley, New York City, Boston, etc. are relocating there for the job. Not knowing anyone else in a new city, it’s easy to become over-reliant on your workplace relationships as a primary source of companionship and social contact. Should things go sour for one reason or another and you lose your job, you could lose your entire support network at the same time. Unfortunately, I’ve seen that happen multiple times in various ecosystems, and people usually pack up and move somewhere else. There’s no other connective tissue to keep them there.
All this isn’t to say that startups shouldn’t cultivate the notion that their team is a family. I think they should.
Nor is it to say that their employees deliberately sever ties with those who leave (on their own accord or not). It’s just what tends to happen, slowly but surely.
In any case, we should try to be more conscious of the fact that in families sometimes people move away from home or go off to pursue something new. That doesn’t mean we should stop texting them to see how they’re doing.