How the pandemic has created a new breed of tech worker

Here we are, entering the 18th month of a pandemic that has brought constant upheaval to virtually every aspect of our lives. We’re adjusting to increased risks from a more potent variant, the omnipresent strain of a new set of restrictions, and the slow pace of vaccinations. The hope that things will return to normal has, somewhere along the way, been quietly replaced with the hope that we’ll find a new normal.

For those of us who spent most of our pre-COVID-19 hours in endless pursuit of ways to further optimize our daily hustle on behalf of technology startups, things have changed. We’ve changed. We’re not the same people we were in February 2020. We’ve each weathered the past year and a half in different ways, but many of us have come to the exact same conclusion: The old way of working won’t work anymore.

When I started TaskRabbit on the heels of the Great Recession, I quickly learned that many workers were ready to swap out their 9-to-5 jobs for a more agile, independent working life. We learned that control and flexibility were the primary drivers of people searching for a new way to work. Post-pandemic tech workers want that same control and flexibility, yes, but they’re also unapologetically in pursuit of purpose and passion.

The “nonessential” crisis

During COVID-19, technology workforces shifted en masse to working remotely—confronting the “nonessential” nature of our work as our fellow citizens continued on the front lines of healthcare, deliveries, and infrastructure. Inevitably, this prompted big questions about the meaning of it all, causing many to ask themselves why they were giving huge chunks of their time and talents away to what were “nonessential” pursuits.

As our data-driven minds watched infections, hospitalizations, and deaths climb up and to the right, we all began to reevaluate. Working parents (women, especially), grappling with the new burdens of childcare and virtual learning, began examining whether their lives could (or should) ever reasonably be centered on work again. Other workers, particularly those in the early stages of their careers, began carving out time for creative projects, activism, and skill development.

That trademark Silicon Valley hustle culture suddenly stopped making sense to the very same people who held “always be optimizing” as a mantra. Our once-precarious notions of work-life balance have finally evaporated and left each of us independently assessing how to redefine what work means to us. The obsession with optimization has been replaced with a strong preference for integration as we seek more control, more purpose, and more flexibility.

The new tech worker

What’s emerged is a new type of tech worker. These techies are more in touch with their personal capacity and more mindful of how work integrates with their broader lives. They don’t see their work as simply transactional, but they also don’t see it as the center of their worlds. They don’t intend to go back to being tethered to their desks or devices. Some of them want to go back to an office; some want to stay at home. Some want both. They don’t necessarily want to work for one company for long stints (and some don’t even want to work for one company at a time). They’ve become unapologetic about finding roles and creating workflows that align with their values, preferred schedules, and new realities.

These new workers exist at every level of the technology industry, from software designers to sales teams, customer service reps to corporate counsels, marketers to managers, full-stack engineers to founders. The disruptive tech companies that built their offices as temples to the cult of productivity now find themselves in a position they can’t optimize their way out of: How do you retain talent that doesn’t want to be tied down?

The way forward

With one in four workers planning to switch jobs once the pandemic is over (according to Prudential’s “Pulse of the American Worker Survey” on post-pandemic work and life), tech companies hoping to recruit and retain talent have an enormous task ahead of them. To keep pace with changed expectations and priorities—while creating a culture that supports momentum—it’s my belief that companies should focus their efforts in four key areas:

Track output, not hours. Today’s new tech worker is done with toxic productivity. As they’ve folded more priorities into their working days, their pacing has changed dramatically. This doesn’t necessarily mean people are working less, they’re just more selective about how they use their time—and performative busyness doesn’t rank. Smart companies will stop tracking employees’ time and pay attention to what they produce.

Support integration. The illusion of compartmentalization between work and life is gone. Today’s worker doesn’t think about how to find the balance between two competing worlds; they think about how to effectively integrate work into their whole life. They’ve placed what matters most to them at the center of their lives—family, friends, travel, creative projects, personal missions. To win the talent war of the future, companies must not insinuate themselves into that already claimed central real estate. Instead, they must make themselves flexible enough to integrate into the lives of the kinds of employees they hope to attract.

Trade incentives for investments. Round-the-clock catering and company subsidized egg-freezing are relics of hustle culture. Investing in employees instead of simply incentivizing their short-term performance will yield better results for tech companies relying on the same pool of talent. Commit to childcare and eldercare subsidies and logistical support to reduce the burden on working parents and caregivers, full stop. Consider offering sabbaticals, more robust family-planning benefits, and flexible leaves to commit to family, travel, or passion projects. Unlimited paid time off is nice, yes, if there’s not a stigma for taking that time off (studies have shown that workers with unlimited PTO actually take on average 13 days of time off per year—and 30% of people report working during that time). A better approach is for companies to encourage employees to fully disconnect; Notarize recently did just that by giving its entire team a mental health break.

Be explicit about your values. If today’s best workers are searching for purpose, help them find it. Take the time to establish your vision, mission, and core values. Make sure they’re more than just marketing talking points—they should be baked into your company’s culture and operations. An example of a company living its values is Argent (full disclosure, I’m an investor), a career-clothing brand that recently launched an initiative to get the women displaced by the pandemic back to work. Authenticity matters to the legions of talented workers hoping to live and work more meaningfully, and your company will become more attractive if you give them something genuine to align themselves with.

Silicon Valley’s obsession with optimization isn’t optimized for what comes next. Employers hoping to be worthy of the workforces they need to build the future would be wise to turn their disruption inward, shaking loose the hustle culture and paving the way for a better way to work.

Leah Solivan is the founder of TaskRabbit and the general partner at Fuel Capital.

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