Do Better Better #12: 20% For The Future

Quinn Emmett
December 16, 2020
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If you’re lucky enough to be someone who’s been able to work from home this year -- even if you’ve had hungry, unbathed children popping in and out of your business Zooms, if Seesaw has you begging for mercy, or on the other hand, if you’ve felt a pervasive loneliness being separated for months from co-workers and friends -- you’ve probably noticed all of the talk about how the workplace as we know it is somewhat up for grabs.

Everything’s theoretically on the table: how we work, when we work, how much we work, for whom we work, where we work -- from the country down to the city down to the type of home standup desk recommended on Wirecutter (spoiler alert: it’s sold out).

I’m not going to explore every element of standard American workplace culture that should be tossed right out the window, but I do want to consider how we can best make use of any extra time that hardworking folks are finding themselves with in a world with no white collar commutes, no coffee meetings, no getting to the office early and staying late just because your boss does.

And I want to marry that opportunity with the main theme of Important, Not Important, and thus, Do Better Better, which is to answer the question: “What can I do?”

If you are someone who works for yourself, or especially someone who works for, or even better, runs or owns a business of any size, one of the things you can do is to formalize paying employees to spend 20% of their work hours on volunteer work. I’m calling it .

In a traditional five-day work week, 20% is a hefty chunk -- one entire work day, in fact.

And that’s the idea.

***

I first raised money for and volunteered with a cancer research non-profit twelve years ago. I used Facebook to connect with potential donors. This was a fairly novel move at the time. It was efficient, it was effective. Flash forward, and we’re being pulled in a million directions every day -- donate here, make calls there, cook or serve meals somewhere else. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, and easy to be ineffective with our time and money. 

But formalizing these hours of giving -- setting clear expectations upon hiring, building internal tools and networks to support employee efforts, defending against inevitable project encroachment, building incentives for participation -- can help preserve and focus an employee’s energy. 

In my conversation with Rebecca Henderson, we discussed “reimagining capitalism” in a time of COVID and the climate crisis, during massive civil and voting rights unrest, and conversely, when a green revolution is upon us, the greatest rebuilding opportunity in history, waiting for us to make our first move.

Reimagining capitalism includes such global endeavors as standardized, mandatory ESG reporting, but it also means you, the boss, exploring these issues internally, on a human-by-human level. It means not only hiring diverse young people who carry enormous student debt, not only hiring newly retrained mid-career people, but also instituting a culture of practical empathy: “What do you care about, and how can I help?”

A radical reinvention of society and how we use our resources requires a radical new commitment to how we utilize our time and workforce. And hiring diverse workers from a huge variety of backgrounds means getting comfortable listening to and learning from perspectives and values you aren’t familiar with.

***

Let’s revisit the question: “What can I do?” And let’s break it down a little further.

Some people emphasize the “What” or the “do” in “What can I do?” They’re looking for a practical answer. Some people emphasize the “can” -- same question, a little more desperate: “What can I do?”. Some folks emphasize the “I”: “What can I do?” i.e., how can I, singular, possibly make a dent in something as large as climate change?

The simplest answer to all of these variations on “What can I do?” is often “What can you do?”

The implication being: Well, what do you have to offer? Skills? Time? Money? Influence? What do you bring to the table? That’s our foot in the door. But now we have to find a way to enable them to do it.

Because anyway you slice it, finding the time to do what you do best in a world on fire is exhausting just to think about. Most of us aren’t even putting on real pants anymore. We have to build an infrastructure to support this endeavor, and that goes beyond simply buying a corporate license to Calm or Headspace (I love Headspace).

There are wonderful organizations that exist to support these ideas on a company level -- think 1% For The Planet, or Stripe’s new tool to automatically donate a percentage of sales to reputable carbon capture projects. Two clicks, impact made. Simply understood, simply executed. This is a start, but we have to do the hard work, too. 

***

Acknowledging the vast amount of work we have to do as a society means developing not only a mindset of stoicism and philanthropy, but also practical tools to leverage an employee’s values and the skills they bring to your workforce every day.

It means taking a lesson from the Coinbase and Google fiascos and going in the opposite direction, saying: “We are a company that dedicates 20% of our time to bettering society and a company who supports our employees, as needed, in doing so most effectively. Inquire within.” 

And then (the important part) actually doing that

Requiring employees to spend 20% of their hours on values-driven work, outside of your organization, means not only setting this expectation, modeling the work, creating a culture of sharing and pride, and recommitting to the system when times get busy, but also actually helping. Helping employees set up a local chapter of Black Girls Code; supporting employee use of company technology to design marketing materials for Sunrise, or Moms Clean Air Force; designing affordable housing units; litigating with the EDF or NRDC; cooking with World Central Kitchen; running for part-time local office; building data models for Swing Left, Give Directly, Data for Progress, or Alex’s Lemonade Stand; marching with the Poor People’s Campaign, or fundraising and riding with Cycle for Survival; organizing to support the Kigali Amendment; delivering perishable food with Food Forward; operating polling stations; lobbying and working with local officials to update building codes for 100% electrification, to ban natural gas installations, and to develop subsidies for low-income housing retrofits.

These are projects that require time, and energy, and focus. If you’ve already hired the best people, then you know they are capable of so much more than you can ask of them. And now, mid-COVID, and after, employees will have more power than ever. Are you ready to pay for star employees who refuse to come to an office, or live in a big city, or even the same country? Who demand equity based on performance?

Can they trust you to support them? Do you have the vision to lead on this? The management skills to organize it? A flexible, real incentive to drive uptake, and the resources to make sure your work is still getting done?

Your employees have chosen you; now it’s your turn to trust them to get their work done and to also improve the world around us. 

Individual actions alone won’t get us to a radically new world. A new workplace revolution, harnessing 20% of our most productive hours and our most valuable skills for a better world, would be a hell of a jump start to get us there.

— Quinn

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