I entered the workforce in 2006, enthusiastic yet wildly unclear about what I had signed up for as a management consultant. What on earth could a 22-year-old contribute to the world of business? I later figured out a mix of excel skills and the propensity to work long nights as my added value. Suddenly, my life upgraded. I stayed in hotels that I never dreamed of staying in on my own accord and flew across the world to work on projects in London, Switzerland, and El Salvador.
It felt glamorous and adult, and it was too good to be true in hindsight. Two years later, the bottom fell out due to the financial crisis, and a third of my analyst class had been laid-off. I was fortunate and made the cut, though I was required to take a leave of absence to help the bottom line. Over a decade later, I returned to the United States and experienced a deja vu. The company first reduced salaries and then laid-off ten percent of employees due to the global pandemic. Once again, I was spared but emotionally impacted. I’m not alone. In tech start-ups alone, there have been 125K lay-offs since 2020.
Both companies that I worked for were known for their cultures and collegiality. People referred to their colleagues as friends and their work family. When you signed your employment contract, especially as a young person, you were not only agreeing to a paycheck but also a community with inside jokes, after-work drinks, photos from holiday parties, and text-message threads. When we interviewed new hires, we looked just as much for cultural fit as we did for skill.
At the time, this made sense. It was as if recruiters were pre-screening my friend group, and yes, I’ve made some of my closest adult friends at work, which Gallup has suggested is critical to productivity and engagement at work.
But as I’ve grown older and seen the ebbs and flows of corporate America, I can’t help but think: should we put all of our proverbial eggs in one basket?
According to Maslow, there is a hierarchy of human needs, with the most fundamental needs at the bottom, and the higher-level needs, like transcendence and purpose at the top.
When I look back, I can see the Faustian bargain I made. I traded my life (e.g., time and energy) in exchange for a company meeting my needs. They provide a paycheck to secure my basic needs, a community to fulfill my need for belonging, promotions and bonuses to meet my esteem needs, and a mission statement and pledge of impact to help me self-actualize.
And while there’s something beautiful and idealistic about this exchange, ultimately, it falls short. Like how a spouse can not meet all your needs, a company can not meet them either. Therefore, if too much is entwined, a lay-off or job switch is more than a career change. It can shake your core when your livelihood, friendships, and identity are wrapped up in a job.
With remote work, we have the ability to disassemble the role that companies have played in our lives in the past and rebuild for a more sustainable future. In a similar vein to the stock market wisdom of diversification to manage risk, we should also diversify how we get our needs met. If too much relies on one source, like a company or a spouse, it can become the single point of failure—turning your life upside down.
We’d like to reimagine Gallup’s advice about having a best friend at work for the next generation. Instead, what if we revise to having a friend to work with—and not necessarily at your same company? As we shift away from the 9-5, we have an opportunity to redesign our lives. We can incorporate interactions with friends, family, and the local community into our daily work lives. Diversifying how you get your needs met can make you more resilient to change and help you self-actualize on your own path.