How an exercise in vulnerability helped me understand my millennial coworkers

Selfie reflection.
Selfie reflection.
Image: Reuters/Antonio Bronic
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When I found out the Quartz At Work pod was going to be writing user manuals as a team exercise, I suppressed a groan. The concept seemed a little precious.

Our user manuals, I was told, would explain our values, our personal styles, and our preferred means of communication. We would distribute them to the rest of our teammates, to encourage more productive relationships.

Is that really necessary?  I thought. Are we such delicate orchids that we need individual care and feeding? 

I believe I’m the oldest member of the team, and if I’m not, I feel like I am. I have kids, a mortgage, a house in the suburbs, and a station wagon. I’m surrounded by colleagues 20 years younger or more, and while I try not to play team curmudgeon, it’s hard to avoid falling into that role. These user manuals felt a like a trap, waiting to spring and expose my archaic views about work and life.

The truth is, many of the behaviors of my younger colleagues seem alien to me. The way they disappear into a corner to work, with their laptops on their knees (why, when they have perfectly good desks?). Their confidence in inserting themselves into every story (an editor once told me, you’re never as interesting as you think you are). The endless Slack discussions, and the endless discussions about Slack (do they know most of the world has never heard of Slack?).

I entered journalism in the mid-1990s, in the twilight of its golden age, when newspapers were still viable and before the Internet took a wrecking ball to the industry. In my first jobs I developed the film of the photographs I shot, covered countless city council meetings, and drove hundreds of miles on icy roads across Idaho and Montana to cover high school sporting events. I learned to use a pencil when covering football games in November, because the ink freezes in pens. That sort of reporting seems light years removed from our office-bound work at Quartz.

I’ve had some great editors, and a few terrible ones, but until now, none had been particularly solicitous about how I wanted to be treated. I recall one fellow reporter asking a gruff boss that he would appreciate more feedback, and being told “we still pay you—that’s all the feedback you need.”

They had expectations about how I was to do my job, and I had expectations about how they would perform theirs as a manager, and generally we agreed. When there were conflicts—and there occasionally were—we sorted them out, usually without rancor. I never sought out special treatment, and it never occurred to me to ask for it. When I was younger, I wanted to be regarded as an equal by my older colleagues, and not as an apprentice. Whatever doubts or fears I had about my performance I kept to myself. Asking for individual care would suggest to my elders I wasn’t ready for the job.

Personal vs. professional

The idea of user manuals—and the idea that we all should be treated differently—seemed to offend this idea of the workplace as a community of professionals, where everyone was treated with respect, and where personal preferences are managed, well, personally.

I’m constantly astonished by my young colleagues’ talent and ability, and I’d like to know more about them as people. I love getting beers after work, and I’ve always been one of the chattier people in the newsrooms where I’ve worked. But those interactions were negotiated by me, on my terms, and at my own pace. I’m happy to have lunch with my team; I’m not yet sure I want to ask them all to visit my house. The idea of a writing a manual felt like I was inviting them to inspect my medicine cabinet.

But once I started, it wasn’t as intrusive as I feared. If you’ve read this far, you know I don’t mind writing about myself, and as with most first-person essays, I’m only revealing to you as much of myself as I want. That was true of the user manuals: I opened the door, but not more than I wanted.

I used mine to stake out some territory I felt important, about not making assumptions about what we think we all believe and know. Our team often writes about politically sensitive topics, and it’s easy to assume we’re all on the same page. That’s a mistake, and if we’re not comfortable raising opposing views, we risk falling into group-think.

I also tried to push back against some perceptions I fear my colleagues might have about me. Just because I have gray in my beard doesn’t mean I always know what I’m doing, or that my word is authoritative. I don’t want to override anyone’s opinion, and I often want their input.

In turn, I learned some practical tips about how to deal with my co-workers. When my immediate neighbor wears headphones, I now know she doesn’t want to be disturbed (sorry, Sarah!). Corinne is on the west coast, and at times is offline managing child care, so it’s helpful to know when she’s out of reach, and that she can feel cut off from the rest of us.

We all want the same thing

But by and large, the manuals revealed there wasn’t much difference between us. Most of us expressed the same things: We all want honesty and open communications, and we don’t want to work with jerks.

When I examine my misgivings about the experiment, I realize it reflects an anxiety about the erosion of the boundary between work and life. Prior to working at Quartz, I spent a decade in a newsroom with an insatiable demand for my time and attention. Managers had no regard for my responsibilities away from work, and one suggested that I should be available for edits while my wife was in labor. The same manager would reference my wife and kids when upbraiding me for some shortcoming. I learned any personal information I revealed could be used as a cudgel against me.

That job’s pressure was most intense the year my son was born, and I was painfully conscious my time was zero-sum: When I worked late, my wife carried more of the burden. The phone could ring at night or on the weekend, and I would be expected to drop whatever plans I had and plunge into writing and reporting, often for hours. For years after, the phone ringing sent a Pavlovian shiver down my spine.

Given that trauma, I’ve probably become overly wary about blurring the lines between work and home, to the point where I lost sight of benefits of letting my colleagues in. In a humane workplace like Quartz—where managers respect personal time and they assume the best of their workers, not the worst—letting my colleagues know about my needs and concerns may not be such a bad thing. And unless there’s a drastic change in leadership or company culture, I very much doubt the user manuals will be weaponized into a tool to oppress labor.

As I read my colleagues’ manuals, I was impressed with their sincerity, and how even those who were uncomfortable with the project poured themselves into it. Ultimately I don’t know how much difference the manuals will make in our day-to-day work—I intended to treat my colleagues with respect and honesty before we began, and that won’t change—but I do have a better sense of what moves them, what angers them, and and what worries them. I’m no less astonished by their brilliance, but my millennial teammates have become a bit less mysterious.