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There’s a better metaphor for work than “family” or “team”

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Waking up to say "bonjour!"
By Sarah Todd

Senior reporter, Quartz and Quartz at Work

Published Last updated on

Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke wants employees to know that the company is definitely not a family.

“The very idea is preposterous,” Lütke wrote in a memo last August that was recently obtained by Business Insider. “You are born into a family. You never choose it, and they can’t un-family you.” His main objection to the metaphor, he said, is that “it becomes incredibly hard to let poor performers go. Shopify is a team, not a family.”

But his replacement metaphor might not be much better.

The problem with thinking of work as a team or a family

Lütke is right to object to the family language—and not just for the reason he cites.

This comparison erodes boundaries and puts bosses in a position to take advantage of their employees, expecting them to give without asking anything in return and potentially making them feel guilty about asking for a raise or leaving for a new job. It ignores the decidedly un-familial processes of layoffs and performance reviews (though surely some family members wouldn’t mind giving a mean-spirited uncle the boot or presenting their spouse with formal evaluations of their dish-washing diligence). And the description may not come across as a desirable one to workers with real, dysfunctional families of their own.

Another option is to follow the path of Netflix, which famously tells employees, “We’re a team, not a family.” Netflix is referring to a professional sports team, specifically, in which people may get cut (read: fired) without compunction, in the interest of having “stars in every position.” Lütke, too, leans on the team metaphor as a way to emphasize Shopify’s prioritization of performance, writing in his memo, “We literally only want the best people in the world.”

At the very least, “team” is usually more honest than “family,” signaling to employees that the company is focused on winning, and will be unsentimental about personal connections. But the professional sports team metaphor may not be quite right for companies that have a less cutthroat culture.

You shouldn’t say work is a tribe, either

Some companies like to say they’re a “tribe,” building off author Seth Godin’s conceit of a tribe as a group of people who are connected by a shared ideal. But in the US at least, this use of the word can be considered cultural appropriation of a term that’s commonly used to refer to Native American groups. For that reason, mountain biking company Yeti Cycles said last year that it would stop referring to its community as the “Yeti Tribe”, noting, “The word ‘Tribe’ is a colonial construct that was used to marginalize Native Americans and its continued use by non-indigenous people fails to accurately recognize their history and unique status as Tribal Nations.”

So “tribe” is a metaphor that’s best avoided, too.

How else might we describe our workplaces?

It takes a village

In the pre-Covid era, when I went to the office daily, the ritual of greeting colleagues hello as they waved from behind their laptops or measured out coffee beans in the kitchen always reminded me of  the opening number from Beauty and the Beast and the cheerful bustle of the townsfolk in Belle’s village.

Indeed, a village strikes me as a uniquely suitable way to describe what it’s really like to work at a company.

People may move into or out of the village. Its inhabitants may not be the best of friends. But they are, at the very least, members of the same community, and they’ll usually have to interact with one another, in various combinations and to varying degrees. And presumably, they have a collective investment in ensuring that the village is a good place to live and to work, even if they have different ideas of how to go about doing this.

Villagers have different roles—Beauty and the Beast has the baker, the bookseller, the guy with a wheelbarrow guy full of pumpkins, and so on—each of which make the town function. It’s a metaphor that conveys an understanding of the workplace as the sum of everyone’s contributions. In that sense, it’s more egalitarian in nature than the metaphor of the team (which centers management’s point of view in assembling a league of champions) and far less emotionally manipulative than the metaphor of the family.

The downsides to village life also have parallels to work

It’s true that, as Belle’s opening song mentions, there are downsides to living in a village. It may feel cloistered or gossipy or dull. This makes the metaphor for work even more perfect! After all, workplaces can sometimes feel cloistered and gossipy and dull. And shouldn’t we use language that fully captures the experience of the workplace, rather than a metaphor that focuses only on the idealized aspects of it?

Despite my initial office-centric inspiration, the village metaphor has proven not to be dependent on colleagues being physically present with one another. Here at Quartz, our company Slack, too, creates a village-like atmosphere, with main channels serving as town squares and special-interest ones like #dogs or #tiktok serving as little taverns where people can gather to dish during their downtime.

In all these ways, the village is a metaphor that’s expansive enough to capture the workplace of the 21st century in both its realities and its aspirations. Speaking personally, if a prospective employer told me, “We’re family here,” I’d run for the hills. But if they told me, “We’re a village,” I’d be intrigued, and ready to consider moving in.