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The 25 best and worst work trends of the past 25 years

From #MeToo and Lean In to open offices and remote work, the workplace has transformed many times over in the past two and half decades. Let’s take a look at how we got here.

The 25 best and worst work trends of the past 25 years
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When Fast Company first appeared in 1995 declaring that “Work is Personal,” the workplace looked vastly different than it does today. Many of the changes mirror the tech advances of the past two and a half decades  (Slack replaced email which replaced faxes, for example). But the real workplace evolution has been in making work more personal—for both better and worse.

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Companies aren’t made up of robots (yet!); they are made of people. Some of the best changes over the past 25 years have been in recognizing employees’ humanity: from the rise of Diversity and Inclusion efforts, to efforts to reduce gender pay gap, to more flexible work, and the #MeToo movement.

Still, it hasn’t been a steady uphill climb. Progress has been painfully slow in many areas, and some of the changes in the way we work (especially now) have encroached on the rest of our lives.

As we look back at Fast Company‘s first 25 years, we wanted to take a look at the best and worst trends we’ve covered in that time. This list is by no means exhaustive (or ranked), and of course not all trends are squarely “good” or “bad.” But in looking back on where we’ve been, we may get a glimpse at where we are going.

The Best

Companies Start to Wake up to Diversity and Inclusion

The lack of diversity in all ranks (but especially at the top) of companies has been an issue for generations. But while it’s always been well-known by people of color, white people finally started to wake up to the issue in larger numbers in the past two decades. Diversity training programs started in the late ’90s and grew in popularity throughout the early 2000s. By 2005, companies slowly started to add Chief Diversity Officers to their C-Suites, a trend that has ramped up in the last decade.

In 2014 many of the major tech companies started publishing annual diversity reports. Unsurprisingly, their numbers were awful. (Facebook, for example, had a workforce that’s 3% Black.) Six years later, the numbers haven’t budged much. In the past few years, the conversation has evolved past trying to convincing companies that diversity is crucial to the bottom line to tackling microaggressions, unconscious bias, and building anti-racist workplaces. The death of George Floyd and the civil unrest of this summer have brought a renewed focus on D&I, and consumers are increasingly holding businesses accountable. Still, we have a long way to go. Facebook now has 3.8% Black employees.

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Employees Demand Flexible Schedules

The idea of flexible—or reduced—schedules is not new. Economists and politicians have been talking about cutting down the number of hours we spend at work each week for decades. Nixon even predicted the advent of a four-day workweek back in 1956. But actually moving beyond the traditional 9-5 workday is a more recent development. In some ways this change has been indirect (smartphone allowing you to return an email from your boss while commuting), and in other ways, it’s been the result of employers’ attempts to attract and retain skilled workers.

The demand is clear: Flexible schedules are one of the most popular perks that companies can offer—and the pandemic has only intensified this trend, as employees juggle additional care taking responsibilities and pressures. 

Remote Work Becomes (a Lot) More Common

Thanks to the advent of collaborative tools, like Slack, Zoom, Google Docs, and Microsoft Teams, remote work has been on the upswing for a while. But the pandemic has radically accelerated this trend, with one in four employees reporting that they worked entirely from home in July and August of this year. 

Remote work long predates COVID-19. It even predates the rise of digital nomad and  coworking spaces. The term “telecommuting” was first developed by researchers in 1973, and many tech companies have long allowed (or even encouraged) employees to work from anywhere. Its evangelists tout the potential environmental benefits, efficiency, hiring ability, and flexibility remote work offers, while its detractors cite concerns about what an office-less company does to creativity and team culture.

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For now though, working from home (or the road) is certainly here to stay. Some tech companies like Facebook, Square, and Twitter have even announced plans to keep employees remote indefinitely.

Work Wear Got More Casual

Casual Fridays were, as The Atlantic smartly put it, a gateway drug. After all, if you can dress casually one day a week, what’s to stop you from doing it the rest of the time? 

Employees at many offices embraced the siren song of the business casual wardrobe, despite the fact that no one can really figure out what that exactly means: Nice jeans and a button-down? A dress with sneakers? Certain T-shirts?! So it was a natural progression when Silicon Valley forsook blazers for the humble hoodie. (It’s yet another thing we can thank Zuck for.)

Now that so many of us work from home, the “Zoom shirt”—aka the “Zoom mullet” (dressy on top, decidedly not on bottom)—is having its moment. What’s next?

The Gender Pay Gap Finally Gets Attention

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Similar to the issue of D&I, inequality between men and women in the workplace (especially when it comes to pay) is an issue as old as the industrial revolution. Equal Pay Day, the symbolic day women have to work for free until each year to match men’s earnings, was first noted in 1996, and has expanded to include equal pay days for Black, Latinx, and Native American women, as well.

In the past few years, issues at the heart of the pay gap have gotten a lot more attention: The Mommy Tax, the devaluing of so called “pink collar” jobs, the penalization of women in salary negotiations, and more. But even as awareness has raised, actual progress has been painfully slow: By some estimates, we won’t reach pay parity for another 257 years.

Networking Moves Online

For generations, networking took the form of stuffy mixers where you ended up with a pile of business cards that you promptly misplaced. In 1997, Fast Company created an online social network, the “Company of Friends,” which consisted at its peak around 40,000 members in 120 cities. Members networked both online and in person, but by 2003 membership had declined.

With the launch of LinkedIn in 2003, Twitter in 2006, and other social networks used to build and solidify business relationships, networking became more expansive, if you were willing to play along. 

Like remote work, virtual networking offers many benefits: You can reach out to connections when convenient (a boon for working parents or others juggling a tight schedule), and you get the chance to connect with people you would never meet in some stodgy hotel lobby in 2005.

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#MeToo Forces the World to Pay Attention

The accusations against Harvey Weinstein that came to light in late 2017 were often referred to as an “open secret.” It’s a phrase that likely rang true that women across the country. Sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace has been commonplace for generations. For decades, women were either legally restrained by nondisclosure agreements, or simply afraid of retaliation if they spoke up.

And while there have technically protections against sexual harassment starting in the 1970s, and Anita Hill raised national awareness of the issue in 1991, it wasn’t until later in the ’90s that many companies began to adopt sexual harassment policies and training, though they proved ineffective in many instances. Most often women resorted to a whisper network to warn each other.

But finally post-Weinstein, more women felt emboldened—or fed up. #Me Too was initially used on Myspace in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke, and got a new life in 2017 as the reckoning across industries spread. Of course the problem is far from solved, but the momentum of the moment had lasting effects as several companies released women from nondisclosure agreements and several powerful men either lost their jobs or faced prison time.

Benefits Got a Makeover

When Fast Company launched in 1995 what was considered “good” benefits were pretty basic: health insurance, a couple of weeks paid vacation, and possibly 401(k). Fast forward to the past 5-10 years when in a bid for top talent tech companies with deep pockets started to offer better and better benefits. One of the first was “unlimited vacation,” unchaining employees from saving up their PTO or limited them to one or two weeks off a year. This benefit became so popular over the past decade that its been adopted for many office workers. (It’s also become controversial and has its detractors.)

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Some companies also started rethinking what their employees need pivoting from retirement savings to help with student loan repayment. Around 2015, big tech companies with deep pockets also started offering benefits aimed at retaining women in their 20s and 30s such as stipends to pay for IVF and egg freezing. More than 100 companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet,  Netflix, and Uber offer this.

Paid leave has also been expanded at some of these companies, some offering up to a year of paid leave. While some of these have trickled down to other private companies, the U.S. remains one of the few countries in the world without a universal paid leave policy (more on that later).

A New Generation Embraces the Labor Movement

The heyday of unions (and the broader U.S. labor movement) is generally considered to be the 1950s, when membership peaked. But a new generation of workers is discovering the power of organizing. In 2018, workers under 35 surpassed all other demographics in terms of rates of new union memberships. 

And it’s not just members of traditionally unionized industries (like teachers or nurses) who are organizing. Gig workers, who lack protections or benefits afforded to many full-time employees, have been fighting for fair wages and safer working conditions. These efforts have only grown more forceful since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. “What gives us hope is that workers who have been previously invisible in the popular imagination are suddenly being seen as essential,” Ai-jen Poo, cofounder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, recently told Fast Company. 

White-collar workers are also organizing in record numbers, and, though the tech industry remains predominantly nonunionized, there has been a massive uptick in worker activism at tech behemoths like Google and Facebook. (Disclosure: Fast Company edit staff is represented by Writers Guild East.)

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The Taboo Around Mental Health at Work Starts to Lift

Nearly one in five adults reports having a mental illness. But despite the prevalence of disorders like depression and anxiety, we’re not very good at talking about it. Luckily, there are signs that this stigma could be starting to fade, perhaps due to a greater understanding about the massive impact that workers’ mental health has on their productivity and success at work. Many business leaders and public figures have gone public with stories of their own challenges—as well as the dangers of an unhealthy work ethic.   

And businesses are taking note. According to a May 2020 survey by Willis Towers Watson, 77% of companies reported that they are offering or expanding the mental health services they offer to employees.

One of the silver linings of the pandemic has been more openness about mental health during a challenging time. “More people struggling is bad,” writes Dr. Mimi Winsberg, cofounder of Brightside, a mental health telemedicine service, in Fast Company. “But facilitating space to talk about those struggles without fear of judgement is good.”

Communication Got a Lot Easier

Readers of a certain age may remember a time before most of their communication with coworkers took place on a screen. When Fast Company launched in 1995, email was becoming commonplace in offices, but oftentimes employees would still slip documents and memos in “interoffice mail” envelopes to have them delivered to people on different floors. Fax machines and voicemail were king for communicating with people outside of your office. Then for at least a decade email was the go-to for business communication, with an occasional instant message.

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As workers started to feel like they were drowning in emails, project management tools like Trello, Basecamp, and Google Docs started to gain popularity, but it wasn’t until 2014 when Slack launched that office communication really transformed. The instant messaging and collaboration software grew so quickly with 30,000 companies using it by October 2014 to 638,000 companies today. A true mark of its omnipresence in our work lives: It’s even become a verb. Other tools like Zoom and Airtable that launched around 2013 have also become crucial in the past year as office work has moved remote.

Hierarchy Started to Break Down

According to management experts, the modern workplace prioritizes collaborative or “distributed” leadership. That’s a significant change from workplace of the ’90s (or before), which tended to be more hierarchical and bureaucratic. 

Critics say a “flat” organizational structure can make employees’ roles confusing and stymie middle managers. But proponents say structuring a workplace this way can encourage creativity via unexpected collaborations and make a company more attractive to competitive talent. It also requires different considerations, including greater transparency and more individuals taking on leadership qualities.

Some companies like Zappos even attempted to take the idea of a nonhierarchical structure even further back in 2015, implementing “Holacracy”, which eschews managers and titles entirely.

Companies Started to Rethink the Annual Review

The annual performance review was once considered a gold standard across industries, providing a chance for managers to make sure employees were meeting targets. But more and more companies
have realized that a once-a-year evaluation is not necessarily the smartest (or most efficient) way to track an employee’s progress. For example, a 2015 Harvard Business Review report found that Deloitte spent 1.8 million hours total to do individual reviews. 

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Conducting more frequent—and less time-consuming—check-ins can allow both managers and employees to discuss progress (or lack thereof), and ensure that employees don’t hear an overwhelming backlog of feedback, which can be demoralizing. Plus, as more people log on remotely, many managers are taking time to proactively recognize employee contributions, since workers may have less insight into what others are accomplishing than they did in a shared office.

The Worst

Work Life Got Out of Balance

Technically the term “work life balance” started in the ’80s as baby boomers started to push back on the idea that they were just a cog in a machine. But around the early 2000s, it became increasingly clear that it’s impossible to get a 50/50 balance of the two as one will always creep into the other. So the idea of “work life integration” emerged. And while it seems like a more realistic and humanistic way to view the complexities of our lives (you can take an afternoon off for doctor’s appointments or dance recitals), the practice of work life integration quickly merged to mean employees were never “off the clock.”

As smartphones became ubiquitous, employees felt pressure to check and respond to every email and message as soon as it came in. Very few people would have felt the need to work on nights and weekends or on vacation 25 years ago, but now it’s become expected in most workplaces. Since many of us have been working from home for the past seven months and likely will be for many more, the line between being “at work” and not has blurred even more. So much for balance.

We Still Don’t Have National Paid Leave

The Family Medical Leave Act was passed in 1993. It allows full-time employees at companies of 50 employees to take up to 12 weeks off for their own medical condition or to care for a family member, including a newborn. It’s job protection, but it is completely unpaid. And now, 27 years later, it’s still the only national leave policy in the U.S. We are shamefully and famously behind nearly every other country in the world.

In the past decade, more big companies have woken up to the need for paid leave (see “Benefits Get a Makeover” above). Additionally, six states have put some form of paid family leave law on the books in the last few years. Still, private sector solutions and a handful of state laws are woefully inadequate. According to the National Partnership on Women and Families, only 19% of workers in the United States have access to paid family leave.

Interview Questions Got Quirky

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Interviews are inherently stressful. You have to figure out what to wear, demonstrate your knowledge about the company, and build a rapport with whoever happens to be interviewing you. 

What’s one way to make a stressful situation even worse? Being forced to answer a “fun” interview question. Sure they might be a good way for interviewers to see how you perform under pressure, but does answering Are you more of a hunter or a gatherer?” or “How many pennies would fit into this room?” really tell you much about how qualified you are?

Perks Got “Cool”

Ping-pong tables in the office. Team-building trips to Malibu. Kombucha on tap. Plenty of companies—especially in the tech industry—are willing to pull out all the stops to entice and retain competitive workers. Just look at Google’s famed meal and snack program.

But there’s an insidious side to all these offerings. Labor historians call these perks “welfare capitalism.” That’s because those nap pods or snacks or dry-cleaning are meant to alter your behavior—whether that makes you more likely to stay loyal to your employer or work harder. And if a free dinner makes you more likely to stay at your desk for another hour, or three, well, it’s a pretty good investment for your employer.

Gig Work Robbed Workers of Protections
In 1991, Barbara Ehrenreich published her account of working a series of low wage jobs and trying to survive in the seminal book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. The book illustrated just the how broken the promise of the American Dream is. Thirteen years later in 2014, Fast Company writer Sarah Kessler wrote “Pixled and Dimed: On not getting by in the gig economy” (which she later turned into a book) about her experience as a gig worker for apps like TaskRabbit and Postmates.

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What she found was that over a decade after Ehrenreich’s book things had actually gotten worse. Under the guise of convenience and flexibility, app-based gig workers often work more hours and earn less than full-time minimum wage workers with none of the protections (family medical leave, sick days, health care, retirement savings).

Since Kessler’s article, there has been a lot of complaints among gig workers but little progress: In 2016 New York state passed the “Freelance Isn’t Free” Act, which guarantees independent contractors basic things like a written contract and payment within 30 days. In 2019, California passed AB 5 which forces employers to reclassify “freelancers” who work a certain amount of hours as full time employees. (In many cases it had the opposite effect, causing employers to simply reduce freelancer hours.) Needless to say there is a lot of progress that still needs to be made, including the addition of portable benefits.

The Lean In Movement Leaves a Lot of Women Out

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg entered the general public eye with her 2010 TEDTalk on “the ways women are held back—and the way we hold ourselves back.” Three years later in 2013, she released Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. The book set off an avalanche of “empowerment” think pieces and women’s conferences (a straight line can also be drawn from the popularity of LeanIn to the cringe-worthy proliferation of “girlbosses”, “SHE-EOs,” and momtrepreneurs in the mid-2010s).

Sandberg then spun the book’s popularity out into LeanIn.Org is a nonprofit organization dedicated “to offering women the ongoing inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals.”And while the book and the organization helped spark a much need national conversation about women and work, it also very notably left out women of color and women without the privilege, power, or resources to choose to “lean in.”

Sandberg has subsequently admitted that her rally call left out women of color, but her mea culpa hasn’t gone far enough in many people’s eyes. Perhaps Former First Lady Michelle Obama, arguably one of the most accomplished Black women in America right now said it best when she said “that shit doesn’t work all the time.”

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Progress on LGBTQ Workplace Protections Was Painfully Slow

Until the Supreme Court ruling in June 2020, there were no federal protections for LGBTQ workers. Whether or not you had any job protections depended on where you happened to live: 33 states and the District of Columbia offered at least some protections for LGBTQ workers as of 2019.

But that means that until just four months ago in 17 states you could be fired based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Similarly, in those states there were no protections against anti-gay harassment, retaliation, and other forms of workplace abuse.

This year’s Supreme Court decision, based on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, was a huge win for the millions of LBGTQ people in America, but it’s shameful that it took this long. (And it certainly doesn’t mean that coming out at work is any easier.)

Everyone Became a Brand

“To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You,” Tom Peters noted in his 1997 essay in Fast Company. The idea that everyone, from an entry-level assistant or a C-suite exec, was required to market themselves, turned out to be quite prescient. With the rise of social media, this concept is only more relevant—and, frankly, more exhausting.

There are other downsides, to personal branding, including getting pigeonholed, or experiencing diminished returns. Unfortunately opting out of this practice (and its sister, self-promotion) is virtually impossible for most professionals. But there are ways to make it feel less gross, at least.

Silicon Valley Tries to “Hack” Everything

Worried you’re not being radically efficient in every aspect of your life? Forget the Pomodoro method, batching tasks, or a mind-clearing vacation. Instead, how about intermittent fasting? Or micro-dosing with psychedelics. Maybe it’s your sleep that’s messing everything up. Your Oura ring can measure the quality of your zzz’s. Or have you tried a dopamine fast? All the cool tech bros are doing it.

Silicon Valley’s hacks range from the mostly harmless (Jack Dorsey’s lemon water and salt drink) to the downright dangerous (Jack Dorsey’s highly restrictive eating), but they all share one thing: making you totally insufferable at parties.

The Rise of Bro Culture
Success in the white collar world long depended on being in the “old boys club,” in which deals and power moves with made in spaces closed off to women and people of color. The rise of startups founded by young men in hoodies in the early 2000s traded one exclusionary space for another. The old boys club of cigar bars and golf courses was traded for “bro culture,” or brogrammer culture.

While young white male founders snapped up all the VC dollars and hired people who looked and thought just like them for years, the backlash started in the past decade as the drum beat against their toxic culture grew louder and lack of diversity and inclusion became a clearer determent to company’s success.

Private Space in the Office Disappeared

In the 1990s the corner office was shorthand for having “made it,” contrasted with the symbolism of drudgery in working in a cubicle. But by the early 2000s, both were out of fashion in favor of open office plans, which broke down all walls and personal space in the name of collaboration.

The idea of the CEO sitting at one big table along with entry level employees was a laudable idea of egalitarianism, but awful in practice. (Surprise surprise, no one wants their boss looking at their laptop screen all day.)

The backlash against open offices grew over the past decade as employees struggled to find ways to focus and create some semblance of privacy. Perhaps one legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic will be the end of open offices.

Companies Started Spying on Their Employees

Employee tracking once might have taken the form of a camera keeping an all-seeing eye on the stockroom, but today it’s often far more subtle. Instead, algorithms guide which room a hotel worker cleans, and software logs an office worker’s keystrokes and takes screenshots at regular intervals. A microchip embedded in the hand lets employees open doors or log into their computer. 

But despite the dystopian nature of much of this technology, monitoring isn’t going anywhere in our interconnected, automated, data-driven world. And most employees don’t seem all that worried. Gartner found through repeated polling that a growing number of respondents said they were comfortable with their employers “tracking personal data” about them.

All of these changes point to one thing: The place were we spend most of our waking lives has more power and influence than we may realize. What work will look like in 2025 is up to us.