Conferences may be dead, but the panel discussion is alive and kicking — on Clubhouse. The much-hyped social app connects members (one still needs to be invited to join) via audio-only conversation rooms where they can either host, contribute to, or simply listen to a conversation.
What started last year as an exclusive forum for Silicon Valley types and celebrities predominantly from the creative industries is now going mainstream (the app apparently had its highest download day this past week). Clubhouse has loosened its strict door policy and is flooded by everyone who knows someone.
Conversations on Clubhouse still revolve around the thrills and woes of startup founders and small business owners, entertainment and tech industry talk, and the inevitable meta-conversations (“how to become a household name on Clubhouse”). But they increasingly include science, mental health, economics, and politics.
In Germany, for example, one of the most popular Clubhouse series has become a daily “lunch roundtable from the government district” that is regularly joined by leading figures of the German political scene. The vibrant “public sphere” that German philosopher Juergen Habermas considered critical for a functioning democracy is not dead — it’s just a room on Clubhouse now, however one that will be subject to extensive (emotional) AI scrutiny (and optimization).
All of this raises the question: What does the Clubhouse phenomenon mean for business?
I believe it is just the latest example of a trend that’s been emerging for a while: The future of work is the future of experiences. I made the case earlier that if managers and leaders want vibrant, human workplaces, they must assume the qualities of conference curators and experience designers. But ultimately all of us are going to have to acquire and hone new skills.
The multiverse leader commutes between different worlds
Your strategy is your story, and your story is your strategy, venture capitalist Ben Horowitz once said, and consequently, the workplace is a story vehicle, if not the most important story vehicle, at least in your relationship to employees. And if that is the case, while everyone is crying for “authenticity,” it is important to realize that the workplace is equally a piece of fiction.
Like writers, film directors, or game designers, leaders are world-builders. The balance they’ll have to strike is no longer work-life, but between real and virtual worlds, between productivity and socializing, between fact and fiction.
While my argument back in 2016 was centered on IRL events, the pandemic seemed to only underscore my points. Through the rise of Zoom and other remote conferencing tools we became disembodied, ethereal souls, putting on a brave face in a brave new space. More casually dressed than business casual (and often only from the waist up), we opened up our living rooms and kitchens and kids to our work tribes, while at the same timing hiding, eyes wide open, in front of and behind our screens.
The pandemic made the “multiverse workplace” a reality, which demands multiverse leaders adept at commuting between different worlds, in fact, multiple universes, and not just virtual and real worlds, but different platforms, cultures, identities.
The workplace is becoming audible as social conversation
I’ve heard talk of “hybrid headquarters,” but the future workplace won’t be hybrid, it will be liquid: “Our workplaces have exploded and accelerated outward,” as my colleague Monika Jiang writes, and the advent of Clubhouse is exposing this development even further. The brave new space of future work is no longer the office (physical or virtual) — it is a room. Clubhouse is the logical culmination of work as a real-time social conversation (which is also why Twitter has already copied the service and launched its own audio spaces). As room and thought leaders — rather than just ring leaders — leaders must now even more deliberately and publicly curate and orchestrate this conversation.
Whether we show up on the platform as professionals representing a brand or as individuals, Clubhouse will affect the skill mix of future workers. The app requires us to acquire and hone qualities that had previously been considered rather specialist, exclusive to a select profession or a certain breed of personality. Clubhouse makes us all (wanna-be) moderators.
This democratization of moderation has benefits: In a society as polarized as ours, “moderate” views and actions are welcome. Moreover, the ability to moderate different viewpoints, include strangers from diverse backgrounds in a conversation, and make sure all voices are heard is the cornerstone of civil dialogue, of democracy. It’s also the hallmark of an effective leader.
And yet, like any digital experience, Clubhouse is both extremely intimate and extremely detached. You can be heard, but not seen, and while there are plenty of tacit protocols and subtle etiquette, ultimately, no one knows whether you are a dog (unless you start barking). And even the act of listening, unlike on traditional video conferencing platforms, remains invisible. In fact, many clubs on Clubhouse emphasize empathy in their rules and recommend you “listen more than you speak,” but one can’t help but notice that the amount of verbose self-promotion is certainly on par with more meaningful discussions.
Furthermore, despite the limelight for those speaking up and the immediate public accountability of their words — the town hall and the watercooler at once — Clubhouse furthers a culture of non-commitment and ghosting, of conversations as revolving doors, and attention spans so short that you won’t even read the end of this sentence.
It is very much the opposite of Hotel California: You can drop in any time you like, and you can always leave. The most portentous feature of a Clubhouse room is the ability to “leave quietly.” And wouldn’t we all want “leaving quietly” to be an option in many if not all aspects of our lives, from personal to work relationships, projects to jobs? No friction, no drama, no arguments. What happened to Tom, the designer? No longer in the room. And Meredith, the CEO? She “left quietly.” It is ironic that on a platform so chatty, the most powerful feature is quiet action.
It reminds us of a perennial truth for leaders that was valid even before Clubhouse and will be after it’s all dust and done: If you lose the room, you lose your ability to lead.