Leslie Caccamese -
October 30, 2012
What Tech’s Best Employers Know about Workplace Culture
Regardless of specific market niche, tech companies share similar workforce and workplace challenges: how to attract and retain the best talent, how to reward employees (in a field where players are fiercely competitive about their workplace perks!), and how to keep employees innovating. While media attention usually focuses on tech’s outlandish perks—like InfusionSoft’s company Camaro for the employee of the month, Go Daddy’s prizes like 40” plasma TVs for top performers, or Google’s famed gourmet cafeterias and on-site bowling alley—what sets these companies apart as workplaces are the philosophies and practices they have designed to keep employees engaged, enthusiastic, and thinking like owners.
Great Place to Work® has been searching for the world’s best workplaces for 25 years, and studying what makes them tick. In this article, we turn our focus to the tech companies reviewed for the FORTUNE 100 Best Companies to Work For® and the Best Small & Medium Workplaces in America lists, to spotlight some of the most forward-thinking practices tech’s best employers are using to build great cultures.
Crowdsourcing Company Strategy
Today’s top tech firms are tapping into the communal intelligence of the workforce for everything from strategic planning, to benefits selection, to setting cultural values and vision statements. Biotech leader Genentech sponsored a grassroots, all-employee campaign to envision the future of the company. With participation from 1 in 3 employees and over 11,000 ideas generated in just 2 weeks, the campaign was a resounding success, and the model has since been employed for similar conversations. Meanwhile, the developers at Rally Software bring agile philosophy to their annual planning. Once management outlines the high-level vision and top 5 goals, teams are invited to give formal feedback and influence the final strategy. Rally employed the same philosophy to refine the company values and re-design their office space. When AutoDesk wanted to revitalize the company vision statement, CEO Carl Bass commissioned a small team of employees to develop a new one that captured what the company is all about.
Crowdsourcing as a workplace trend remains pretty cutting-edge, and not every employer wants to take the time to collaborate with thousands of employees on culture and strategy. Companies not ready to source from the “crowd,” may want to test ideas with smaller crews. Many great workplaces convene small committees of volunteers who are tasked with specific agendas from managing the company’s community involvement initiatives, to planning holiday parties, to selecting office furniture. Polls and pulse surveys are an easy way to connect with employee populations as well. Though it may be in its early stages, the trend toward crowdsourcing is growing, and great employers are looking for ways to mobilize the power of the masses for the benefit of the company as a whole.
Retaining a Hacker Mentality
Engineers like to work fast and furious in unfettered environments—not exactly a cornerstone characteristic of most corporate cultures. The best tech firms know that a little room for creativity goes a long way when it comes to getting the best from employees, and many have instituted bureaucracy-busting programs that allow a hacker-like mentality to flourish.
Innovation networks are becoming increasingly popular with companies across all industries asking tech teams to develop a proprietary internal app that allows employees to submit product ideas and innovations, vote on the best, and volunteer to participate in execution. Intuit’s home-grown program, Brainstorm, has been so successful for them, it’s now a part of their product suite. Qualcomm has taken their Innovation Network system a step further and integrated the web-app with on-campus lectures, networking events, mentorships, and other tools. At Insomniac Games, developers can submit their personal video game ideas for official consideration. If the company decides not to develop the employee’s game idea, the IP is “returned” to the employee so they can pursue development on their own. At Cisco, “Rapid Improvement Events” bring together teams for 2 to 5 day brainstorms surrounding specific products and projects. These blitzes keep creativity and morale high. Small biz SEO platform, Conductor, Inc., hosts an annual Hack Day, where each employee participates on a small team that spends a day working on an idea that will make their product, company, or culture better.
To ignite a hacker mentality at your tech company, create incentives for employees to submit their ideas and product innovations. Foster healthy competitions with 24-hour hack-a-thons, and celebrate the employee or team that generates the best idea. Sponsor an employee tradeshow, a sort of science fair where teams can show off their latest developments. Or, consider rewarding top performers with “free time” to work on an innovation of their choosing that can benefit your business.
Good for Geeks
Firms that are heavy on engineers know that what’s good for the geek is good for the culture, especially when it comes to balance and benefits. Relatively unheard of a few years ago, Results Only Work Environments (and similar programs that offer employees unlimited vacation and sick time) are growing in popularity. While the idea of total flexibility makes some uneasy, the high levels of trust and engagement at great workplaces, make for few abuses of this system. Providing tools and support can help manage expectations in the flexible workplace. Cisco, inventors of many of the technologies that make remote work arrangements feasible, provides tips and best practices on how to be successful at remote work. Telecommuting and flexibility are nearly ubiquitous in the industry, but it takes a strong culture and clear expectations to determine whether or not these programs work.
Fun at tech companies often speaks to the unique needs of the tech geek. While Friday afternoon beer bashes are a widespread habit among the best, skills-based activities often provide a more meaningful form of celebration. The IT department at cell-phone case designer and manufacturer, Otterbox, recently hosted a Star Wars StarShip build and fly contest, where employees broke into teams and had 15 minutes to build and fly their model StarShips. Afterwards employees responded to questionnaires about how they collaborate and influence team dynamics.
While it may be the super-flashy benefits (such as paid sabbaticals, scuba diving lessons, onsite Coldplay concerts, box seats to sporting events, pet insurance, and more) that capture media attention, offering the benefits that mean the most to your people are more important than cash cubes and Camaros. Consider Google, who started out by providing benefits like onsite laundry, haircuts, and medical care—benefits that appealed to their college recruits. They have since added a host of benefits that acknowledge their changing demographics, including an expo of local day care providers and summer camps. At DreamWorks Animation, on-site babysitting is offered during the “crunch mode” that precedes the completion of a feature film. Cirrus Logic has found a meaningful way to acknowledge how employees contribute to the business by hosting an Annual Patent Recognition Dinner to celebrate those employees who contributed patented inventions to the company. While none of these moves will grab headlines, these benefits are appreciated by the people who matter most.
To build a great workplace, understand what your techies want and need when it comes to balance and benefits. Do you have the technology in place to support a more flexible workplace? Consider rewarding employees with “tech toy” bonuses so they can purchase and review the latest gadgets or software. If you are having trouble getting wellness initiatives off the ground, a Wii Fit Olympics or providing employees with a FitBit, may be the spin needed to capture their attention.
Culture is Not the Sum of the Perks
Slathering on the perks is like eating frosting out of the can. It packs a tasty sugar high, but you crash hard. Great firms know this, and so they start with the right ingredients. Crowdsourcing gets employees thinking and acting like owners. Employees take more pride in the company, understand the strategic direction, and grasp how individual roles impact outcomes. Encouraging a Hacker Mentality shows employees that their ideas matter. It harnesses the passion and enthusiasm of employees, recognizes their intrinsic motivation, and rewards them with the best prize of all—seeing their ideas brought to fruition. And finally, finding the right benefits for your population shows care and support for employees as people. Great benefits are a fitting way to say thank you to employees for bringing their best to work every day. The best tech companies understand that it’s the philosophy, not the perk, that matters most, and they put their energy into practices that will strengthen the culture and produce an enthusiastic, loyal, and engaged workforce.