It’s become cliché, a topic for an episode of Silicon Valley: what sweet perks does your tech office offer? Not just beer, but several local brews on tap. (The ABV of each scratched on a miniature chalkboard on the handle.) Not just ping-pong, but olympic-quality table tennis systems. Old-school arcade games, like Donkey Kong and Street Fighter. (Swapped out monthly, by a company catering to just such a need.) A variety of snacks both healthy and decadent, from simple-ingredients-on-the-package fare like RXBARS, to copious amounts of Halloween-sized packaged Big Candy candy like M&Ms and Starbursts. You know, for that 3pm sugar habit we honed in sixth grade, at the corner store, with loose change from Mom’s dresser.
There’s a reason for clichés. We offered everything above in Atlassian’s former San Francisco HQ. (Not positive the ping-pong table was “Olympic-quality,” but you get the idea.)
The truth is: these perks are sweet. And so are all the other stereotypical things tech companies have become known for, like open, collaborative office spaces and innovative, bustling workplace cultures. The fact that tech companies repeatedly top lists of best places to work is no joke. Who wouldn’t enjoy these fringe benefits at the office? Everybody’s gotta work somewhere, and if that place has your favorite candy (Junior Mints) regularly stocked, well, who’s gonna fight City Hall over it?
But here’s the thing: while many might think these perks are the reason people want to work and continue to work for these organizations, that’s not really the case.
Because nobody picks one company over another because of beer. Or ping-pong. Or Nutella treats, or eight varieties of potato chip. These kinds of perks are really just that: perks. The icing on the cake.
The real truth is much more meaningful, and that's heartening. What people really care about – the kinds of things that people will actually take into consideration when deciding to join one organization over another, and stay there, aren’t trivialities. Because, let’s face it, beer and candy and games don’t matter. That's not what creates an amazing place to work.
1. Sense of purpose
People want to know the work they do matters. They want to believe – even in some small way – what they do might be changing the world for the better. This begins with the hiring of people who believe in the company's mission and values. These are the foundational elements upon which your team is built, and can’t be enforced top-down. (At least, not very effectively.) A shared understanding of the mission and values must be lived and breathed by every team member. This way, the company succeeds because people know their contributions influence these core elements, no matter how big or seemingly small.
For this reason, tech companies put a major emphasis on their recruiting practices, starting with immersing candidates in the company's values during the interview process. Everything shapes the experience, from the careers section of your website to the wording used in your job descriptions and your office layout and style. All touch points with a potential new hire should reflect your company’s culture, its values and beliefs.
Help people understand the big picture before they sign on the dotted line and you're more likely to match the company's needs with your new recruit, and vice versa.
For example, many tech companies take the 1% Pledge whereby they donate 1% of profit, equity, product, and employee time to charity. This gives people the opportunity to give back to their community without having to give up much of their free time. Companies who value community service and take the pledge typically have an easier time finding and retaining people who share those values.
2. Risk taking, and failing well
Unlike many industries, the tech industry has a healthy appetite for risk and failure. In fact, there's a general belief in the industry that if you’re not failing every now and again, you’re not pushing yourself far enough. That’s because true innovation doesn’t happen without taking chances.
The key here is to be smart and calculated in your risks, and strive to “fail well.” Shorten the feedback loops that help you identify failure, and learn from your mistakes so you can avoid them in the future. Leaders need to support this by creating an atmosphere in which people don’t feel like they’re going to lose their jobs if they mess up. Openly reward people for taking smart chances, and help people apply lessons from past mistakes to propel the business forward.
3. Rituals that drive innovation, and create a culture of discovery
Innovation doesn’t usually happen while you’re sitting at your desk buried under the monotony of day-to-day tasks. More often, it happens in the moments when you have time to take a step back, and think creatively and broadly. This is why many tech companies institute programs that give people time to work on something they feel passionate about that may be outside the scope of their normal jobs. For example, Google’s “20% time,” gives people 20% of their work time to focus on whatever project they desire.
At Atlassian, “ShipIt” is a quarterly innovation event where ad-hoc teams form to deliver a solution to a problem, or jam on a project they’ve had in mind but haven’t had the time to explore – all within a 24-hour timeframe.
These kinds of programs are all designed to create opportunities for people to flex their creative genius. And (you guessed it) people love them.
These programs have another value: they tend to encourage people to team up with others they don’t often work with. The best ideas often come from groups of people with diverse viewpoints, skill sets, and backgrounds because they challenge opinions and force one another to think about things in ways they may not have considered before.
So in addition to creating these rituals that foster innovation, it helps to create casual opportunities for people from various teams or departments to mingle. This further encourages the development of a culture of discovery, which goes hand in hand with real innovation. That’s part of the reason why so many tech companies invest in supporting team celebrations and other informal social events. You never know which unlikely pair of people might come up with your company’s next great idea.
4. Transparency and autonomy
Many companies default to keeping information private. If you want to find something, you have to know the right person to ask or get special approval to access some database you probably didn’t even know existed. This is the exact opposite of how many companies in the tech industry approach knowledge sharing.
As best-selling author Dan Pink wrote, people strive for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. If you want employees to feel a sense of ownership and pride in what they do you have to give them a sense of independence, and that starts with a culture that values transparency and openness. By allowing all team members to self-service their need for information, they feel a stronger sense of responsibility, and your company runs more efficiently.
Gone are the days of a nine-to-five workday. The rise in globally distributed workforces, remote working, and a new wave of collaboration technologies have led to a work culture that is "always on" (thus the obsession with work-life balance among forward-thinking companies and managers), but in which people are no longer tied to their desks.
The tech industry has a leg up in this regard because most companies use (and in some cases make) the latest technologies that help people work from anywhere, and at any time. And, in fact, that's key in attracting millennials. This Forbes article notes an Intelligence Group study that found that 74% of millennials want flexible work schedules and 88% want “work-life integration.”
But it’s not just the younger generations who’ll take notice. Households with two working parents, for example, greatly appreciate the ability to arrange schedules around school drop-offs and pick-ups. (Not to mention karate lessons and hip hop dance classes.)
Whatever the situation, recognizing the full selves of employees and offering more flexibility to reflect unique schedules and needs inspires more loyalty to the company.
Flexibility is also imperative for another challenge facing the industry: diversity. By allowing work schedules to flex around family and other scheduling constraints, you can attract and retain a workforce with a greater variety of ages, cultures, and genders. While diversity is a multi-faceted concern, this is one way to help build a more diverse community within your company. The value of diversity and the perspectives it brings to company culture, products, and ultimately customers goes without saying.
The good news for techies and non-techies alike is that these aspects of tech culture are "open source" (if you will), any company in any industry can adopt and benefit from them – right now. This includes, by the way, the idea of “working open,” as we do at Atlassian. That is, an open way of working, thinking, being, and an open business model. The benefits we experience from this stance on working together and supporting teammates as human beings (and not just cogs) are immeasurable.
Most of all, though, choose one thing you can start to change, and start changing it. Today. Sure, it may feel risky, and it may not go exactly as planned, especially at first. But that's ok. In fact, that’s the idea. If tech culture has taught us anything, it's that you can pick yourself up, learn from mistakes, and try something different tomorrow.
And that’s the way to create a unique and noteworthy work culture that will attract and retain amazing, talented people.
You can still have beer, too, if you really want.