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Shane Cradock: 'Colourful walls, bean bags and free lunch are all great - but tech culture is not all it's cracked up to be'



Shane Cradock

Shane Cradock

Shane Cradock

'You know what’s funny about this? You hired me to help you fix the problems your industry has created'.

These were the words I said to my client, a senior executive in one of the biggest tech firms in the world after six months of working together.

The focus of our efforts were on 1) improved results, 2) finding and retaining talent, and 3) a sustainable balance (and sanity) for him and his team.

The main obstacle in the way of achieving these goals was the 'tech culture'.

When you mention 'tech culture', most people probably think of the fancy offices associated with larger tech companies: coffee bars, gyms, on-site yoga, table tennis, life coaching, pool tables, and of course free food. But that’s just surface level, the reality goes much deeper.

While the free perks are great, there is a trade off - we all know there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Often, these perks are covert ways of attracting employees and keeping them in the building. Throw in a competitive salary and bonuses and we have an extremely attractive proposition for talent.

The reality of tech culture is very different. Characterised by long hours, high demands, and an always-on pressure, the price paid is often less quality of life. Ironically, this impacts engagement levels, performance and results.

Blind, an anonymous feedback platform, surveyed 11,487 people in 30 top tech companies and the results are extraordinary. 

Nearly 60pc of tech workers suffered from on-the-job burnout, and only five of the companies surveyed had less than a 50pc burnout rate (including Paypal at 27pc, Google 45pc, Salesforce 46.38pc, Facebook 48.97pc).

Companies with high employee burnout rates are usually characterised by four things: high expectation on output; poor time management strategies; excessive collaboration; and overworking capable employees.

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If you combine all of these you’ll find yourself with unhappy and exhausted employees.

These companies may argue there’s a huge focus now on providing on-site courses in mindfulness, yoga, and wellbeing programmes.

As one of my clients put it, 'all of this is really great, but I’m still expected to do the work of three people, so I don’t really have the time to put what we’re learning into practice. Plus, I have to keep the pressure on my team'.

To solve burnout and disengagement, leaders should be proactive and understand how and why their company culture may, even accidentally, encourage overwork.

CEOs And leaders Need To Become conscious cultural architects

The renowned marketer, Seth Godin, wrote in his recent best-selling book, This is Marketing, ‘Culture doesn’t just beat strategy - culture is strategy’.

With over 20 years’ experience across 50 industries, I’ve had more than my fair share of disagreements with entrepreneurs and CEOs about culture. They often talk a good game about looking after their staff, but in reality this is often second to what they really want, which is results. Smart staff are now waking up to this.

A senior executive in a large tech firm told me she was given a cultural programme to deliver to staff. The problem, she said, was that the reality of the culture was the opposite of what she was teaching. A very good programme had been designed, but the leaders operated by different principles.

Ultimately the training was doomed from the start and the result was cynicism. The same person told me she had been dying inside every day for the past two years, and any ‘well-being’ focus in the organisation was just lip service by the company, a tick the box exercise to be seen doing the right thing. She subsequently left the company.

CEOs and leaders are typically very goal oriented people. Their success is usually determined by specific metrics such as sales, profit and customer experience/service. They tend to focus on what they’re measured on. Perhaps metrics to start using are staff well-being, or community impact?

Ultimately, the culture of any organisation is shaped by the leader. The right leader with the right approach can make a massive impact. Successful future organisations will really put their employees’ well-being front and centre, daily. Talent will seek out these companies more for their positive culture rather than the perks.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink the purpose of an organisation. Is it to satiate the demands of shareholders and the board? Or the wealth ambition of owners and execs? Or, a vehicle to be a genuine force for good for staff and the community? Or all three things?

There are many great people working within the tech sector, but they can be prevented from doing sustainable, positive work because of the always on pressure and long hours.

Colourful walls, bean bags and a free lunch are all great - but they’re not culture.

Shane Cradock is a CEO and leadership advisor. His programme 'TimeShift - Lead, Work And Live At A Higher Level In The Digital Age' starts February 27.

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