advertisement
advertisement
The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

R.I.P. magical kingdom tech culture. What comes next?

How can we design companies that offer authentic and meaningful opportunities for their employees and the communities they’re built in?

R.I.P. magical kingdom tech culture. What comes next?
[Jacob Lund/Adobe Stock]

For years, tech companies have delighted in parodying one another’s workplace culture in an ever-escalating rivalry of perks. What started with innocent beanbag chairs, office kegs, and foosball tables grew to include on-site Michelin-starred restaurants, laundry facilities, and a boundless cornucopia of infantilizing services designed to create a cocooned office environment employees could be lulled into literally living in.

advertisement
advertisement

This was never healthy. But in the midst of a Great Resignation, and as the Facebooks and Googles of the world look to grow their multi-trillion-dollar market caps with a high-stakes competition for a limited pool of skilled talent, what will replace the idea of the magical office kingdom? And how can we design companies that offer authentic and meaningful opportunities for their employees and the communities they’re built in?

For me, this question isn’t academic. As the head of a 400+ person company headquartered in San Francisco, I believe the way forward requires a more thoughtful approach to the experience of being an employee. Now that we’re in a post-office world, it’s time to get back to basics.

I believe that to attract and retain the right people, we must look at what really motivates employees: their ability to make a positive impact, the opportunity to work collaboratively with smart, values-aligned teams, and the autonomy to do their job free of platitudes and pandering.

advertisement
advertisement

Here’s what a back-to-basics approach could look like.

GENUINE PURPOSE OVER PERKS

Even before the pandemic, plenty of research showed perks weren’t the most effective retention tool. Employees appreciate all the perks, but they can see through glitzy benefits—and that’s especially true for the next generation of talent. Seventy-four percent of Gen Z believe jobs should have a greater sense of purpose baked into the company mission.

Purpose is not platitudes like “saving the planet.” It’s not a Wall Street ratio like ESG. Purpose has to be clear, concrete, and emotionally resonant. It can be as simple as Netflix’s mission to “entertain the world”—not the most meaningful raison d’etre, but a purpose that teams can rally behind.

advertisement

CSR programs like Salesforce’s Pledge 1% initiative or Starbucks’ focus on farmer equity are wonderful and important initiatives. But charity is not a substitute for the purpose of the organization you work at every day. Patagonia’s environmental efforts have so much credibility because they’re built into the fabric of the business.

OUTPUTS, NOT INPUTS

Another upshot of remote work has been mounting proof that people are really good at managing themselves. In a decentralized work environment, the butts-in-seats model—which put an emphasis on dress codes, logging hours, and corporate processes—is giving way to an outcome-focused model. Teams are empowered to work when and how they want, and success is defined by goals met, not hours worked.

In this context, management is less about supervision than enablement: helping employees set clear objectives and giving them the tools to achieve them. When it comes to leadership, there’s little place for obtuse micromangement. Having to sleep on factory floors and terrorize employees over every detail is a sign of leadership failure. Teams that outperform over the long-term are enabled by their leadership to be autonomous and agile.

advertisement

AGILITY OVER BUREAUCRACY

In 1913, Henry Ford revolutionized manufacturing with the assembly line and drove more than 70 years of industrial expansion inspired by his method. Then, in the ’80s, Japanese carmakers turned it on its head with their lean approach. Founded on the idea of ‘kaizen,’ or continuous improvement, it prioritized individual workers and their on-the-ground knowledge.

The tech world famously embraced this as the lean startup ethos, premised on experimentation, rapid iteration, and market feedback as the more effective way to build software. But scaling an agile company up to tens or hundreds of thousands of employees is extremely challenging. What works for a small startup falls apart in the hands of governance and leadership structures that tilt toward consensus.

True innovation depends on flexibility and the kind of autonomy employees are increasingly demanding. It’s why extreme management rules like Amazon’s two-pizza approach to meetings are put in place. Successful companies will be those that find a way to scale with nimbleness.

advertisement

COMMUNITY, NOT ‘CULTURE’

I’m admittedly not a big fan of the term “culture” because of all the baggage it brings: imposed from on high, elitist and often toxic, and at its worst, resulting in environments where harassment and discrimination run rampant. Interview panels that include sentiments such as “I wouldn’t get a beer with this person, therefore we shouldn’t hire them” are a dangerous way to build teams.

But big changes are happening in the way we approach inclusion at work. The MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements have driven huge holes in the tech community’s monolithic idea of culture. Thank god, because our diversity numbers as an industry have been absolutely abysmal. I believe the tech sector is starting to understand that growth requires embracing community over elitist culture, diversity as a core strength, and empathy as a requirement—because that’s what employees increasingly demand.

None of this comes at the expense of performance and driving toward the mission of your organization. What binds teams in the end is something much more fundamental than the nice-to-have perks: it’s the belief in their work tying directly to the mission of their organization. It’s not about the values written on the wall. It’s how they are lived when under real pressure.

advertisement

What’s fascinating to me is how many of these “new” ways of working represent a return to tech’s startup roots. Agility, community, autonomy, and purpose—these core principles drove the explosive waves of innovation in Silicon Valley, and they must remain.

I believe deeply that now is the time for our industry and our people to let go of the crutch of excess perks, the unfair elitism, and the cocoon “culture” of tech and let a more authentic approach to building companies take hold. Those who recognize this will have the best chance of winning the war for talent.


Zack Rosen is the co-founder and CEO of Pantheon, an established leader in WebOps, and a passionate proponent of advancing the open web.

advertisement
advertisement
advertisement