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Week in HR tech: Forget bean bags and look after people

Big tech may be struggling with key HR issues — but you don’t have to.

Yessi Bello-Perez

Photo by Slidebean on Unsplash (with modifications).

Unleash Your Culture Big tech may be struggling with key HR issues — but you don’t have to.

  • In this weekly opinion column, we take a look at the intersection between tech, work, and people.
  • Tech giants are increasingly making headlines for the wrong reasons, signaling clear failings in HR.
  • Culture is all about people, now we just need to figure out how to leverage tech to improve it.

While most of my friends aspired to get a job in the corporate world, I always wanted to work in the technology industry.

The tech sector promised everything I wanted in a job: flexibility, innovation, and let’s face it, the ability to wear a hoodie to work without anyone batting an eyelid.

From the outside, tech companies present themselves as havens; napping pods, bean bags, ping pong tables, office slides … the list goes. Culture and people, it seems, are the cornerstones of the business.

While much of this true, recent headlines highlight serious HR issues in many of today’s biggest tech companies. I’d like to preface this with the acknowledgment that there’s no such thing as a perfect company, or culture, but in many instances, many of these failures highlight deeply ingrained issues across a sector that’s known for its forward-thinking and innovative nature, and is notorious for its ‘tech bros.’

Specifically, I’m talking about an article published in the New York Times (NYT) earlier this week. In the piece, titled ‘After Working at Google, I’ll Never Let Myself Love a Job Again,’ Emi Nietfeld, a former engineer at the tech giant, details her experience of harassment at the firm. Of course, Nietfeld isn’t the first person to speak out about allegations of harassment at the company, nor is Google the only behemoth battling similar problems.

I don’t need to go into great detail about why there’s absolutely no place for harassment in the world and why these matters should be treated with the utmost sensitivity and seriousness, but, aside from the obvious, what struck a chord with me most was the extent to which Nietfeld — and others before her — planned their life around work.

In the NYT article, Nietfeld details how much of her social life revolved around her work at Google.

“Like most of my colleagues, I’d built my life around the company,” she notes in the piece.

To cut the long story short: Eventually, Nietfeld explains why she decided to take three months of paid leave — despite fears that doing so would cost her a promotion — and how her absence resulted in the realization that the life she’d built around the company “could easily be taken away”.

“People on leave weren’t supposed to enter the office — where I went to the gym and had my entire social life,” she adds.

Leveraging tech to help with culture

In this day and age, employees — myself included — want to be part of something. We want to feel like we belong, that we have a purpose, and that the work we are doing is meaningful.

Company culture has always been important but perhaps never more so than it is today. COVID-19 has further blurred the lines between personal and professional — many of us can’t quite figure out whether we’re working from home or simply living at work — but as organizations look to rebuild and plan their eventual (or potential!) return to the workplace, it’s important to think about the ‘what,’ ‘why,’ and ‘where.’

Beautiful offices filled with freebies or gyms may have been enough to entice prospective employees pre-pandemic but with 12 months of turmoil behind them, people are now looking to feel part of something bigger, and employers certainly have an obligation to ensure employees are safe and well looked after.

For so long we’ve conflated culture with perks. Having reported on startups and scaleups for some time, I saw first-hand how easily distracted people were by the seemingly relaxed working atmosphere — after all, free beer on tap surely equated to good company culture, right?

All of you, seasoned HR professionals and technologists, will know that culture transcends this. It’s about empowering people, ensuring employees are able to do their best work and have the tools they require to develop and grow. Culture is about the values, goals, attitudes, and practices that characterize an organization but it is mostly for, and about, humans.

And guess what, we have technology on our side to make all of this happen. Even if trust is waning.

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