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HR 2.0: Expanding Benefits and Building a Culture of Trust

Written By Nick Mendez | Jan 12, 2016

A lot happened in 2015. I’m sure you’re drowning in year-end recaps. But here’s one development that might positively impact your day-to-day: some American companies bent over backwards to expand benefits for employees and better attract talent.

No one netted more good press than Netflix, which started offering employees unlimited maternity and paternity leave, in addition to their existing unlimited vacation policy.

“Experience shows people perform better at work when they’re not worrying about home.”

“Netflix’s continued success hinges on us competing for and keeping the most talented individuals in their field,” Chief Talent Officer Tawni Cranz said in a blog post. “Experience shows people perform better at work when they’re not worrying about home.”

As the only developed country in the world that doesn’t mandate paid leave for new mothers or fathers, parental leave is a natural place for American employers to differentiate themselves. And Netflix certainly wasn’t alone. Microsoft and Adobe quickly followed suit and increased their parental leave offerings. Intel boosted their fertility and adoption benefits.

“It’s very expensive to burn people out. Even if it’s your top talent, they need a reprieve,” Sara Stowe, Talent Acquisition Manager at Smarsh, told us. “And not to mention, you’ll get a reputation. There are few companies who can afford to have that reputation.”

Sara’s spent years as a recruiter in the technology and creative spaces, so we decided to get her thoughts on the year’s developments in HR policy, and what they mean for creative professionals.

“If people are very passionate about what they do, they’re going to be sort of on all the time, even if they’re not on their device,” she said. “It’s really important to advocate for a balance.”

Letting employees decide how to strike that balance, between a work and social life, career and family, has been the most popular HR reform of the 21st century. With new media and technical skills in such high demand, and when it can cost 30% to 400% of an employee’s annual salary to replace them (depending on seniority), retaining talent is paramount.

Extended parental leave and unlimited vacation time are far from the only ideas on how to do that. T3, an integrated marketing firm in Austin, pioneered a program called T3 and Under that allows employees to bring their newborns into the office—at least until they’re motoring around.

“In our experience, having the baby in the office actually eases the stress of worrying about how the baby is doing somewhere else,” T3 CEO Gay Gaddis said in a blog post on Forbes.

It took a concerted effort to work out the details and scale the program as the company grew, but in the end, T3 and Under has became a signature part of the company’s identity and culture.

“More rewarding is that the program has enabled T3 to both retain and attract amazing people,” Gaddis wrote, “the lifeblood of the creative and technology sides of our business.”

“We’re all aware of our European counterparts,” Sara said, later adding that she’d encourage companies to grant mothers and fathers the same amount of leave, to give dads more of an opportunity to participate in childcare.

“There’s a lot of discussion about how things should be,” she said, “but the reality of it still is that childcare responsibilities fall on the mom more than the dads.”

Sara joined Smarsh, a cloud services and data archival company based in Portland, in the summer of 2013, and immediately had the opportunity to decide for herself: what does the company’s hiring process need to look like in order to maintain their culture?

“I really had the opportunity at Smarsh to break it all down and build it back from scratch,” she said. “You have to maintain the integrity of that day-to-day experience.”

Trusting employees to manage their own time, and still maintain the company’s values, is especially difficult during a period of growth. It places extra importance on the interview process and hiring methodology.

“Don’t advocate for hiring fast, but advocate for getting them through the hiring process fast,” Sara said. “That cultural interview now serves two purposes—[to determine fit and] to make sure we can scale our culture.”

Treehouse is an educational platform offering courses in web and app design, backend development and a whole host of other things. They just moved to a cool new office in North Portland, with all the requisite snacks and ping pong tables.

Despite these amenities, CEO Ryan Carson has spent years asking his employees to only come into the office four days a week. In the States, a 32-hour work week is pretty novel.

“I don’t have that long to spend with people I love,” Treehouse CEO Ryan Carson told The Atlantic last June in a video called The Case for the 32-Hour Work Week. “I’m not gonna be at my fucking keyboard at 9pm on a Friday night, because there’s no life there.”

Carson has long been an advocate for this structure. Treehouse’s culture recipe attracts talent with a combination of more free time, and enthusiastic feedback from their users.

“We got crazy, unbelievable emails from folks all the time,” software developer Jim Hoskins told me. Jim worked at Treehouse for more than five years. “It’s really hard to not be enthusiastic about that mission when you see those sorts of stories.”

“A lot of different types of jobs have lots of different types of schedules.”

The fact that designers and developers make up not just their staff but also their user base gives the company a unique perspective on an emerging truism of 21-century work:

“A lot of different types of jobs have lots of different types of schedules,” Jim said, noting that as a software engineer, his laptop is the core of his work experience. “We’re treated with respect. We hire good people and we trust them to do their work.”

Remote work is not only a boon for proprietors of cool coffee shops everywhere, but it’s spawned a massive industry of shared work spaces, communication tools and conferencing solutions.

Another Portland company, sustainability marketing firm Green Rising, has implemented something called ROWE—a Results-Oriented Work Environment.

“It says that an employee can work whenever, however they want as long as they get their specific result accomplished within the parameters set,” founder Holly Hagerman told the Portland Business Journal.

The consistent ethos of these policies, at least from the optimists’ view, is to let your employees manage their own time and productivity.

“You have to trust your employees to be stewards of the company’s success,” Hagerman said. “I think it’s the only way you’re going to see the 50-year loyalty of our grandparents’ generation.”

Giving employees decision-making power is key to the implementation of all of these strategies, because not everyone likes the idea of working from their living room while wearing pajamas.

“They want to be able to see and talk to other people,” Sara said. “Even the coffee shop model has gone by the wayside a little bit because everyone has their headphones on, they’re not interacting.”

When it comes to attracting talent, you’ll win a lot of PR battles just by cutting hours or boosting benefits, but the war is won by building an environment of respectful communication between employees—especially between managers and those they manage.

“Whether it’s about the work load someone’s under, or a form that doesn’t make any sense, we want to be able to get that feedback across the organization,” Sara continued.

Even the coldest of middle managers can admit that an overworked staff leads to quality issues. When a company’s culture and morale are poor, no progressive HR policy can hide those problems.

“We all have a threshold,” she said. “There are only so many hours in a day. You will start to sacrifice the quality if you don’t speak up.”

Some experts argue that unlimited vacation or parental leave policies do more harm than good, replacing defined guidelines on acceptable working hours with socially-enforced, arbitrary ones.

Shortly after Netflix’s announcement, Business Insider’s Rachel Sugar pointed out research supporting this cautionary tale. The streaming giant hasn’t been as public about how their industry-leading plan will be implemented, trusting that their reputation as a supportive place to work will guide the way.

“If you don’t have the right culture, your people will actually take less time off, and you will have the opposite effect with these policies,” Sara said.

Many employees, especially those with plans to continue their career elsewhere, look at accrued vacation time as a benefit unto itself—a little savings account that they can turn into cash when they move on.

Also concerning is who these progressive policies leave out. Often, an offer of unlimited vacation time only applies to salaried workers, and leaves out contractors, manufacturing or distribution workers.

“When you start to drill down to the big companies like Netflix and Virgin, it’s actually a benefit for a certain class of employee,” Sara said. “That’s risky—you could end up with egg on your face.”

In fact, Netflix was so widely criticized for the fact that their unlimited parental leave announcement didn’t apply to their hundreds of DVD-distribution workers that in December, they extended the policy to include them.

Progressive benefits aren’t a quick fix. A book that explains how to make your employees happy shouldn’t be seen as a self-help guide, but an account of a certain philosophy. Successful cultures are built by choosing the bits of pieces of these methodologies that best apply to your staff.

Progressive benefits aren’t a quick fix.

But everybody’s different, and much of what an employer can offer—healthcare for instance—is regulated, specialized, and out of management’s control.

What’s wholly up to managers is to foster an environment of mutual respect.

“I think candidates are more savvy about what their manager’s role should be,” Sara said. “It’s used to be top down. You do what your boss tells you to do—you don’t ask why—you just do it.”

Creative talent is different: you’re hiring them as much for their inventiveness as for their hard skills. It makes managing productivity a much more nuanced challenge.

“I’m here to have a meaningful impact on your career, not just tell you what to do,” Sara said. “That really does impact that day-to-day experience hugely.”

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