Workplace

What do tech workers really want for the holidays?

That’s a loaded question.

Video: YouTube

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It’s hard to find just the right holiday gift for people in tech.

Some might want remote work to last forever. Others might say they want to be in an office, with co-workers all around and an abundance of snacks in the communal kitchen.

One could ask for a four-day workweek. But don’t be surprised if their colleague says they don’t care how many days per week they need to work, they just don’t want it to be synchronous. Another might say they’d like to talk all about their salary, while their tight-lipped boss may say those conversations are best left unsaid.

Maybe all a tech worker really wants for the holidays is the ability to determine how and where they get work done, without any protocol from their employer. HR experts said these wishes aren’t new, but tech workers are more willing to ask for them as the pandemic shifts their outlook on work and the job market becomes more talented and competitive.

“Most of what people want is the autonomy to be treated like an adult, and a degree of flexibility,” Katie Burke, the chief people officer of HubSpot, told Protocol. “I actually don’t think what people want has changed that much, I just think people have become more emboldened to ask for it because we’re dealing with a really powerful talent market.”

What do tech workers really want? It depends on who you’re talking about.

Tech workers include a wide range of people. But there are a few distinct groups at play: gig workers, employees who have traditionally gone to the office and activist employees pushing for internal change. All have a pretty extensive wish list, and they’re all quite different.

Workers at ride-hailing and delivery companies have pushed for higher wages and other benefits. Other low-wage workers at Amazon continue pressing for unionization, safer working conditions and better wages.

People who were in an office before the COVID-19 pandemic have been primarily focused on keeping remote work flexibility. One of the more notable tussles between companies and their workers on the issue was at Apple, where the tech giant laid out a back-to-office plan earlier this year and got serious backlash from employees. On a broader scale, most workers say they don’t want to fully work in an office again, and historically underrepresented groups said they’d benefit from more-flexible work even more.

Then there are the activist employees, like those at Netflix and Apple, who are willing to put their jobs on the line for the sake of changing company culture. At Netflix, trans employees and allies protested the company’s decision to release the Dave Chappelle comedy special and listed a bunch of demands for the streaming service to do better. At Apple, workers began publicly sharing stories of workplace harassment and discrimination in hopes of fixing some of the issues. At Pinterest, former employees pushed to end NDAs.

These workers won’t put up with a company that leaves coal in their stocking. If they’re not listened to, it’s not uncommon for a group of gig workers or activist employees to stage a walkout or speak out publicly. Other tech employees will simply leave if they’re unsatisfied with their jobs; after all, there’s apparently more to life than what you can find in an office. Even the biggest tech companies like Facebook and Amazon are struggling to figure out how to attract and retain talent.

“Employees are saying, ‘You know what? I want that flexibility, and if you’re not going to give it to me, I’ll just go somewhere else because the market is so good that I can go to an interview at lunch and have a job offer after an hour and a half,’” Rey Ramirez, a management consultant at Thrive HR consulting, told Protocol.

How to fulfill employees’ wish lists

HR leaders said in order to avoid turnover, companies need to acknowledge the new normal and adjust their workplace accordingly.

Ramirez said employers need to come to terms with three big shifts: Remote work is here to stay, companies should support employees in whatever new work environment they choose, and companies should adjust their leadership to allow for that support. “If that is at home, then that’s where you want to support them,” he said. “If that’s in a co-office space, then you support that.”

One way a company could tweak leadership is by hiring a head of Remote, said Darren Murph, who holds that position at GitLab. “Hiring a dedicated cross-functional, communication-driven leader or team increases the likelihood of success, understanding and buy-in,” Murph told Protocol. He cited a GitLab report that found while the majority of people would recommend remote work, it’s become a struggle to facilitate teamwork outside of the office.

Murph said retaining top talent means becoming more flexible. Since the pandemic unfolded, workers have realized that they can do well in their careers without giving up time with family and friends, and Murph said organizations should adapt to allow for that personal time. He added that allowing remote work is only half the battle; companies should own that transition by upskilling their workers and introducing new tools that allow for remote collaboration.

HubSpot’s Burke said the company tried to “reduce friction” toward the beginning of the pandemic by shifting its work plans last summer. Employees can pick their work preference — remote work, in-person work or a mix of both — for a year, and change their preference if they move later on.

“We’re transparent about what employees are choosing when they pick an option and saying, ‘By the way, things are changing and are fluid. We did not know what was going to happen with vaccination rates … We didn't know how travel would work,’” she said. “We were really clear that we don’t know how it’s all going to work, but we were clear about which options were available to people.”

Burke added that as companies shift to new work environments, they should overcommunicate those changes to employees to avoid confusion. She said companies should frequently collect feedback from employees through surveys, share potential action plans as often as possible and acknowledge where leaders need more information before making decisions.

“Rather than trying to make everyone happy, be clear on what you’re prioritizing and what you’re emphasizing and allow people to pick the option that works best for them,” Burke said.

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