Creating a Truly Caring Work Environment

March 9, 2021

Creating a Truly Caring Work Environment

Employee expectations are shifting in the workplace leading to a growing emphasis on holistic wellbeing and an increasing need for employers to care for the mental health and stress of their employees. The book, It’s Personal by Lorna Borenstein, CEO/Founder of Grokker, offers a strategic guide for company leaders who want to embrace this transformational change and includes 10 guest perspectives from leaders at the world’s most innovative companies. The following excerpt showcases the guest perspective from Zander Lurie, the chief executive officer and a board director of SurveyMonkey, who explores how connectedness, culture and curiosity play an important role in creating a caring work environment.

“The workforce we’re trying to attract today, and the skill sets of really talented workers, particularly at a technology company, are very different than the skill sets of executives from 30 years ago. Most of the technology wasn’t even created back then. So, you have to start with recognizing that the key employees that make this place special are different. They grew up differently, and their educational background is different. And they are more important today to your overall business than employees were 30 years ago.

“On the other hand, exclusive patents, contracts and supply chains are much less important. These used to serve as large moats around a company. But companies can now get to some semblance of scale with a fraction of the capital you needed 30 or 50 years ago. You can treat your people differently in a place where you know your revenue is rock solid. The media business is a good example. Friends had a contractual commitment with NBC. They couldn’t take their talents to ABC or elsewhere. Sports rights are usually locked up for 10 or 20 years, so they’re truly monopolistic assets for a company. Same with a 17-year patent on a pharmaceutical drug, where nobody else can make it. Maybe in a world where you had these types of assets, you didn’t need to treat your people well. But not many businesses have them anymore. Even the media world has been totally upended by technology, and now there are endless distribution outlets. If you treat an actor, director or writer poorly, they can go to Netflix or somewhere else.

“To appeal to the new workforce as well as inspire and motivate them in what is the most competitive labor market for human talent in  the history of the world, especially in Silicon Valley, New York, London and other major centers, the employer must now present a very compelling employee value proposition. If you don’t or can’t create a differentiated experience for employees, the cost is high. You will lose your key talent. Since it’s incredibly expensive to recruit, your business is almost destined to fail. The best starting place is to be curious about what is important to them. I’m a 46-year-old, straight, white guy and can’t begin to imagine what the optimal benefits package is for our diverse and global employee base. For me, to just intuitively feel that I’ll know everything about the environment to create and the benefits to offer would be pretty arrogant. The advantage of being curious is that you’re more likely to create a really special organization for employees to do their best work. And if you hire well, have a good strategy, and don’t lose employees, you’ve really got a better chance of succeeding.

“I think as a CEO, you articulate your corporate value proposition both in terms of how it’s good for the business and for our employees; if you do a good job, of course shareholders will be the beneficiaries. Basing all of your decisions on what’s best for shareholders is not a path to victory. If we spend a thousand dollars on paid marketing ads, it’ll drive short-term revenue, and that may or may not be the best way to spend the next thousand dollars at your company. But maybe you need to make more longer-term investment decisions for the health of your business. If you invest in health care, in employee resource programs or in enabling people to have more time off with their new baby, you can reduce recruiting costs and the dislocation costs when we don’t have the right number of engineers, salespeople or others. By supporting employees, they will feel more connected to work and feel more supported, so they’ll be less likely to leave.

“There are decisions CEOs make that set the company up for long-term success. In many ways, it’s like buying insurance or setting up your portfolio for tough times. SurveyMonkey went through tough times when the previous CEO, Dave Goldberg, suddenly passed away from a heart attack. I stepped in at a time when there were a lot of tensions and unhappy people. We were fortunate enough that Dave built up years of goodwill, so many employees kept us afloat until I came in and was able to re-invest in our culture. But if you run roughshod and people only stay because the company is very profitable or they make lots of money, they will leave as soon as you hit hard times. So, not having a bank of goodwill is pretty troubling.

“Everything starts with our values and culture. When I welcome new employees, I talk about my family, how I got to SurveyMonkey and our strategy, mission and values. I joke that printing companies are killing it because every company is making posters about their values. But ultimately your values are what governs who you hire, how you pay, who you promote and who you fire. And it starts with the executive team. You’ve got to be vigilant about rooting out the guy (sorry, but it’s often the guy) who’s interrupting women, who’s not paying fairly and who’s promoting by unfair mechanisms. You’ve got to spend the time prioritizing diversity in the recruiting process and making sure you have inclusive policies for folks at work. You really have to do the hard work and it’s expensive. You have to acknowledge you are going to spend more time and money on the stuff that you once thought was confined to HR, because it makes your business better, your teams stronger and drives long-term value for shareholders.

“We’re in a fortunate position because SurveyMonkey’s core product is software, which helps organizations solicit and understand the opinions and sentiment of the people we’re serving. One of the reasons the SurveyMonkey brand is beloved is that it is associated with asking opinions. If we’ve learned anything in politics, culture, sports and entertainment or even in the workplace or your kids’ school, people want to be asked their opinion. They want to have their voice heard. And, SurveyMonkey software is in this elegant position of sitting between a human being asking another what she cares about.

“We are constantly trying to pull out nuggets from our customers. When we were using panels for research, we had a male-female option. But we realized that there is a meaningful size of the population that doesn’t identify with one of those two gender boxes. As a result, we were not delivering a representative panel when there is only a male-female choice. Moreover, you’re actually offending a good number of people when you don’t offer nonbinary options, so we added that option too. And it was a nontrivial amount of engineering work to feather that into all of our products.

“A SurveyMonkey core value is ‘Stand for Equality.’ There are very few things that are as easy to execute and have a super high payoff than striving for gender parity with your board of directors and executive management team. If you get male-female parity, the data suggests that you’re going to be a lot more diverse in all the other areas too. And diversity is simply good for business. You have a greater chance of designing products that are liked by the whole world. If you have a diverse team creating your products, you have a better chance marketing to women and underrepresented minorities. It’s not like we are a boutique investment bank with 20 clients. We have 17 million people who use our products. So, I’ll be damned if 10 white guys are going to figure out what the world wants. And I know I am in a position where I have more influence now because of our brand, scale and balance sheet. If I can help make our company a more diverse, inclusive and fair and our customers then share that message with other companies, maybe humankind will advance a tiny bit. 

“We also want to have fun and we want to make sure that people are getting noticed for great work. We celebrate the milestones along the way. It’s not about the finish line. It’s about the journey. We make sure you celebrate the birthdays and have fun.

“We ask ourselves: is this just a poster or are we actually employing initiatives that demonstrate our commitment? For instance, we have half a dozen employee resource groups that we put real weight behind. The executives show up and have money to spend on programming outside speaker’s events. We definitely ask ourselves if we are just checking the box or if we are actually putting time and money and our reputation behind it. We want to make sure we’re not just glossing over stuff, that we’re actually doing it.

“I’ve never been CEO of another company, but it does make it more fun to be in the job if you care and other people know you care. I know I want my family to know I care about them. I want my friends to know I care about them. And I want the people who work around me to know I care about them. It might be a bit of a security thing for a CEO, but I feel that maybe I’ll be at my job longer if I believe the people around me care. And to me that’s a good investment in the business.”

Excepted from It’s Personal: The Business Case for Caring by Lorna Borenstein, published on March 1, 2021.

The Authors: 

Lorna Borenstein is CEO and Founder of Grokker and author of It’s Personal: The Business Case for Caring.