Culture at work: Winning ways from top companies

A positive workplace culture can boost collaboration, innovation and overall business results. HRM speaks to seven top companies about their winning ways.

Sleep pods designed for power napping at work; a bamboo garden with a foot reflexology path; as well as a games area with foosball and pool tables: these are some of the great employee amenities at the open-plan Singapore office of software company SAP.

According to Jairo Fernandez, Senior Vice President of HR, SAP Asia Pacific, such recreational facilities help support the company’s high performance work culture.

A great work culture serves as a magnet for top talent. In a 2015 survey by recruitment solutions provider FutureStep, nearly 61% of respondents said that organisational culture was the most important recruiting advantage for global organisations, followed by a leading employer brand at 26%.

Building a strong culture must be a deliberate and on-going effort, says Rachel Ong, CEO and Founder of ROHEI, a learning and development consultancy. “A company cannot just put up its values on the wall for employees to read, and expect that a strong culture will be built. A top down and company wide effort is required.”

The intangibles making a difference

Trust emerged as the cornerstone of workplace culture in most of the organisations that HRM Asia spoke to.

“The concept of trust is an intangible one but companies built on a foundation of trust will encourage openness as employees become more engaged in the success of the business,” says Fernandez. Employees also value a culture of openness and transparency where the company’s goals are clearly agreed between staff and their leaders, he adds.

The management team at ROHEI adopts an open-door policy to facilitate open and honest communication with staff. Employees are encouraged to give feedback to each other and the management team. “Feedback is a gift,” says Ong, “We value both appreciative and developmental feedback because it sharpens each of us individually and as a team.

Computer storage and data management company, NetApp also believes in the value of feedback and open communications. “Our employees value a listening culture, because it means open communications with each other where they feel safe to candidly express their concerns and grievances,” shares CY Yau, Head of HR, NetApp Asia Pacific.

Many organisations operate in different geographies, and find that respecting the diversity of different regional teams can go a long way in helping employees feel a sense of belonging.

Computer data storage company EMC empowers its workforce to focus on activities that are important in their local geographies.

“For example, a few years ago the Singapore office recognised an opportunity to improve our camaraderie and pride scores,” says Jocelyn Macedo, Vice President of HR, Asia Pacific, EMC.

“The local leadership team supported the creation of a local site committee – an employee taskforce enabled to drive initiatives important to the local team, including networking, social meet-ups and local community-based events.”

This programme has seen great success and engagement over the last few years, culminating in EMC gaining a top 10 placing in the local Great Place to Work rankings.

Positive leadership

An organisation’s leadership set the tone for its culture. Having motivational leaders who bring energy and passion into the organisation is important, says Lee Murphy, Senior HR Director, Microsoft, Asia Pacific. “You need leaders that you can learn from, who are supportive of your own growth and development, and who accept feedback.”

Fernandez from SAP concurs. “An authentic leader who is trusted has a higher level of credibility and is instrumental in rallying employees to the company’s vision.”

At ROHEI, CEO Ong conducts weekly staff “discipleship” sessions every Monday morning to build trust and inspire her team. She also writes a note to all staff at the end of each week to share updates and stories of team wins and employee contributions.

HR as an enabler

By partnering with the business, HR can act as an enabler of core behaviours that define an organisation’s culture.

At NetApp, the “Catch Someone Doing Something Right” initiative encourages employees to applaud and endorse their peers for doing something positive to help the company, a customer, partner, or society at large. “We also recognise employees for displaying commendable behaviours that resonate with the company values through our ‘Living Our Values’ award,” says Yau.

As an extension of its open-door policy, NetApp also organises manager forums and employee chat sessions across the region, where staff get to regularly meet the company’s executives in small group settings.

The HR team at cloud computing company Salesforce is known as “Employee Success,” as it prides itself in helping employees succeed. It organises “Brown Bag Lunches” with each team to share policies and programmes.

“These events also serve as a forum for employees to channel their concerns in a comfortable, informal setting,” shares Ismail Shariff, Asia Pacific Vice President of Employee Success at Salesforce. “We also regularly conduct employee engagement surveys to help us understand where we are doing well, where we could improve. and where we are trending up or down when it comes to creating a great place to work.”

HR is also responsible for ensuring that organisations have contemporary policies and practices that are competitive in the marketplace, says Lee from Microsoft. “HR needs to make sure that we are bringing the outside in.”

Hiring for cultural fit

Research from the Society of HR Management shows that the employee turnover from hiring someone who is a poor cultural fit can cost an organisation between 50% to 60% of that person’s annual salary.

It is thus critical for hiring managers to ensure that the person they have in mind has values and goals that align with those of the organisation.

Culture starts from the moment a person is hired, so the hiring process is crucial, says Eriko Talley – Head, HR (Asia Pacific), Facebook.

The social media giant deliberately hires only people who believe in its mission. “Our journey to connect the next five billion people on the planet is just beginning, and we are looking for people who believe in what we’re doing, who treat one another with respect, and who bring new perspectives to the complex problems we’re trying to solve,” Talley says.

The company has a preference for “builders”.

“Regardless of whether we’re hiring an engineer or a finance analyst, we look for people who like building things. People who thrive at Facebook look beyond the status quo – they love creating new things, and figuring out how to continuously improve the way we’re working and the products we’re building,” explains Talley.

While Facebook wants to hire bright minds, it does not select people based on academic or test scores. “We look for people who have proven, by rolling up their sleeves and making a direct impact, that they’re the best at what they do. Focusing on impact is one of our core values, and when we’re interviewing people, we seek to understand how they’ve made an impact in the past.”

Apart from actively hiring for values, Facebook also believes in referrals. “Our HR team frequently holds Facebook ‘Ninja Hunts’ where we sit down with employees and ask if their friends would be interested in working here. We actively collaborate in sourcing candidates,” says Talley.

Similarly at NetApp, employee referrals are a significant component of the talent acquisition programme. “We have witnessed a success rate of between 30% and 40% of our hires coming through the employee referral programme. An employee who refers a candidate understands the requirements of the role very well, knows who could subscribe to our NetApp culture, and could anticipate who would be a good fit for the role. After all, talent attracts talent,” says Yau.

Salesforce looks for candidates who are game-changers, risk-takers, and boundary-pushers. “We welcome disruptive people who challenge the status quo, dream up innovative ways to get things done, and see the world with fresh eyes,” says Ismail. “We look for people who are collaborative, compassionate, and good listeners. Our employees seek to understand the needs of their teammates and customers in order to solve problems and deliver success.”

At Microsoft, the focus is on behavioural interviewing, says Lee. The HR team spends a lot of time meeting and interviewing potential candidates, building rapport and examining their behaviours. Some of the qualities that they look out for include authentic leadership, as well as empathy for colleagues, customers and clients.

EMC, NetApp, SAP, ROHEI and Salesforce  were recently lauded as Asia’s Best Workplaces by the Great Place to Work Institute.

Employee perks

Leading companies have established a wide range of interesting perks in order to build and maintain a desired culture internally. Here are some of the most unique.

  • SAP

Weekly bootcamps on Mondays where all employees are invited to join interest groups ranging from dragonboat, soccer, tennis to running clubs. It also runs a FitSAP programme where employees who clock a minimum of 8,000 steps a day for a quarter will gain credits to their flexible spending account which can be used for healthcare, employee wellness, family wellness and personal work expenses.


Staff polls are gamified to encourage employees to share ideas and suggestions. Respondents are given incentives such as coffee and restaurant vouchers. The company also holds weekly fitness classes. Complimentary drink vending machines and biscuits are provided in the office.

  • Salesforce

The office has a pantry with a vending machine that provides complimentary snacks and drinks. Staff also receive seven days of paid time off a year to volunteer with a charity of their choice.

  • Facebook

The company has a well-stocked pantry and sleep pods. It provides unlimited sick days, changing rooms for parents who want to bring their children to work, and a vending machine full of technology products and performance-based rewards.

  • NetApp

The company offers a flexi-choice scheme that allows employees to trade in some of their annual leave for other benefits related to healthcare, family and leisure. Employees can also take one week’s paid leave (on top of their allocated annual leave) to contribute to the community in whatever way they wish.


What destroys culture

A recent study on workplace culture found that HR and employees have a disjointed view on what erodes workplace culture

  • HR professionals and people managers claimed that “a high-stress environment” and “company growth” were the two workplace factors with the biggest negative consequences on workplace culture.


  • Conversely, workers believed that “not having enough staff to support goals,” “unhappy or disengaged workers who poison the well,” and “poor employee-manager relationships” were the major challenges to keeping a positive workplace culture.


Source: The Workforce Institute at Kronos and WorkplaceTrends Employee Engagement Lifecycle Series


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