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How NetApp became one of the world’s best employers

Its secret? The data storage and cloud computing company favors specialized, individual recognition over material perks.

NetApp CEO Tom Georgens has a rule: when one of his employees hits a rough patch, he wants to know. The reason: Georgens wants to make sure every possible resource is available to his employees when they need it the most.

Such was the case earlier this year. An employee’s young child suffered from a rare brain tumor and needed surgery. But the operation itself required the collaboration of specialists from around the world working together in real-time — a task that called for huge amounts of diagnostic information stored and transferred at the fastest possible speeds. In the end, NetApp lent its vast data storage services free of charge to help make the operation successful.

NetApp, which comes in at No. 3 on this year’s list of the 25 Best Global Companies to Work For, doesn’t dole out a slew of perks the way some buzzy tech companies do, such as Google and SAS. At NetApp, food is often subsidized, but not free; onsite haircuts aren’t an option; and nap pods or bowling alleys are nowhere to be seen. But the data storage and software company is virtually peerless when it comes to looking after employees — a reality borne out when NetApp supported that brain tumor operation earlier this year.

The creation of NetApp’s unique culture is largely the work of Tom Mendoza, its current Vice Chairman, who has been with the company since 1994. “I’ve never thought short-term things like free lunches, massages and all the things some companies talk about are really what’s important to an employee long-term,” says Mendoza. “I think people want to be at a place where they feel respected, appreciated and the company is trying to do something special.”

It’s a philosophy dating back to 1992, when David Hitz, James Lau and Michael Malcolm started NetApp, offering enterprise-level storage devices and the software needed to manage client data. Witthin two years, NetApp had just 45 employees and counted less than $10 million in annual revenue. Compare that with today: revenue tops $6.3 billion and its far-reaching workforce has a headcount of 12,300-plus in 150 offices in 50 countries, including Spain and China.

Giving recognition where it’s deserved when your organization is international remains a challenge, Mendoza acknowledges, but NetApp keeps pace with “1 Team,” a mix of cultural initiatives that delivers the company’s ongoing strategy loud and clear. Every month, the company holds a day-long event for new employees to mingle with executives and learn about company expectations. When management wanted to share its updated corporate strategy nearly a year ago, instead of sending a company-wide email, Georgens and 20 other senior executives embarked on a “Strategy Roadshow,” visiting 24 cities around the globe, talking to employees in-person and getting their feedback.

“1 Team” also calls out employees for a job well done. A program called “Catch Someone Doing Something Right,” does just that. “It’s a simple and powerful concept: Any employee who see’s others doing extraordinary things to help our company, customers or partners simply has to reach out to me, and I will call that employee to thank them,” explains Mendoza. Such efforts include working the weekend to wrap up a project or devising a solution that makes a team more efficient.

NetApp employees around the world thank colleagues in different ways. In India, managers leave notes of appreciation on a “Wall of Awesomeness” highlighting others’, well, awesome deeds. In Spain, the team picks one employee each quarter and prominently displays their name and photo with the caption, “NetApp Loves You.” The “Living Our Values Awards,” NetApp’s largest employee recognition program, sees colleagues nominate one another around the world — the employee in each region with the most votes is called out by Georgens at an all-hands meeting and gets face-time in a video.

Of course, that’s not to say NetApp employees are perk-free in the traditional sense. Hard work sometimes begets on-the-spot cash bonuses that vary based on achievement. With the “Volunteer Time Off” program, employees receive an extra 40 hours — or 5 days — of approved paid time off, provided they spend some of that working for a cause.

Dead car battery? Locked car door? Discounted car services at the Sunnyvale offices — onsite carwashes, detailing, tune-ups and parts replacements — can help with that. On-site massages, laundry and dry cleaning are available, not to mention subsidized take-home meals from local chefs, even holiday pie sales.

To encourage a healthy lifestyle, employees at NetApp headquarters have a 26,000-square-foot fitness center, with an indoor basketball gym that transforms into volleyball, indoor soccer and badminton courts, and free exercise classes. This October, NetApp held a “Get Up and Go” challenge, where 1,900 U.S. employees — or about 16 % of the company — used FitBit health tracking devices to track their movements. The winning team received a $1,000 donation, which it gave to the American Cancer Society.

Still, Mendoza says NetApp keeps workers happy and inspired in ways beyond just material niceties. Says Mendoza: “We want to be there for them before they ‘win’ or ‘lose.’