How Workday Focuses on Improving Its Workplace Culture Every Day

January 17, 2019, 12:00 PM UTC

Karina Sobhani interviewed with 20 or so companies after completing her undergraduate degree in computer science at Cornell several years ago.

One of those businesses stood out—for the way it combined tech with a human touch.

Sobhani says the Pleasanton, Calif.-based software firm Workday won her heart by asking about more than her mind at that first interview.

“Unlike other companies, where they were having you go to a whiteboard and having you do coding challenges and really that was it, Workday wanted to focus on the full picture of me,” Sobhani recalls. “What makes me happy every day? What makes me get up every morning? No other company really cared so much to even ask me those types of questions.”

The welcoming interview experience sold Sobhani on Workday, and she’s still happy there five years later. “I love what I do, I’m very passionate about it, and I’m surrounded by like-minded people, who love what they do as well, which makes coming into work a very easy thing to do,” she says.

Sobhani isn’t alone. Ninety-five percent of Workday’s 10,200 employees say the company is a great place to work, according to the Trust Index. That’s the SaaS-based survey tool my company, research and analytics firm Great Place to Work, uses to assess workplace cultures and generate its many best workplaces lists.

On the strength of its positive, inclusive culture, Workday earned a spot on the 2019 list of the 50 Best Workplaces in Technology, which Great Place to Work announced today in partnership with Fortune. Workday ranked No. 2 among the best large workplaces in technology.

In recent years, the technology industry overall has lost some of its luster. Concerns have arisen about the extent to which tech firms protect consumers’ privacy, about whether they have outsized power in the global economy, and about whether they are more “brotopia” than workplaces where all employees are respected.

The 50 Best Workplaces in Technology, though, stand out for being Great Places to Work For All. The methodology rewards companies that provide a consistently positive experience for employees across the organization, no matter who they are or what they do for the organization. Great Place to Work also assessed how inclusive organizations are with respect to innovation opportunities for employees, how well companies live out their values and how effective leaders are in the eyes of employees.

In analyzing this year’s list of the Best Workplaces in Technology, Great Place to Work also discovered a few growing trends within the industry. After reviewing more than 35,000 employee comments, we found that a few distinct themes emerged at the winning companies. One is that employees at the Best Workplaces in Technology appreciate generous benefits associated with health and well-being. In effect, these companies are paying attention to a wider societal trend of people placing a higher value on wellness. And their employees applaud them for such amenities as onsite gyms, lifestyle coaches, and massages.

At the 25 Best Small and Medium Workplaces in Technology (companies with 999 employees or fewer), in particular, we saw a clear focus on employees’ financial wellbeing. Workers there said they are especially grateful for bonuses, monthly profit sharing, and the like.

A third theme we discovered in our study is the importance of employee autonomy and shared authority. At the large technology firms, employees were much more likely to say they “feel empowered” at work. That phrase appeared in the employee comments at roughly 90 percent of the winning firms—it appeared in the comments of less than 10 percent of the tech companies that did not make this year’s list.

This empowerment finding reinforces what Great Place to Work and others have learned about how crucial it is for employees across an organization to have opportunities to express opinions, have a say in decisions and pursue new ideas. In separate research, we discovered that organizations with the most inclusive approaches to innovation — what we call “Innovation By All” cultures — have 5.5x the revenue growth of their less-inclusive peers.

It should come as no surprise that the 50 Best Workplaces in Technology stand out for cultures where employees feel a sense of autonomy. The industry has long attracted engineers and scientists who want to make a meaningful impact, if not change the world.

At Workday, for example, 89 percent of employees report that “management genuinely seeks and responds to suggestions and ideas.” The same percentage says the company celebrates people “who try new and better ways of doing things, regardless of the outcome.”

This culture of empowerment is no accident, says Greg Pryor, Workday’s senior vice president for People and Performance. Dating to its founding in 2005, Workday has been built on the principle that happy employees make for happy customers, Pryor says. This has led company leaders to prioritize an “authentic” workplace where psychological safety reins, he says. “We really try to blend and balance the high tech and the high touch,” Pryor says. (Hear more from Greg Pryor at the Great Place to Work For All Summit, scheduled for February 26-28, 2019 in San Francisco.)

The blend is paying off for the maker of financial management and human capital management and business software. For the quarter ended October 31, 2018, Workday’s total revenue jumped 34 percent year over year, to $743 million. Workday recently was ranked #1 on the Fortune Future 50 list, which recognizes the global companies with the best prospects for long-term growth.

Even though Workday is one of the top workplaces in technology, as well as No. 7 on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For, it has no plans to let up on its culture work. Its rapid growth in headcount—about 25 percent annually—requires constant cultivation of workplace culture. “This is something you just have to do every day,” Pryor says.

workday company meeting
Workday employees Karina Sobhani (left), Armin Taghinia (center), and Lynnel Luciani (right) take part in a fireside chat on “how to interview” at the Workday Company Meeting in December 2016.Courtesy of Workday
Courtesy of Workday

One way the company works on culture every week is through its practice of “Feedback Fridays.” Every Friday, Pryor and his team use Workday’s own software to ask all employees two questions from Great Place to Work’s Trust Index survey. The questions change every week, so that over the course of about four months, Workday has a comprehensive snapshot of its culture. Pryor and crew study the results of these pulse surveys, not just to see overall trends in the employee experience, but how particular regions, job levels and other demographic groups are doing.

One concern that showed up in the data over the past year was increasing anxiety about career growth. In response, Workday launched an “Agile Career Workshop.” Intended to mirror the experience of software coders during the short “sprints” associated with the agile coding method, the program gives Workday employees an intense immersion into diverse work experiences. The aim is to help them develop new capabilities and connections in a three- to six-month period.

It worked. Employee scores on the survey question about career development opportunities jumped seven percentage points in just four months, Pryor says.

Count Karina Sobhani among those happy about career flexibility at the company. She rose quickly into the management ranks at Workday and enjoyed leading teams of up to 25 people. But she missed doing the coding herself and worried her skills might become outdated. So she asked her manager for a different post.

Sure enough, he carved out a new job role where she is back to being an individual contributor. At the same time, she has a strong voice on her product team. As Sobhani sees it, Workday is treating her as a human being rather than a cog in the machine. Not unlike her first interview more than five years ago.

“What attracted me to Workday is still what exists at the company,” she says.

Read the full list of the 50 Best Workplaces in Technology.

Ed Frauenhem is the Senior Director of Content at Great Place to Work and the co-author of the recently published book “A Great Place to Work For All.