Tech giant Salesforce is caught in a war with employees that sums up the pandemic workplace: ‘wellness culture’ vs. ‘high performance culture’

Salesforce employee walking into building
A pedestrians near the Salesforce East office building in San Francisco, California, US, on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023. Hedge fund Elliott Investment Management has taken a substantial activist stake in Salesforce Inc., swooping in after layoffs and a deep stock swoon at the enterprise software giant.
Marlena Sloss—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Morale is low at Salesforce, despite co-founder and CEO Marc Benioff’s best efforts. At the tech giant, ohana means family, and family means no one gets left behind—except for the several thousand people the company laid off earlier this year as it faced stiff economic headwinds. 

On February 13, after the second round of layoffs in 2023, Benioff shared his annual forward-looking strategy planning document in a company-wide Slack channel. The document digs into the details of Benioff’s long-heralded management process he calls V2MOM, which stands for vision, values, methods, obstacles, and measures. 

“What I like about the V2MOM is that it encourages creativity, change, and empowerment,” Benioff wrote in 2020. “Different team members can lead different methods, and they update the V2MOM as the year progresses. We think of the V2MOM as a living and breathing document.”

Living and breathing may be apt descriptions for the “Obstacles” section of this year’s document—and some Salesforce employees might add “rage-inducing.” What was intended to explain reasons for the company’s performance challenges instead led to outrage among some of its employees. 

“Reductions in Force could be a distraction to a productivity environment,” a section on the Obstacles page, obtained by Fortune, reads. “Wellness culture overpowered high performance culture during pandemic. Fear of escalations for people-related issues (burnout, psychological safety, equality, etc.) can make managers reticent to performance manage their teams.” 

The document quickly received employee blowback, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday. One worker wrote on Slack the line about wellness culture was “most disturbing and tone deaf” and “a sad excuse,” according to the Journal. On February 20, Benioff sent out a revised document with that line removed. 

Representatives for Salesforce and for Benioff did not immediately respond to Fortune’s request for comment.

It’s not the first time Benioff opined, to workers’ chagrin, about the productivity shift he thinks accompanied the pandemic. In December, he wrote in the #all-salesforce Slack channel, which at the time contained 86,000 members, that employees hired during the pandemic in 2021 and 2022 were “especially facing much lower productivity.”

He went on to ask a few questions in an effort to solicit feedback—“Is this a reflection of our office policy? Are our managers not directly addressing productivity with their teams?”—which one employee told Fortune was “extraordinarily peculiar” because the company, just weeks prior, ended its pandemic-era benefit of one Friday off per month.  

“The quality of your business is the quality of your questions,” Benioff said in a message to Fortune at the time. “Asking hard questions of employees (and customers) for their answers is one of the effective ways to get answers as a business leader today. It’s why we bought Slack because there is no better way to ask questions and crowd source answers quickly.  Already today I have almost 500 replies to my question—amazing and incredibly useful as the CEO of Salesforce.”

Defining wellness, culture, and high performance 

It’s difficult to hone in on what “culture” looks like at a company as vast as Salesforce, which boasts a $163.6 billion market cap and employs over 70,000 workers. But clues indicate many employees aren’t happy.

Consider the issues at Slack, which Salesforce acquired in 2021 for nearly $28 billion. The messaging app has long made clear its priorities of flexible work, mental health and work-life balance.  

In an internal Q&A with Slack’s senior leadership team in January, outgoing CEO Stewart Butterfield discussed the workplace messaging app’s cultural rift with Salesforce, which acquired it in 2021.

Butterfield admitted he “wasn’t very successful” in integrating the two cultures, per an audio recording of the meeting Fortune obtained. “The problem has been, there’s no incorporation of the Slack culture into the Salesforce culture, and unless there is some element of that, then it’s not integration in any sense. It’s just the elimination.”

Research has shown that wellness culture and high performance culture don’t exist at odds with one another. Rather, the companies that have experienced sustained success throughout the pandemic balanced business needs with employee health needs.

According to the latest Pulse survey from Slack’s Future Forum, workers with flexible work arrangements were 57% more likely than fully in-person workers to say their company culture has improved since that flexible policy was implemented. 

“Executives say, ‘Because I grew up in a certain way and have certain experiences of workplace culture, I feel uncomfortable doing other things…going forward,’” Brian Elliott, executive leader of Future Forum, told Fortune. “Executives are worried about retaining culture with flexible work, but our data shows a completely different story.

“It really comes down to trust at the end of the day—give people the flexibility to work where and when they’re at their best,” Elliott continued. The survey also found that concerns like Benioff’s about declining productivity are unfounded. When compared with workers who have no ability to shift their schedules, respondents with full schedule flexibility reported 39% higher productivity and 64% greater ability to focus.

The most productive, focused workers are those who don’t feel overworked. Fifty-three percent of workers dissatisfied with their company’s flexibility reported burnout, compared with just 37% among workers who are satisfied.

“If you’re an executive worried about productivity, stop sweating how many days people are coming in and start sweating the meetings running amok in your organization,” Elliott said.

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