Main image of article What Really Makes a Tech Workplace ‘Great’
Many tech companies like to make a big deal about their culture, perks, and workplace environment. And there’s good reason for that: according to research by Glassdoor, employee satisfaction hinges more on a company’s culture and values than even pay and work-life balance. Whenever the media discusses “great workplaces,” they tend to focus on things like free meals, flexible hours, and fun town-hall meetings with the CEO. But as any tech pro will tell you, none of those things will ultimately determine whether you like working at a company; how much you enjoy your job has as much to do with your style and interests as it does with on-site dry cleaning and pet care. According to tech veterans, here’s what really makes a tech workplace “great”:

The Team

You spend most of your working life interacting with a small group of people, so it’s important that they help you develop as a professional. “I only learned this later in life, but having smart colleagues is a huge factor, although that’s a highly subjective measure,” said Chad Broadus, program manager at RevQ, a software provider in Vancouver, Wash. “Smart people are typically plugged in and aware of the technological landscape, so you tend to be working with fairly new technology, even if you’re working on a mature project.” The result of a good team, he added, is that “you will be constantly pushed to do your best and grow.” According to Scott Castleberry, an IT applications manager for TDIndustries, a construction and facility services company in Dallas, it’s especially important to belong on the right team in high-pressure environments: “When the system goes down and payroll wants to print checks, the team that gets along and through those situations is a big factor in what makes a place great.”

The Work

Whether or not you feel like your company is a great place to work hinges on the sort of work you’re doing there. If you find it interesting and meaningful, you’re more likely to find your working hours enjoyable. At his first job out of school, Castleberry received assignments that allowed him to learn new technology. “I was free to explore, read articles, write new code," he said. “Having the freedom to explore and learn day-to-day is more valuable than a rigid ‘do this’ environment, or a place where you do the same thing day after day.” That kind of atmosphere remains valuable to him. “I don’t write code as much as I used to, but being able to explore and learn allows me to better understand what my team is doing,” he added.

The Culture

How a team functions reflects an employer’s overall approach to business and its employees—in other words, its culture. Culture isn’t easily defined. Jessica Jaffe, a Glassdoor community expert, thinks that culture and values can encompass a number of factors—such as morale, employee recognition and transparency—that contribute to an overall sense of well-being. “Employees tell us that companies that can provide a prosperous career path for employees, hire a competent executive team and maintain a positive culture are more likely to have a satisfied workplace,” she said.

The Career Path

The type of career path a company offers is particularly important. “As you evaluate job offers, think through each job and company,” Jaffe continued. “Which has the greatest potential to move your career in the direction you want to see it going, and will help you build up the skills and experience necessary?” Jaffe advises new graduates to “think carefully,” not only about whether a job offers room for advancement, but if the idea of moving up through the ranks is a part of the company’s DNA. “Is mentoring and coaching a part of the company culture?” she asked. “If your ideal ‘next step’ is not available at the company, consider whether the experience you gain in the position could help you move into a subsequent position at another firm, or whether the firm’s leadership may allow you to evolve and develop your own next step.”

So What's With the Perks?

According to Jaffe, a majority of people list benefits and perks as among their top considerations when debating whether to accept a job. Keep in mind, however, that once people have begun working, perks matter less and culture matters more. “Unless you’re going to be working 60-hour weeks and will practically live at the office, perks like free food and ping pong tables aren’t that important," Broadus said. “From my perspective, boring things like comprehensive and affordable healthcare, good 401(k) matching and liberal scheduling of your time are way more important than whether or not I can pop over to the break room to grab a free coconut water and play a game of Galaga on a vintage arcade game.” Castleberry agrees with that idea. “At end of day, does food matter? I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s nice, but in the grand scheme of things I can eat lunch anywhere. I don’t want to have free lunch and be miserable.”

How to Find Your Great Workplace

So how do you figure out whether a workplace is great in ways that really matter? Doing your online research is essential: a site like Glassdoor offers commentary from employees past and present. Whatever site you choose, make sure to focus on those reviews that discuss work environment and onboarding. Castleberry stresses the importance of talking to members of the team. “Don't just talk to the hiring manager,” he said. “You'll spend a lot of time at work, so these people are on some level going to be your friends. You’ll talk and vent and fume with them. So get to know the people you’re going to work with.” Take the time to hear about the actual experience, not just the sales pitch.