Employee Culture in the Vancouver Tech Sector

Dec 19 2017, 9:40 am

It was a Friday on the eve of happy hour and I was plodding along the Gastown’s masonic side paths to my first tech meet-up. Common in the tech world, tech companies throw open their doors to their community. Meet-ups, by way, are a meet and greet, a chance for companies to toss knowledge back and forth and build community relationships. It’s a useful networking tool and a way to put a face on that name you’ve been emailing for weeks – building those online relationships, offline. The sole purpose, it seems, is to hang out. The staff can invite their friends and family and show off their workspace. There is always beer.

These meet-ups are one element of a larger picture – employee culture in the tech sector. Many companies reward their workforce financially, i.e. paid vacations, Christmas bonuses, sick days, in order to stave off employee turnover. But, the tech sector goes beyond financial compensation by also fostering an employee culture within the confines of the office. This is evident throughout the industry in Vancouver from the little guys to the heavy hitters. Vancouver’s Facebook office is a good example.

“Any forward-thinking company knows that you need to work at making sure you do what you can in keeping your employees happy,” says Meg Sinclair, communications’ manager for Facebook Canada.

“My personal favourite is food. We provide all meals for employees using a catering service.”

Vancouver’s Facebook employees also have a dry cleaning pick-up and drop-off service at their office, gym benefits as the space isn’t large enough for a gym facility and a very open space design. Ergonomics consultants are hired to utilize office space in order to nourish employee well-being.

“All offices have a very open space design, we find that it encourages teams to work better with each other. The more openness we can foster, the better,” says Sinclair.

I pushed open the door into Unbounce, and stopped in a living room-like set up with black leather couches surrounding a coffee table, beyond lay the typical Gastown open office space. People, dressed casually, chatted on the couches and I felt like a party crasher. A man dressed in jeans, faded black hoodie, goatee on his chin and studs in his lobes was leaned up against the wall to my left.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi, how are you?” he replied back, blue plastic cup of beer in hand.

“Good, thanks. I’m looking for Stef.” He beckoned me to follow him. We passed the living room and into the office. It displays an antique beauty with the Gastown brickwork, wooden pillars and ceiling columns with modern office refinements, such as a dry erase white wall, long tables topped with the battery of desktops and an Unbounce mural. People were congregating, the weekend was beginning.

Before giving the royal tour, event coordinator Stefanie Grieser, like a good host, offers me a beer from the keg. A keg is always brought in for meet-ups, which are planned for the last Friday of every month.

Unbounce is a mid-level start-up that began four years ago and now employs 40 skilled staff and has clients like Greenpeace, Amazon, Canon and Linkedin. Their product is a simple set up of building DIY landing pages for marketers. A landing page in the marketing and tech world is the page you land on after clicking on an ad, which was typically a company’s website in which a potential customer may get lost or lose interest and ‘bounce’ out. On Unbounce, you can create a landing page for the customer to fill out their information right away, complete with the company’s logo and information. No need for the I.T. department on this one.

Every Monday morning their fridge is stocked with snacks by the HR manager, who will take requests. Employees have the option to choose their own equipment and it is provided.

It’s 5 p.m. and the keg is flowing, the pizza has arrived and Doritos have been opened. The office has acquired a party buzz as employees from Invoke Labs, another tech start-up, have begun wandering in and out from their office just down the street. The ping pong table, which rests at one side of the office, is at the centre of attention as opponents battle it out and draw a crowd.

I was standing in the midst of the new happy hour.

Just a few years ago, the tech sector wasn’t a thing in Vancouver. Like a universe of its own, it banged into existence and the start-up culture thrived exponentially in the last couple years. The advent of the modern smartphone brought technology and information into peoples’ palms and made it readily available almost anywhere at any time. Social media became a new playing field in that users could document their present coordinates instantaneously rather than waiting until they got home. People learn news before news outlets can get the story to them. Companies have floundered in the wake of this accelerated rate of information technology, they either adapt or die. Savvy entrepreneurs, like Unbounce CEO Rick Perreault, began filling voids, and tech start-ups boomed. The demand catapulted so high, the supply part of the equation was left, and still is, reeling. Some are finding their skills, built over years, are becoming antiquated or needing a digital makeover. This sector is now starting to become a viable and enticing career option for would-be post-secondary students.

Perhaps the talent crunch is the reason for the employee perks and culture that tech companies are becoming known for.

This is particularly true now that tech’s overlords are opening offices in Vancouver, the likes of Amazon, Twitter, Facebook and Hootsuite just last year. Fostering employee culture is not only prevalent amongst the little guys, it’s amplified by the heavyweights.

EA Games, a long-standing video game company in Burnaby, boasts a state of the art facility equipped with a theatre, coffee bars, restaurants, expansive fitness room and a full-size soccer field.

Hootsuite, a social media management company based here, opened its doors to the media last year and we saw their new digs was complete with a nap room, 24/7 gym, full kitchen with wine and beer on tap and a rooftop patio with a BBQ.

“It’s the competition for talent that makes a lot of companies go the extra mile with investing in employee culture,” says Igor Faletski, CEO and co-founder of Mobify, an 80 employee mid-level start-up that optimizes websites to be mobile and tablet friendly.

Mobify hosts weekly lunches for their employees, has rooftop yoga, Kettlebell classes and a company retreat every quarter. Last summer, the company took their employees to a ranch in the Okanagan to ride horses.

“Nobody fell off their horse,” laughs Faletski.

Mobify is moving to a new office, which they designed themselves and included a large chunk to exercising. Every day of the week it will host a different fitness class.

“It’s a matter of attracting hidden talent,” says Ryan Spong, CSO at Foodee, “There are so many reasons to have a healthy happy staff. Healthy employees are productive employees.”

With so many companies, particularly in the tech sector, hosting employee lunches, it’s seems appropriate for a company to rise up and start delivering gourmet meals right to your office. Foodee is a start-up that puts a lot of emphasis on fostering employee culture. Their office is in a work/live loft building so employees have access to the building’s gym, there is a pool table in the employee lounge and a bbq on their patio. They have employee run yoga, a full kitchen and when a restaurant presents their cuisine in hopes of becoming part of the Foodee delivery program, the entire staff, from accounting and beyond, eats together.

Not all industries, i.e. medicine, are able to provide these luxuries in the workplace, it comes with the nature of the tech industry. Sean Tyson, co-founder of Quietly, agrees that the perks are a form of compensation in attracting talent, but also believes that this type of employee culture is necessary for the type of tech sector that Vancouver has cultivated.

“Tech is inherently more creative than other industries like finance and mining. Especially when you consider that tech in Vancouver is mostly focused on social media and video games. It’s the nature of tech here.”

And their work spaces are reflective of their creativity. Quietly, an app, currently in beta, for creating and sharing lists of personal recommendations like ‘New Restaurants to Try in X City,’ is also located in a live/work loft building. Tyson says in the evening the staff invites their friends over to test their product on them and they will usually do it with alcohol.

“Product testing with alcohol is actually quite effective. A) It makes people feel comfortable. B) If they are getting drunk, you’re getting a better idea of how your average user will behave. C) If people are drinking, they are probably going to be more honest.”

Telus, Metro Vancouver’s most established tech company, is also striving to attract and retain talent and is focusing on employee culture. Workstyles is a program they have implemented that enables employees to work when and where is best for them.

“Workstyles and flexible work times really is the way of the future,” says Liz Sauvé, Telus communications’ manager. “We can easily move and share ideas without having to move people.”

Telus employees are able to work from home, office or even a coffee shop. Mobile work stations in the Telus building enable employees to hunker down and create a workspace that suits their needs, some evicting their old-style cubicle desks and adopting long tables with laptops to work with others in teams.

In the middle of the party-like atmosphere at Unbounce, I asked Grieser if tech companies, particularly start-ups, focused on employee culture because its decision-makers were relatively young and that perhaps this is just the evolution of the workspace. She insisted that I speak with the CEO and sped off to flag him down. Much to my surprise, the CEO was the gentlemen that I had first talked to when I walked in.

“We’re out in most cases to conquer the world and we need the very best, literally the very best. We’re not just putting bums in seats, we’re looking for top talent and you’re not going to attract top talent if you stick them in a cubicle, put a bunch of rules in front of them, if you don’t put them in an environment where they can just excel as an adult,” says Perreault.

“These perks, we’re not throwing money away. That is our bottom line. We’re living on the edge in terms of how much money we’re spending this month. With a big company for example, I don’t need the most talented person in the world. I need someone to run this machine. They’ve got this old school mentality, brick and mortar, they’re lucky to have this job with us. Me? I’m lucky to have people like these. That’s the way I see things.”