Culture before cool, says Serko boss

Serko’s employee turnover is a quarter of the industry average. Here’s why.

Attracting and keeping the best staff is an increasing problem – particularly in the tech sector. A survey by ICT recruitment company Absolute IT, released in February, found that even though 85% of Kiwi tech professionals enjoy their current workplace, 67% would consider moving to a new job if the package was attractive enough.

Meanwhile, the Human Resources Institute/Lawson Williams 2014 New Zealand Staff Turnover Survey found staff turnover in the IT industry was as high as 20%.

And almost half the companies involved in computer system design report moderate or severe difficulty in recruiting managers and professionals, according to a Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment report in 2013.  

That matters because the technology industry is New Zealand’s fastest growing sector. Tech exports have doubled over the past six years and at more than $6 billion (for 2014) it’s the country's third largest export earner behind dairy and tourism.

Tech start-ups often rely on a cool image to lure the top geeks, says Darrin Grafton, CEO at listed travel management software company Serko. Converted warehouses, exposed brick walls, stocked fridges, and those essential attributes for IT creativity: pool tables, whiteboard walls, TV rooms, beanbags and yes, even the occasional slide.

Turnover at Serko is only 4%, Grafton says, but the secret is more about culture than cool.

“Hays managing director Nick Deligiannis this month questioned whether ‘cool offices’ matter at all,” Grafton says. “And he’s right. The old adage, ‘it’s what’s inside that counts’ still holds true.”

He says achieving an employee turnover that’s a quarter of the industry average hasn’t been achieved by a beer fridge and a few quirky office accessories – or not only that.

“Sure, our office is an attractive, open plan space with ping pong and foosball tables to make your workday that bit more fun. But that’s not why our team sticks around.

“Our team of more than 130 Serkodians (yes, that’s what we’re called) are a close-knit group of experts, where everyone’s opinion matters and anyone can lead. That’s something we’ve built carefully over time.

“From the start we wanted Serkodians to thrive, to be passionate, to deliver, to be experts, to work things out their way, but equally solve problems by working together. Those are our values today.

“When you’re working at Serko you can expect laughter, silence, discussion, music, writing on walls, foosball, table tennis, free snacks and drinks, and lots of events and celebrations.

“I know our team appreciates these things, but more than that they stay because their skills are utilised and stretched, because we pay well for talent, because we believe in our people’s ability to get the job done, and because we try to work with our team to create a work environment that is in sync with what’s personally important to them.”

Serko management encourages the team to challenge everything about the business, Grafton says.

“We know the best results come from people who are excited about doing what they do exceptionally well, so we let them get on with it however they work best, as long as the job gets done.”

Grafton says that while high pay works for some staffers (and the MBIE survey reported IT people earn twice the New Zealand average), others value the chance to work from home, or to do flexible hours. Others want to travel, and Serko has allowed some staff members to work remotely from overseas.

“There are definitely compromises, but Serkodians appreciate that we’ll consider tailored employment arrangements.”