Old-school tech companies imitate younger, hipper competitors

San Jose Mercury NewsSeptember 17, 2013 

BIZ WRK-TECH-PERKS 4 SJ

From the foreground, Cisco employees JD Singh and Ron Holst play pool, as Monish Raut watches in a lounge, at the Cisco Systems offices in San Jose, California, August 8, 2013.

LIPO CHING — MCT

From employee perks to the color of their office walls, the old guard of Silicon Valley is taking cues from the new.

Google is famous for its free food and more, featured over the summer in the film “The Internship.” But tech companies that have been around much longer are evolving as they compete with younger, seemingly hipper companies for talent.

Since “Conan O’Brien did a bit on Intel’s gray cubes and gray walls” in 2007, says Gail Dundas, a communications manager with the 45-year-old Santa Clara, Calif., chipmaker, there has been a “sea change” at the company that includes getting rid of cubicles and infusing color into the workplace.

Cisco Systems, another longtime Silicon Valley company, is also transforming its workspaces. Some departments are getting rid of assigned workspaces, tapping Cisco’s own networking technology that enables employees to become more mobile. Elsewhere on the campus, some of the 56 buildings at the company’s San Jose, Calif., headquarters are at various stages of a remodel, with new features including lounge areas with comfy couches, pool tables and cocoon-shaped chairs.

“We want people to come out for a minute, think outside the box,” said Allan McGinty, director of workplace design and development. As this newspaper toured Cisco’s San Jose campus recently, McGinty spoke from Raleigh using WebEx, the company’s videoconferencing system. Cisco’s campus in Research Triangle Park houses more than 5,000 employees and contractors.

Showing that its efforts are apparently paying off with young workers, Cisco’s interns praise its culture.

Eric Pomeroy, a 21-year-old from the University of Michigan, recently finished his second straight summer internship at the company.

“The managers respect our input and ideas,” he said. The mobile app he worked on last summer is now used by employees who need help navigating around Cisco’s huge campus.

Sierra Parker, a University of Pennsylvania student who at the ripe old age of 20 has already interned at the White House, said she wanted to leave her internship there early because she worked alone and without adequate supervision.

This summer was different because she wanted to stay longer at Cisco, where as an IT intern she had a chance to work with people constantly. Telecommuting is another Cisco selling point, but Parker says “everyone likes to come into the office.” And yes, she loved the free popcorn in the break room.

But even as the more established companies try to make their workspaces and culture more inviting, they’re still grappling with challenges that can’t help but affect morale. Cisco announced recently that it is laying off 4,000 people, about 5 percent of its global workforce. Intel, too, is trying to expand its horizons amid a slump in its bread-and-butter PC business

While companies like Cisco and Intel are trying to catch up to newer firms like Google, there’s a whole new wave of companies that are taking workplace culture in new directions.

As a startup, it’s probably no surprise that Square, the San Francisco payments company founded in 2009, has “never had cubicles or offices,” according to spokeswoman Lindsay Wiese. Square executives often work at stand-up tables, she said.

So even though the company’s office is in an old-school building that houses an old-school product (the San Francisco Chronicle, although Square is moving a few blocks away into its new headquarters in the fall), its workplace was conceived in the age of “open” and “collaborative” offices.

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