A tale of two companies: How Intel and Dell are creating better places to work

Two tech bigwigs with very different corporate cultures are trying to make the workplace a better place for their employees. There are lessons here for other companies.

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Disclosure: Dell and Intel are clients of the author.

Last week, I visited Intel’s Israel Development Center; this week I spoke with Jenn Saavedra, Dell’s chief human resources officer. From both the trip and that call, I was able to learn about some of the best practices each company is using to create a better workplace. They’re the kinds of moves other companies should keep in mind and even try to roll out for their workers.

Intel has traditionally had one of the harshest employee environments of any company I’ve covered. That’s one reason Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger is using the Development Center, where there is far greater diversity and far fewer employee problems, to drive a cultural change. In contrast, Dell has always been one of the best places to work, and its founder, Michael Dell, has historically been more focused than most CEOs on the care and feeding of his employees. (Pat Gelsinger worked for Michael Dell at one point and the two seem to be cut from similar cloth in prioritizing employee care.)

Intel’s Southern Horizon program

This program fascinates me because it comes closest to something that might have emerged from the old Manpower Management efforts. One of my degrees is in Manpower Management, which, at the time, was a major effort to use data to create companies that optimized around the unique aspects of their employees. It fell out of favor because colleges and universities weren’t exactly diverse, and that lack of diversity resulted in labor pools that were predominantly white males, which made Manpower Management efforts appear racist and sexist. 

Southern Horizon focused on people that lacked any formal education but were driven, honest, treated others well, and exhibited the kind of behavior Intel wanted. The people selected were trained by Intel employees, creating a pool of 150 well-behaved engineers in clean room jobs after three years of mentoring and training.

The result: employees that were deeply loyal to Intel, exemplified good and caring behavior in the company, and were far more well-rounded behaviorally than many of the engineers that come out of higher education. Intel didn’t buy employees with money. It wooed them by offering them a better work life —and then delivering on that promise. 

Southern Horizon focused on the bigger problem — behavior. In fact, in my experience, it's far easier to fix training related problems than bad behavioral problems. (We know how to train people for jobs, but we don’t seem to be very good at training people to be good people.)

A program like this — it was conceived by Daniel Benatar, one of the most empathetic and caring senior executives I’ve met — could scale and effectively turn employees into valuable contributors while making them loyal to their new company.

Dell’s focus on quality employment

I’ve been impressed with Dell's Saavedra, who built on the company's culture of being data driven to create one of the best post-pandemic work-from-home cultures I’ve studied. Unlike many other companies, Dell’s mostly remote employees are engaging with each other and don’t feel left out. Dell’s studies indicate that advancement and recognition rates remain consistent between those that still come to work and those who work remotely. 

One of the unique things Dell does (that most other companies don’t) is allow people to step back from management if they discover it isn’t for them. Often, I see an employee who has been highly productive and well-regarded move into management or an executive role only to find they aren’t good at it and don’t like the job. This happens a lot in sales, where top salespeople love the act of engaging and selling but can’t pivot to a management job that has little of either. Typically, when this happens, the employee is terminated and the firm loses a top worker due to mismanagement. Dell allows that employee to again become an individual contributor, effectively retaining an important asset and showing an unprecedented level of loyalty to the employee. This is one of the reasons there is so little turnover at Dell.

In addition, Dell aggressively surveys employees and backs up the surveys with focus groups that can validate the results to ensure Dell is working from real metrics, not unintentionally manipulated results. It also looks at external data from entities such as Glassdoor, Blind, and Fishbowl to confirm that what the surveys say is accurate. (So far, they have been, which suggests an unusual level of trust between Dell employees and management.)

The results from recently-hired employees were particularly strong, showcasing that they are learning about Dell’s culture, building relationships with coworkers, and staying with the company. I should note that Dell is one of the companies that's reported increased productivity from their work-from-home practices and policies. Dell is also trialing a program similar to Intel’s Southern Horizon; it's focused more on increasing gender diversity. 

Building better companies

Companies often focus on employee quantity, not quality. Both Dell and Intel (thanks to IDC) are focusing on innovative ways to make employees more loyal, productive, and satisfied with their jobs and working conditions. They are innovating to create places where people want to work and focusing more on behavior than education. The result should be safer and more lucrative companies for women and minorities, and the creation of lasting friendships between co-workers that are often more valuable than other corporate perks.

In both cases, the CEOs, Pat Gelsinger at Intel and Michael Dell at Dell, should be credited with the directions their companies are moving toward. And other companies should think about how they could do the same thing.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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