Street Culture: YP Hits ‘Refresh’ Button on Employee Connections

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Street Culture is a new feature where we take a closer look at the office culture and people at some of the most dynamic companies in the hyperlocal industry.

YP isn’t a startup.

The company has been rebranded, reimagined, consolidated, sold, and rebranded again in recent years. When AT&T sold its stake in YP in 2012, the directory and marketing solutions giant initiated a cultural shift designed to improve an enduring problem left over from the AT&T days.

The problem was that employees were often in the dark about key performance indicators and strategic objectives. Were they meeting their goals? What changes could be expected? Answers and information were not forthcoming.

“The AT&T culture was very secretive,” said Darren Clark, YP’s CTO and a company veteran. “People didn’t know the numbers until everything was all said and done. Even though we were a tiny fraction around AT&T, they were extra secretive and there was a lot of uncertainty.”

YP created a new role to help handle employee relations. Peter Pangalo joined the company in July 2014 as senior manager of learning and development. He knew the company had the right idea, but saw the execution needed some help.

“We had these major events where the CTO came together with employees to discuss where we are now,” Pangalo said. “Our CTO Darren ran those meetings, but I noticed the first one was a perfect example of how to disengage people. It was so boring. People were sitting there on their laptops and didn’t engage.”

Sensing the disconnect, Clark asked Pangalo for input on his presentation style. “I think that’s very brave, because I ripped it apart,” Pangalo said. “I have a lot of respect for a leader who can come to you and say, ‘Hey, what do you think?’ and wants you to tell him the truth.”

Pangalo took a look around at the more than 500 people working in YP’s Glendale, CA office, and started looking for ways to bring them together. He settled on two distinct initiatives, a cultural program called “Educate and Celebrate” and bi-weekly “Learning Labs” events.

His cultural efforts began with an event celebrating Diwali, an annual five-day festival of lights observed by Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains around the world. Employees familiar with the celebration helped involve other employees, and YP provided a spread of Diwali-inspired food for the hundreds of people who attended.

The event was a hit, and YP has since held celebrations for Chinese New Year, Black History Month, Women’s History Month, and the Fourth of July. “Fun with a purpose,” Pangalo said. “That’s my focus.”

For the Learning Labs, Pangalo created two elements: Tech Tuesdays and How-To Thursdays. “Tech Tuesdays are an opportunity for each [department] to come together as a community and learn from within,” he said.

For each Tech Tuesday, an employee works with Pangalo to present on a topic about which he or she is especially passionate, such as the JavaScript runtime Node.js and Mesos virtualization. What is really inspiring about the Tech Tuesday events, Pangalo said, is how employees are rising to the challenge and teaching their colleagues. “You have to come look at what happens on a Tuesday,” he added. “They’re teaching and learning about their favorite concepts. They’re walking away with something that will make their work lives easier.”

The Learning Lab events are creating a community where employees are connecting in a more formalized way. “They come together for the Educate and Celebrate events, but [Tech Tuesdays] are their day-to-day. This is what switches them on,” observed Pangalo.

Changing a deep-seated corporate culture takes time but the communication, education, and community initiatives are making headway. CTO Clark said that starting in the summer of 2012, he started telling employees he had an open door policy. “It took a year after that before it felt like all the employees had gotten to that level of comfort,” he added. “I think they had to hear it a couple times before it sunk in.” Now, people walk into his office and tell him how refreshing it is to know what’s going on with the company.

Further proof of the changes: An internal company survey conducted annually shows employees are engaging more in the cross-cultural and cross-functional events – and with each other.

April Nowicki is a contributor to Street Fight.