A company I chose to investigate further was SEI. SEI is a financial services company located in Oaks, Pennsylvania. The company has a large, sprawling campus in Oaks, which is located about 20 miles outside of Philadelphia. On its massive campus, SEI features a track, gym, food court, ping-pong tables, extravagant artwork, and more. Additionally, SEI is known for their unique culture, which values employee transparency. An example of this is the layout of the workplace. There are no cubicles or offices. Everyone works in an enormous, wide-open room that features nothing but desks. Each desk is on wheels, and uses a “python” hanging from the ceiling for electricity. The pythons and desks are easily moved, and often re-arranged around the “office”. Additionally, even the managers and other leaders at the company have their desks located in the same huge room as every other employee. The goal of this abnormal setting is to make each employee feel important and equal to those working around them.
Last winter, I did a one day job shadow or externship at SEI. Before the externship, I spent time learning as much as I could about the company. As I did research, one thing stuck out to me over and over: the culture and transparency of the firm. I realized that not only does SEI promote transparency and a great experience for their employees, but they also REALLY want you to know that they promote transparency and a great experience for their employees. Going into my job shadow experience, I was very curious about how much the culture and transparency of the firm would be a focal point of my time there.
Sure enough, the first two people I met with at SEI were recruiters who drilled home to me more information about the firms’ “unique employee experience”. They kept using the comparison of Google or other silicon valley-type modern firms. The culture at SEI was clearly the focal point of the recruiter’s pitch, much more so than the work the firm actually does. Therefore, I was very intrigued when I got a much different perspective once I talked to other SEI employees that have nothing to do with recruitment. Most of the people I talked to had previously held similar jobs at other firms, so they could easily compare and contrast SEI to them. I realized that the actual employees hardly noticed the perceived culture, and when I pressed them further about it they would respond with “oh yeah the big rooms make it hard to talk on the phone for a long time”, or “it can be quite a shock when you come in one day and your desk has been wheeled across the room” or another line to that extent. They seemed to think that working at SEI was overall fairly similar to working at any other investment firm, despite SEI’s perceived unique culture and employee benefits on campus.
My entire experience at SEI made me a little skeptical towards firms that push the employee experience over the actual job itself. I tend to think there is normally a catch, like the starting salary is low or it is difficult to advance in the company. As a result, during my current internship search for next summer, I focus more on the role I would be filling at a company, and less on whether or not the company will allow me to work on my ping pong skills during my lunch break. That being said, I’m sure there is a reason why Google has been listed #1 back to back years on the Fortune 500 list, and a balance between employee benefits and a strong job itself is probably the ideal situation in the long run.