Open at work: responsibility in company culture is changing spend management

There is a general understanding in business that “you need to spend money in order to make money.” It is also generally understood that no one likes to be micromanaged, and that too tightly policing minutiae tends to result in unhappy and unproductive employees. So how do companies keep spend under control and understand which dollars are being spent most effectively, without upsetting employees with a strict company culture? Taxes, labor laws and a need to understand ROI require companies to exert control over where dollars go and who is spending what, but how do you do that without killing morale? Or worse – making employees feel like they need to hide their activities. For some companies the answer is simple: don’t – or at least not in the traditional sense. More companies are letting technology monitor and control, and are empowering employees to make decisions like adults.  


Responsibility in company culture

The labor environment in the technology sector grows more competitive each year. Companies are working harder than ever to attract the best talent from all over the world, and while the debate continues as to whether a shortage of technology workers is a real or imagined phenomenon, most companies aren’t taking their chances. In an effort to attract the right candidates, companies have long considered a unique corporate culture an asset in their favor. When companies examine the workplace and try to understand what candidates might want from a work environment, interesting patterns can crop up.


One such trend recently has been the rise of what we’re calling “responsibility culture.” It turns out that talented, skilled employees, just like anyone else, are dedicated to excellent work and take a great deal of responsibility for their own success and the success of their companies. When you have a strong social contract built among employees, it’s less necessary to build safeguards against small infractions – because they don’t happen. Some companies are even beginning to do away with previously tightly regulated internal functions altogether. Why not loosen restrictions on high-performing, deeply invested employees? Why not encourage them to work smarter not harder? Why not remove some bureaucratic barriers to collaboration so they can work faster and more creatively? The rise of responsibility culture in business practices takes many forms. Policy examples can be as small as nods to paid time off that combine sick leave with vacation time and allow employees to call their own shots, or as dramatic as company cultures that eliminate the notion of paid leave altogether and simply let employees control their own schedules and time.


The leap of faith to build a company culture driven by personal responsibility seems to come from two scientifically-backed, if risky, assumptions: the first is that human beings are generally altruistic and will act in the best interest of the people around them, and the second is that employees want to take pride in their work and gain meaning from it. Evolutionary anthropologists and psychologists have been studying altruism for decades and recent studies indicate that most people, if left to their own devices, are naturally inclined to do the right thing.


Another factor in the rise of responsibility culture is tied to the millennial workforce that staffs many of these companies. Millennials have a well-documented drive for autonomy at work, and a high index for social responsibility, group involvement and a deep investment in “doing good”. Employees with these values are set to thrive in a company culture of responsibility where an individual’s highest work performance is expected and their fidelity to the bottom line and the greater good is assumed.


What are employees responsible for?

Some of the more interesting choices in company cultures driven by responsibility are the ways employees are empowered to make decisions. Let’s look at some areas where corporate cultures are shifting to allow employees more autonomous decision-making backed by technology.


Expense management

At first glance, the connection to company culture to expense management might not seem clear. For the majority of companies there are protocols in place to assure that when money is spent it is spent on the right things, by the right people and that these expenses are authorized by some third party. Typically, employees are required to run their expenses by their manager and have their expenses approved. Frequently lengthy policies are created stipulating what expenses are and are not considered acceptable for the organization, and expense reports that have been processed go through a seemingly never-ending auditing process to assure that each charge is compliant with company policy.


That may be changing. Although laws and policies may not have changed regarding what companies can and can’t spend money on, organizations are increasingly relying on automation and back-end approvals to ensure the process runs efficiently and that they can execute those policies without micromanaging employees. More and more often companies leverage company culture by equipping employees with plain language guidelines, a mobile app like Concur, and then allowing them to make the right choice in the moment – rather than bogging them down with lengthy approval processes. Charges are captured as they occur, usually with the snap of a mobile phone camera, and itemized after the fact for an auditor. In this scenario, employees are incentivized to do the right thing because they’re aware that the charges will be checked before expenses are paid – and they’re also guided by cultural norms.


Time off and paid leave

If you’ve ever woken up on a work day, knowing that you were under the weather, but not wanting to take time off for fear that you’d be perceived as lazy, this policy change is for you. In this mobile and endlessly connected day-and-age, salaried employees frequently work weekends, evenings and into their vacations.A few enterprising HR departments have taken the opportunity to ask themselves, “If we’re not tracking the extra time that employees work, why are we tracking the time they take off?” And the question is valid.

Several companies have made the decision to eliminate vacation time restrictions from their company culture altogether, leaving employees to decide what time off should look like for them. The prevailing opinion is that if a worker is meeting their team obligations, achieving the goals they put in place with their leadership, and bringing value to the company, then what’s wrong with a little extra vacation time? And if the employee isn’t accomplishing those things the vacation issue becomes mute because there are other considerations to be made.


Business travel booking

One of the largest expenses – besides operating costs – is business travel and the related entertainment expenses. Company culture plays a role here as well. No one wants to have a conversation with their manager or an auditor about why they selected a specific room, hotel or seat on an airplane. Sometimes those decisions are private and depend on the health and mental wellness needs of the traveler. On the other hand, things add up. Companies are turning to some interesting tools for allowing employees to make better decisions while staying off their case.


Enter Triplink, open booking, Price-to-Beat, and gamification. Concur offers products and features (and there are others on the market) that allow companies to set clear boundaries for employee booking, and then step off. Price-to-Beat ensures that employees know exactly how much is okay to spend, and allows them to book with that amount in mind. Companies can set company-specific guidance, based on benchmarks derived from the Concur database of similar trips and incorporating real-time data. After that, it’s up to the employee. If they can get a luxury suite at a premium hotel and keep everything under the Price-to-Beat, there doesn’t need to be any haggling about cost. When employees book below the Price-to-Beat, they receive points for their smart decisions. Employees can redeem them for rewards, perks or upgrades on future trips, gamifying the process and triggering them to voluntarily manage their travel booking behavior within the guidelines their company has outlined.


Another innovation that allows employees more autonomy is a feature of Triplink from Concur. Triplink allows employees to book outside of the designated corporate travel booking system and yet still captures the booking data for compliance, security and tracking. With a tool like Triplink, employees can exercise their autonomy to book wherever they please, and even assure that they collect their rewards points from specific vendors, while still meeting the needs of the business.  


Who gets it?

There are a few well-known technology sector companies that have jumped into responsibility culture with both feet and are revolutionizing the way the HR world thinks about policy, morale, and compliance. Let’s take a look at some of the innovators taking potentially scary steps into fostering company cultures driven by responsibility.



Every company wants to hire great workers, but Netflix’s entire values system is driven by this need. In a Business Insider article, former Netflix HR Chief Patty McCord discussed their employee hiring strategy. "Most companies spend endless time and money writing and enforcing HR policies to deal with problems the other 3% might cause. Instead, we tried really hard to not hire those people, and we let them go if it turned out we'd made a hiring mistake," she says. In a publicly shared SlideShare document titled “Netflix Culture: Freedom & Responsibility”, Netflix has laid out the seven aspects of their culture. Responsibility culture is on open display in Reed Hastings’ outline, which states, “Responsible people thrive on freedom and are worthy of freedom.” Instead of inhibiting employee freedom, Netflix relies on its employees, instead of rules, to avoid the chaos of growth. For example, they removed the requirement of tracking vacation days and sick leave. Through a recognition that the majority of employees complete work on the evenings and weekends, they built a policy encouraging employees to take the time they need, and Netflix leaders set a good example by taking big vacations themselves – and coming back refreshed and inspired to share big ideas.



Evernote CEO, Phil Libin is another technology leader who has definitely subscribed to responsibility in company culture. The former programmer rose through the ranks to CEO, and he claims that rise happened in large part because he was the weakest programmer on his team – freeing him up to lead and do other tasks. In a 2012 interview with the New York Times, Libin was asked about his time off policy. “Frankly, we want to treat employees like adults,” said Libin at the time. “We always try to ask whether a particular policy exists because it’s a default piece of corporate stupidity that everyone expects you to have, or does it actually help you accomplish something? And very often you realize that you don’t really know why you’re doing it this way, so we just stop doing it.”  


The ayes have it

This thing isn’t going away. The more companies that weigh in and the more functions that become streamlined by technology the more powerful this movement toward company cultures of responsibility is going to become. So another approach to business processes is changing. We’re big fans of change around here. As long as there are companies asking for change, and as long as there are business networks in place to enable the changes that companies are looking for then the direction is unstoppable. Why stand in the way?


What do you think? Does your company culture change your employees' behavior around spend management? 


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