Game developer

This CHRO game developer found a winning talent strategy

When Jeff Ryan took over as head of HR at video game developer Zynga in 2017, he followed in the footsteps of five other HR managers, all of whom had come through the job in the previous three years.

While the organization, founded in 2007 and known for developing games such as Words with Friends and FarmVille, has long had a unique culture rooted in collaboration and innovation, it has been through a “rough patch”, says Ryan, with a slowdown in morale and business results, making it difficult to both recruit and retain top talent. When CEO Frank Gibeau joined the company in 2016, he refocused Zynga on driving success with talent and culture, which set the wheels in motion for the company to head down a “different trajectory.” – and that, coupled with the change in employer branding, became Ryan’s mission.

“[Zynga has] had a great culture, it really needed to come to life,” Ryan says.

Listen, Learn and Respond

The turnaround in recent years is evident in its recent accolades: In 2020, Zynga employees voted the People Operations team as the organization’s top partner team, and the company was certified as a Great Place to Work.® earlier this year.

Jeff Ryan

Like most, Zynga has faced cultural challenges during the pandemic but, says Ryan, has tackled them with a multi-pronged approach centered on communication: listening sessions, focus groups and surveys, while executives have also shared information freely, almost to the point of “over-communicating”. said Ryan. The organization brought in a small events team to move in-person activities online, ramped up the work of its employee resource groups — to which 70% of Zynga employees now belong — and dramatically improved benefits to provide ongoing support. Management was also tailored to the specific needs of Zynga employees around the world; for example, as the pandemic devastated India earlier this year, it organized a vaccination campaign in partnership with a local hospital that helped 400 of its India-based employees and their families get vaccinated.

“It’s that combination of being really transparent, with leadership front and center, putting the focus on the people, and really listening and learning that helped,” Ryan says.

See also: Your culture has changed. Here’s how to shape it for the future

And, the efforts are paying off, according to workforce data: attrition decreased 7% from early 2020 to mid-2021, external applicants increased 46% over the last year and Zynga’s employee engagement score increased by 18% between 2019 and 2020.

“The most important thing [that has fueled engagement through the pandemic] is that it wasn’t just an HR practice: it was across the organization, managers and employees across the business – they all showed up with a high degree of empathy, understanding and compassion for the situation we found ourselves in,” says Ryan. “It goes a long way to building trust.”

Double the diversity

While Ryan has focused on the people side of Zynga’s response to the pandemic, he’s also led the company’s increased investment in another critical area: diversity, equity and inclusion.

The organization has a long-standing commitment to DE&I, in line with the needs of its clientele, 60% of whom are women. Five of nine board members are women or people of color, Zynga was one of the first 13 companies to sign the California Pay Equity Pledge – a corporate pledge to institute policies and practices to eradicate inequalities – and it has undertaken a comprehensive policy of equal pay assessment for the past four years.

Click here to learn more about HR Manager of the Year Kathleen Hogan, CHRO at Microsoft.

Shortly after the murder of George Floyd, Ryan worked with Gibeau and the board to develop a global social justice fund, backed by a $25 million investment. Internally, the organization expanded a partnership with YearUp and established a scholarship program for underrepresented communities interested in gaming careers. More than half of its intern class came from diverse communities, and eight of 10 promotions to vice president in the past year and a half have gone to women or employees from underrepresented communities.

Zynga launched its first DE&I-specific survey earlier this year, generating baseline data that it will now use to measure itself. The study showed that employees had “a high degree of trust…and pride” in the organization, Ryan says, but wanted clarity on issues such as equal pay, what which prompted the company to deploy a new communication strategy around its analysis of equal pay.

With such a focus on DE&I, last summer Zynga management hired Vijay Pendakur, who previously ran DE&I at Cornell University, for the newly created position of Chief Diversity Officer, which reports to Ryan.

“Diversity and inclusion was important to Zynga, but we didn’t have an expert,” he says. “A lot of great people were involved in the strategy – and it takes a lot of people to do that – but we wanted someone with deep DE&I-focused experience to really help Zynga as an industry leader.”

Related: 3 opportunities to reinvent the way we think about diversity

Positivity and pride

Looking ahead, Ryan expects DE&I to remain a top priority for his HR team, along with the evolving impacts of the pandemic. Zynga’s workforce will remain remote through the end of this year as the organization rolls out its future work model, called the Connected Workplace, with built-in agility throughout the design and a focus on technology to keep dispersed employees connected.

Learning and development suitable for this future of work will also be on the horizon for Zynga, along with “building world-class studios”, where developers work.

“Our talent is what creates our success, so [we are] making sure our studios around the world have the most amazing people with great cultures so team members can do the best work of their careers and help the company grow,” says Ryan.

He plans to navigate these goals with the same attitude he says has helped him navigate the challenges of the past year and a half: invoke empathy and stay positive. For example, he is trying to counter the downsides of the pandemic by focusing on the extra time he has been able to spend with his children – a daughter who has just started college and a 14-year-old son – the ability to do more. exercises and the introduction of technological tools that allowed him to keep in touch with his colleagues.

“Stay positive, stay calm, stay kind – that’s what got me through it,” he says. “But [the pandemic is] ongoing; we haven’t gone out yet.

While his career and education didn’t necessarily train him to manage a workforce during a pandemic, it ignited his passion for cultivating talent to drive business success. Ryan spent time in Japan teaching English and joined a small training company that gave him a taste for employee development, paving the way for a position as a human resources manager at a Japanese tech start-up. He eventually enrolled in the MBA program at UCLA Anderson School of Management.

“I spent a lot of time on leadership, organizational health and design and was fascinated by what makes some companies successful and why some fail – and the impact that talent can have on that. “, he says.

At Zynga, this talent has been key to recent HR success. Ryan says he is extremely “proud of the entire Zynga team and the People Operations and Workplace Services teams, which I have the privilege of representing. I’m really proud of that [HR Honor Roll] price, but it’s a reflection of the great work they’ve done and the employees of the company have done.