For young people searching for jobs today, it’s almost impossible to avoid the companies trying to lure them with office perks like game rooms, massage chairs, and yoga classes. And all these things sound fantastic, especially when you’re fresh out of college dorms, where forty people are sharing three showers and you can hear your next door neighbor snoring through the wall. Silicon Valley is particularly notorious for providing employees with a swath of benefits and perks from free meals and snacks every day to in-house barber shops and dental offices. Companies like Facebook and Google draw in thousands of new employees, largely by offering an array of perks that appeal to the generation who have come to expect convenience and comfort.
When you look more closely at these inflated perk programs, however, it is easy to see some of the potential points for critique. Perks like gyms and dry cleaners on company property can be seen as ways for an organization to encourage their employees to stay at work for as long as possible. The less they have to do outside of work, the more time they can spend inside, making money for the company. Facebook even provides free transportation for their full-time employees to and from their homes so they can spend the maximum amount of time working without having to worry about transportation schedules, broken down cars or hours “wasted” commuting. Although companies are creating these perks in order to increase motivation and productivity, they often have an opposite effect.
While an employee who works all the time could be seen as the ideal, the potential for burnout is real, which then negatively affects both productivity and ultimately retention. In contrast to Facebook and Google, companies like Slack place an emphasis on working hard while at the office but also going home at the end of the day to decompress and enjoy time to oneself outside of the work context. Not only do employees value time off in the form of sick days and paid parental leave, they also benefit from a work environment that cultivates sustainable hard work. They have come to understand that the truly ideal employee is one who works effectively and efficiently and enjoys coming to work every day but who also leaves work at the end of the day without terror that having a life is an indication of a lack of devotion to getting ahead.
In addition to burnout, the reality is employees quickly come to view perks as entitlement programs, and if certain perks become unsustainable for the company and get pulled back, the negative effect is profound and feels like a loss of privilege and recognition rather than a return to baseline. People are starting to realize that simply spending money on “cool stuff” can backfire, and if companies want to keep people around, they need to ensure that “perks” are laser-focused on creating a sense of safety and belonging by lessening stress and building genuine relationships.
In her post on human wholeness, Ali Schultz writes about her experience working for a company that had stereotypically “cool” office perks like a keg, happy hours, and an ice cream truck that came once a week. Despite the reputation her company had for their fun workplace culture, there was a lack of real wholeness and happiness that went undiscussed, even within the human resources department which claimed to put employee well-being at the forefront. Instead of stereotypical perks, she points to safety and belonging as fundamental to happiness at work.
Perks without an emotionally-connecting purpose are not only valueless, they become detrimental. When the happy hour ceases to be attended by the most respected employees it becomes synonymous with goofing off and attendance is seen as a negative. Similarly, when no one hangs out to eat ice cream it’s just another expensive, unhealthy snack that causes a sugar high and big crash in the afternoon. As we explored in our recent blog post, happiness at work is largely determined by the fundamental-human need for friendships, social support and a connection to a vision. Beer and ice cream are clearly not important for actual, sustainable job satisfaction and happy, engaged, employees, rather, they are an enticement to bring people together - they are the condiment at a meal of emotional connection. So go ahead and bring in the keg, but center the event around something other than Budweiser - make it about what the company is doing and how it is making the world a better place or have the ice cream truck come, but make it the side-show to the main event of recognizing the efforts and achievements of employees and teams of employees who are working, and succeeding, together.