Ways We Work: Perks are overrated

by Emily Powers

Craig Bryant, Founder and CEO of Kin, and Emily Powers, Director of Operations and Finance at Fresh Tilled Soil, have joined forces to uncover the mysteries of the modern workplace. The following is the final chapter of an eight-part series featuring some of the greatest debates, struggles, and solutions surrounding how we work. Check out the entire series.

I’m going to come right out and say it, perks are overrated. Yes, perks are all the rage. It’s almost daily that we read headlines boasting about yet another company who’s erected a rock-climbing wall, or installed sound-proof, pillowed pods inviting daytime naps, or laid down fresh turf for a bocce court out back. Now, before you begin swooning over those luscious nap pods, I strongly recommend taking a deeper look. It is critical to recognize that not all perks are created equal.

I like to lump perks into two categories: Fluff and Fulfillment.

Fluff – just like the white stuff, devoid of substance

This is the category devoted to the ping pong tables, beer-on-tap, and Nintendo rooms of the world. Sure, having these things at your office is pretty darn cool, but I have two questions:

  1. Is it truly changing your life in a meaningful way? Let’s be honest, would you rather play Nintendo with your co-workers for an hour or get home an hour earlier to play catch with your child? Or take a walk with your partner? I know you love your co-workers and all but…
  2. What happens when these perks are actually used? What happens when Joe from Sales is seen heading up to the nap pods? Do his coworkers think, “Damn! Good for Joe!” or do they think, “We just had a tough quarter, how does Joe have the time to go take a nap?”

We need to think critically about the culture surrounding perks. Having a kegerator, or a gym, or a bowling alley is meaningless if there is a culture of suspicion shrouding these offerings. I’ve heard countless stories of companies where the kegerator lies fallow for months on end because there is shame around grabbing a beer.

Simply offering perks gets you nowhere. There must be the culture to back them up. Just as I mentioned in my recent article on how to NOT work, a company offering unlimited paid time off sure looks great on paper, but if there is no cultural support for actually taking time off, it just doesn’t happen. However, unlimited paid time off, game rooms, and bocce ball can be truly beneficial perks that help your team relax and recharge if (and only if) they are supported, encouraged, and followed through on in real life. Otherwise, these perks are simply hollow promises used as recruitment tools to woo prospective hires.

Fulfillment – truly impacting lives

Beyond the fluffy stuff, there are a ton of companies doing it right, and here’s how. Consider some of the greatest pain points in the lives of working professionals today: Child care, household demands, transportation, and time. By digging into these areas and getting creative, companies have an opportunity to be impactful by reducing life’s greatest stressors. Here are a few examples:

  • Akraya, an IT staffing company, sends professional cleaners to employees’ homes every two weeks
  • McGraw Wentworth, a provider of group benefits, offers on-site pickup and dropoff of dry cleaning and laundry
  • Many companies, such as Google and SC Johnson, offer on-site child care
  • Patagonia offers employees two weeks paid leave to work for the nonprofit of their choice
  • Airbnb offers employees $2,000 per year to travel and stay in an Airbnb listing anywhere in the world
  • Parental leave: From Spotify’s 6 months paid leave (they also cover fertility treatments), to Netflix’s 1 year of paid leave, there are many stellar examples on this front

I think you get the point. In the Fluff category, we are talking about beer, cold-brewed iced coffee, bowling, Nintendo, and bocce. In the Fulfillment category we are talking about child care, home care, charitable causes, world travel, and fertility treatment. If you’re seeking more inspiration, I find list by Fast Company to be highly Fulfilling.

One thing I want to make clear is that Fulfilling perks do not require an exorbitant expense on behalf of the company. Services such as child care, laundry, dry cleaning, and massage can be at the expense of the employee (or anywhere in between). The company is simply establishing the partnerships with those vendors to bring them to the office. In return, employees gain back precious hours in their week and reduce stress.

Even those perks/benefits that are most often railed as being out of the question for budget sensitive companies need a second look. Take for example parental leave. When Google increased its paid maternity leave from 12 weeks to 18 weeks, the rate at which new mothers quit fell 50%. Sure, it costs money to pay parents while they are spending precious weeks with their newest additions, but it costs far more to drop that support and lose those highly valued team members at a rate of 400% their annual salary.

Lose the Fluff

I encourage employers, employees, and job-seekers alike to take a good hard look at perks and the culture surrounding them. Are they meaningless Fluff devoid of true substance, or are they truly enriching and supporting the lives of the team? I beg you, please do not confuse perks with company culture and values. Let’s lose the Fluff and build truly meaningful and engaging places to work, with or without perks.

About Emily Powers

“Ask Emily” is the refrain most commonly heard around the Fresh Tilled Soil office. Type A, obsessed with lists and spreadsheets, fervent on follow-up: she’s...