Employee Perks: Still Partying Like It’s 1999?

Jan 25, 2017 Ed Harrison

“When you think of startups, there’s a good chance you picture a tech-chic frat house: clusters of Mac monitors next to vintage foosball tables … But as these perks have become the norm—not to say cliché—their true value has begun to come into question.” “Why More Tech Companies are Rethinking Their Perks,” Fast Company

(Author’s note: I’m 46, witnessed this first hand, and used Kozmo.com to get a copy of a Beastie Boys CD.)

It’s 2017. The tech market has weathered a burst bubble, a Great Recession and a handful of market corrections. What seemed normal in the last century is a punchline now. Yet as business models have grown, employee benefits and perks are stuck in the last century, and I’m still reading about foosball tables, kegerators and video-game consoles.  

I am very fortunate to work for a company whose leadership has nurtured a very progressive workplace. I’ve been part of varying approaches to compensation, vacation/paid leave, in-office fun and, for lack of a better term, “free stuff,” and I’ve learned a few lessons along the way. But the main one is this: first and foremost, perks need to make employees create work that makes them proud.

  • Respect matters more than salaries or “stuff.” Aretha Franklin would love this perk, and it’s true: if employees feel respected, they TCB. From the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2016 survey of employee engagement, “Respectful Treatment of All Employees at All Levels” was the top indicator of employee job satisfaction in SHRM’s 2016 study, directly ahead of pay, benefits and job security. Research shows that employees vastly prefer experiences over things; to the jaded, it’s easy to see a new kegerator or game system as a cynical grab for employees’ hearts and minds. But respect, and creating an environment where employees feel safe to share new ideas, is a win for everyone.
  • It’s folly to believe perks can override stress. PR constantly is in the Top 10 for “most stressful jobs” (enlisted military personnel, I am so sorry -- what we do doesn’t even compare to what you do). Massages and pedicures may mitigate some of that, but it’s important to remember that some of our best ideas come during our most difficult, stressful jobs. Don’t take your team’s mind off of stress: help them use it to their advantage.
  • Unlimited vacations can present unintended problems. While in use by only 1 percent of workplaces, the tech sector has embraced unlimited PTO. Yet the flexibility to “take it as you need it” has had unintended consequences: employees are actually taking less time off. While most organizations trust employees to “act like adults,” without specific guidelines, these adults may be afraid to take vacation, lest they be seen as slackers. It’s important for executives to lead by example -- if the boss isn’t taking time off, no one is.
  • Employees have no idea how much benefits cost. But they should. Most team members have no frame of reference for these things, so I suggest a two-step approach:
    • Remind them that EVERYTHING -- including salaries, bonuses and perks--is a function of top-line revenue. More revenue, more money for raises, bonuses, perks and hiring. You want that party bus? It comes out of the pool that pays for bonuses.
    • Be kind (think of Aretha and R-E-S-P-E-C-T). Rather than being the exasperated parent telling an entitled child for the 300th time why they can’t get another XBox, state this in an entirely emotionless, truthful way. “We value you, and we’re willing to invest in you, but we will not be irresponsible with your future or that of the company.”
  • Be transparent. To a point. At InkHouse, we share business details … to a point. There’s a balance -- share too little, and it’s seen as obfuscation. Share too much, and everyone freaks out about the ebb-and-flow of clients inherent in agency life. It’s key to strike a balance, and stick to it.
I love foosball as much as the next guy (although I SUCK at it … ask my kids) -- and sure, sometimes including “stuff” in the perks mix is a good morale boost -- but it’s imperative that perks evolve with the needs of today’s employees and map to the main goal: creating an environment of respect and support that lets everyone do their best, most creative work.
Topics: Agency, HR, Culture
Ed Harrison

Ed Harrison helps to lead business development and operations for Inkhouse’s Boston headquarters while driving strategy and providing tactical support for many of the firm’s technology clients.

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