Benefits, Talent Management

It Takes More Than Perks Alone to Build a Long-Term Engaging Culture

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Perks are becoming more popular because of high-profile examples in Silicon Valley, where perks have been taken to the extreme.

Foosball tables, free lunch, phone stipends, and frequent flyer miles are so-five-years-ago amenities that have largely become expectations rather than a bonus.

I attended the holiday party for a division of Apple last year, and they gave all employees in the division an iPad mini. Merry Christmas, indeed!

A perks arms race in the Silicon Valley

But beyond iPads and game rooms, companies have engaged in a “perks arms race” by offering to take care of your daily life needs:

  • Google will feed you all meals, do your laundry, and even run your errands via Google Shopping Express.
  • Beyond food, Twitter will also valet park your car when you arrive at the office, provide a Caltrain pass, or give you the option to meet at a designated company shuttle stop.
  • Facebook is building a 394-unit apartment complex located two miles from its headquarters, which will feature a gym, pool, pet spa, coffee shop, sports bar, and more.

Perks are good for recruiting and retaining — at least initially. All of these benefits look extremely attractive, especially to the new college graduate looking for an easy transition from school to work — and bragging rights.

After working in HR for several years at multiple Silicon Valley companies, I can’t even begin to count the number of times I heard the phrase, “But he got an offer from Google/Facebook/Apple. How can we compete with that?” Beyond the stock grants, companies are trying to keep up with the free food, the bring-your-dog-to-work policies, the on site dentists and oil changes. The list goes on, and companies are becoming increasingly creative with the perks they offer.

Sounds like a pretty great life, right? Everything you ever need can be taken care of by your company.

The problem is the high cost for this type of care — your entire life.

When the honeymoon ends

This goes beyond the old days of “Crackberry Syndrome.” You’re expected not only to respond to emails at any hour of the day or night, but also to spend longer hours at the office.

From the company’s perspective, why would you possibly need to leave? The company did your laundry, fed you three gourmet meals and snacks all day long, picked up those errand items from Target, gave you time to work out at the on-site gym, and even styled your hair. And now you owe them your discretionary effort.

A friend of mine worked for one of these “high-perk” Silicon Valley companies. At first the novelty was exciting: all-you-can-eat delicious food, no more trips to the dry cleaner or laundromat, running into famous people on campus at least once a week. It was quite the life.

And then the work honeymoon ended.

He found out that the internal systems were a disaster, which created hours upon hours of extra work for him each week. Since he wasn’t an engineer, he found that the company didn’t value his particular function and expertise because in Silicon Valley, engineering is king. He began working longer and longer hours, arriving home between 8-9 pm every evening, only to get back on his laptop and keep working another two or three hours each night.

Perks can’t engage hearts and minds

After 18 months at the company, multiple medical visits to deal with stress-related health problems, and many sleepless nights, he decided that the perks weren’t worth the cost and announced that he was leaving.

I was surprised to hear that someone would leave this seemingly prestigious, growing, hot company. When I asked him why he was leaving, he didn’t say anything about better perks, more money, or hefty stock grants at another company. In fact, he doesn’t even have another job lined up yet.

The real reason he left? Management and leadership.

Perks alone are not enough to create a long-term engaging culture. They can keep employees satisfied, but they can’t engage hearts, hands, and minds to give discretionary effort.

So instead of getting caught up in the perks arms race, focus on creating an environment rich with opportunities for growth, showing individuals how they have an impact, and helping employees understand the meaning in their job. These efforts will lead to real employee engagement and have a lasting effect on retention and productivity.

You can find more from Michelle Checketts at the DecisionWise Leadership Intelligence blog

Michelle Checketts plays an integral role in global employee engagement operations for DecisionWise, a management consulting firm specializing in leadership and organization development using assessments, feedback, coaching, and training. She has deep functional expertise in human resources, allowing her to effectively speak to clients' inherent interests and objectives.
  • http://rallyyourgoals.com/ r/ally

    Perks like these are the big shiny ball, and I fully understand why companies offer them. The more low value tasks/errands an employee can complete on site, the more time they can devote to work. I get it. But at the end of the day, employees start to take these things for granted if they are not made to feel as if they have a real say in the business. People want to know that they have a sense of contribution, a sense of responsibility. Put another way, all of these perks might say “We don’t trust you enough to give you flexible schedules to accommodate other life tasks, so we are going to bring all of the routine life tasks you need to accomplish (medical/laundry/exercise/eating) in house, so you never leave. Are these perks the new ‘panem et circenses’?”

    My personal thoughts are nothing is more engaging that saying to your colleagues, these are the goals we need to accomplish, this is the deadline we have. Now, how do we do it? In this day of the global workforce, “doing it” does not mean “9 to 5″, as it is always “9 to 5″ some where in your company.

  • Tim Kuppler

    I couldn’t agree more. I was at an engagement seminar a few weeks ago and they went around the room as each person shared a best practice they used. Most of them were the perks and programs, not a clear approach to build a long-term engaging culture as you reference. I believe you need to build a strong culture foundation and then you can implement all the perks you want on top of it. Without the foundation, the impact of the perks will only go so far and it’s not sustainable. The culture foundation approach is covered in another TLNT post: The 9 Clear Steps to Organizational Culture Change: http://www.tlnt.com/2013/11/26/the-9-clear-steps-to-organizational-culture-change/ All nine are needed for long-term engagement and sustainability. The honeymoon will end, as you say, so don’t waste time on perks unless you have a strong foundation. Great post!

  • Leila

    I agree that it takes more than just perks to engage your employees. While perks can be great and may motivate employees for the short-term, perks definitely don’t engage employees long-term.
    Organizations should evaluate their culture first and decide how best to engage their employees. I recently wrote a blog post on 3 top companies (Google, Southwest Airlines, and Zappos) explaining how though they offer perks to their employees, they evaluated their culture first and learned what would best motivate and engage their employees in the long-term. Feel free to take a look and offer your thoughts: http://www.espninja.com/employee-engagement-how-3-companies-increased-it/

  • Dianne Kipp

    Perfectly stated Michelle, whether it is in Silicon Valley or NYC, what matters most to employees is acknowledging them personally, and rewarding them according to their contributions..demonstrating authentic leadership values, and behaving as if people truly are the most important asset.

  • rgahewitt

    Give people a job they love and they’ll never work a day again,

  • PHDChick

    The idea of having all these perks strikes me as similar to living in a so-called nanny state. Meals are provided, services are provided, transportation is provided, entertainment is provided such that you don’t have to use your own thinking for anything other than the purposes of getting their work done. Of course you’re getting handsomely paid for that which is super great. But the problem with all the perks as it was pointed out is that your life becomes their life. Since they are taking care of all your basic needs you’d better bloody well answer that 3 a.m. call that, in an un-perked world, could probably wait until you arrived at your desk at 8 a.m. It would seem you’d feel obligated to dash off and grab your laptop and spend a couple of days while on your dream vacation working on that nagging problem that no one other than you can possibly address. After all you were able to take that dream vacation with all those frequent flyer miles the company gifted you. Perks are indeed nice but there are major tradeoffs that one must be fully prepared to make. Interestingly, there are these voices that echo in my mind saying, “Young lady, as long as we are feeding you, clothing you and providing a roof over your head, you will live fully by our rules”. And that was the truth.

    • ikaruga

      Welcome to the world of tech!

      In many non-Silicon valley tech jobs (with “perks” no where near what’s described in the article), you are still expected to answer the 3 am call. Perks have nothing to do with it.

      It’s about making sure that 24/7 systems actually run 24/7. By definition, this is a fast paced and hi stress. Fortunately, tech jobs usually pay well. And good for the guys in Silicon Valley if they also get those awesome perks.

      While money doesn’t necessarily buy happiness, being well paid does give you the opportunity to pay off loans and $save$ money, lots of it (hopefully, while you contemplate a better/normal job). In other words, the short-term stress (over a couple of years) is worth it.

      I do agree with the article though. Ultimately, money doesn’t buy happiness. All the perks/money in the world doesn’t keep you from finding a company with good management and culture.

  • Bill Burnett

    Discretionary effort is one thing, but what your company really needs is discretionary thinking. It’s seeing a problem, caring enough to put it into your brain, and then having it there when your brain is relaxed because that’s when it does its magical problem solving. Caring enough comes when employees are fully engaged. As it turns out, all the kinds of programs like:
    Articulate and Share Our Intrinsically Good Vision
    Define Core Values And Use Them To Hire, Fire, Promote
    Communicate Like Crazy.
    Reward & Recognize
    Set SMART Goals
    Foster Trust – Up, Down, Sideways in the Company
    Provide Career Direction and Training
    Sponsor Well-being Programs
    Perks

    …will not overcome the fundamental problem that you so rightly pointed out Michelle, poor “management and leadership”. PHDChick, I could not have said it better than “Young lady, as long as we are feeding you, clothing you and providing a roof over your head, you will live fully by our rules”. When management devolves into a Parent/Child relationship, things will start to go bad in a hurry. As adults (teenagers too) do not like being forced into the Child role. (see http://http://superinnovator.blogspot.com for more on the Parent/Child problem)

  • http://www.boogiegraphics.com/ Jacques Bastien

    Very true. This is great. I own a social media + creative agency called boogie (weareboogie.com) and we’ve adapted a mix of perks, matched with the personal acknowledgment.

    Leaving our people happy + working –all time of the night :)

  • http://www.BusinessLessonsFromRock.com/ John O’Leary

    Ah, but once companies provide dentists for your dog, that’ll do the trick. Cool article.