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

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Nov 26, 2013

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