There’s been a lot of conversation about workplace perks in the tech/startup world lately.
More and more big companies are offering over-the-top perks. Airbnb gives its employees a $2,000 annual vacation stipend. Facebook offers free housing to interns. And the well-documented perk-rife Google campuses feature, among other luxuries, free gourmet breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Some critics write off perks as a potentially harmful trend. A common argument is that perks only exist to keep employees at their desks longer. One tech writer even called “cushy office perks” a “trap.”
But I don’t think it’s that black and white.
There is a right and a wrong way to implement perks in the workplace. Most importantly, perks must be framed appropriately and productively. For example, at my company, HarpData, perks are morale-boosting incentives. They’re a reward for performing well and adding value—something you have to earn. With this approach, perks have become a valuable part of our strong company culture and a driver of productivity.
But perks do have the potential to damage company culture and instill an unproductive mindset in your employees.
At this point, many employees expect workplace perks. Mostly because, with low unemployment rates creating a competitive job market (there are currently about 1 million more job openings than unemployed Americans), companies have to go to great lengths to attract top talent. In this pursuit, offering great perks has become all but mandatory.
When I post a job opening, the first question I want to answer is: “What are the advantages of working at HarpData over another company?” Perks are a big part of that answer, but on a broader scope, our innovative, fearless, dragon-slaying culture is our real draw.
It can be hard to communicate the intangible aspects of your workplace culture. Perks are typically more straightforward. They send a clear message of, “We care about our employees, so we offer them these benefits.” So in an effort to gain a candidate’s attention, listing workplace perks is a sound strategy.
But you have to make sure your perks reflect the company and its values.
In many ways, perks influence culture. So you have to consider the message your perks send to ensure that your company mission shines through.
Amazon is a prime example of a company that has not done a great job of implementing perks. While Amazon tries to position itself as an innovative, cool company to work for, with great benefits like stock options, flexible hours when returning to work after having kids, a discount on Amazon products, etc., the well-documented reality is that the work conditions at Amazon’s distribution centers are abysmal. Employees have reported they aren’t allowed bathroom breaks, are encouraged to push through serious injuries, and are expected to work on major holidays like Thanksgiving.
Perks should be something that every employee at a company can use. If some people are excluded, is that a company that you’d want to be part of?
And when implementing perk programs, it’s important to make sure your employees can actually take advantage of those workplace perks. For instance, I had a job where, in theory, I received 30 days of vacation a year. But I was always too busy to fully take advantage—I never actually used more than five in any given year during my time there.
So, through consulting with other founders, I’ve learned what workplace perks actually work.
I’m always talking to other entrepreneurs about how critical the hiring process is to the success of any startup—and perks are always a big part of those conversations. We all agree that you have to be able to bring in quality people. And in that pursuit, offering great perks really helps.
But then you need to filter out the people who just want a relaxed work environment and unlimited vacation days. When someone is more excited about the perks than the actual culture and mission of the company, that’s a red flag.
That’s why it’s so important to make sure your perks align with your culture.
It’s possible to have a good culture without perks—but there’s a caveat.
As long as you have the basics (health insurance, solid PTO, etc.), it’s possible to have a strong culture without the extras—at least in the moment. But you can’t run an organization based only on the here and now.
If you’re going to grow, you have to consistently look toward and plan for the future. You need to know what kind of people you want and what you’ll need to offer to acquire their talent. Leaders should use perks as part of the overall strategy for attracting talent and positioning a company for long-term success.
When creating workplace perks, aim to attract the right people—those who will help build and sustain your company culture. I know that, in order to attract top talent and a diverse workforce, I need to offer perks that will appeal to different types of people.
Perks can play an important role in building a culture, so you need a well-defined strategic plan for choosing and implementing them.
To accomplish this, you need a sturdy foundation for the culture and the mission itself. Perks are not a source of culture on their own. But they can be a means of helping you bring in the people that will help sustain and proliferate the culture you want to build.