San Francisco, 10/12/14 -
Don't be fooled by the perks at all those Silicon Valley (and Alley) offices — it's all just part of a subtle plot to control employee behavior. The founders of Fab.com admitted as much to Bloomberg's Sarah Frier two years ago. The shopping site wielded its beer on tap, free lunch, and ice-cream machine as a means to force Fab employees to send emails in a "certain font," use high-quality paper, and always "be Fab" — whatever terrible thing that means. Those types of office perks abound at startups, of course, not only as a way to attract the best talent, but also to get that "talent" working on message, official office font included. Each and every kegerator serves as a reminder of what you owe the company. And that's just the food and drink. Let's take a look, by way of a couple recent trend stories and startup proclamations, at how the so-called "escalation of perks" keeps employees in line all over the tech world and "progressive" companies the world over.
Unlimited Vacation Days Nobody Takes
It sounds like the best perk ever: You could, officially, and under official policy, get paid for a three-month summer vacation. But of course the increasingly popular you-work-so-hard-that-we-won't-count strategy doesn't work that way. First, most companies wouldn't allow it. The marketing company Xiik, for example, boasts the limitless vacation offer, but in its fine print discourages long hiatuses. "There are no hidden agendas; xiik employees can take as much paid time off as needed," claims a Xiik project manager on the company website, before clarifying what that really means: "As nice as it would be to regularly leave for months at a time, common sense prevails: In most cases, it simply doesn't make sense to be away from work for extended periods."
Translation: non-stop vacation is a ruse.
Sure, three months of leave is a bit much. But how much is okay to take when your HR manager says you can take as much as you like? An employee completely loses leverage when he or she doesn't have a set amount of days to claim. If a boss says no to a lengthy request under the unlimited policy, then there's not really much a worker can do; an employee with a set amount of time off can always go with the but-still-have-a-week-left-this-year line.
Even worse than a company that denies the unlimited vacation it promises, however, is one that discourages extra days off by convincing employees working at a cool office is more fun than not working at all. There's something incredibly Foucauldian about startup workers failing to indulge in their vacation because staying late at an office with a pool table is like a vacation, as Molly Young described in a much discussed essay in June 2013's New York Times Thursday Styles section.
The Open Office Space Panopticon
Despite all the idealized talk from the Yahoos and Googles of the world all about lofty, cubicle-free, office-less offices and how they increase productivity and serendiptiy and "casual collisions of the workforce," they actually don't work like that. A recent Quartz article outlines all the terrible things that come out of the open quarters, such as decreased productivity and more airborne illnesses. Which leads one to ask (even one who works in an open, office-less loft with Quartz): What's with these proliferating wall-less floor plans?
Trading in a cubicle for a shared desk not only encourages conformity — no more quirky puppy posters! — but also lets your boss see what you're doing at all times. Or at least he or she wants you to think that. On top of that feeling of watchfulness that also exists in a cubicle plan, management has also made it so that your co-workers act as a surveillance state as well. Not only do workers internalize the ever-watching boss, but they have their nosy cube mates to keep them on track too. To that end, it's no surprise that when the trend first started proliferating, office workers attempted to create barriers to block people out, per The New York Times. Also, it's a crime against humanity not to include desk drawers, a detail many of these open plans neglect. (Where to put embarrassing but necessary essentials, like tampons and drugs?)
Free Lunch Means No Lunch Break
Comped meals are an essential requirement of the fancy office these days, so much so that one Warby Parker employee acquired a "gut" after a week of working in her tricked-out office. Indeed, the startup perk-a-thon serves as an all-too-easy yet ever-so-tempting way to get employees to feel guilty about not conforming to standards, as we saw at that Fab office. And while a stocked office fridge might keep people hanging around for an extra hour on either side of their official eight hours, eating at your desk does not, in fact, make workers more productive. Workers apparently "waste" 2 billion minutes a day of "productivity" getting snacks, lunch, and coffee, according to Staples, which has a vested interest in fostering fewer coffee breaks. That same company study, however, found that short breaks increase productivity.
People, we fought for all these worker rights after the industrial revolution. Let's not give them all up for a free beer you've earned at happy hour... outside the office.
[EDITED: Thank You Rebecca Greenfield]
So enough with the ping-pong tables and the unlimited vacations that nobody takes: how about perks that people actually care about ? Something like a life coach and fresh groceries?
-By Phil Mora (@orsusvirtum)
It seems like every company tries to tout their cool factor by playing up their ping-pong tables. But it's not just the Googles of the world offering nice-to-haves like free snacks and workout rooms.
While a lot of employee perks over the years have focused on how to make life at work as easy and pleasant as possible--from free lunches to concierge services to in-house doctors and gyms--the best of the best are figuring out ways to integrate people's personal lives into the mix, says China Gorman, CEO of Great Place to Work, a human resources consulting, research and training firm.
"Organizations are really starting to be more human in their relationship with employees," says Gorman. "We are seeing a focus on the full human experience, not just how you are at work."
Here are some ways we're seeing companies get creative and personal about their perks:
Sure, you've heard of companies offering career coaching or training opportunities to help you improve your skills, but some are also offering life coaching to help employees be happier outside of work.
Infusionsoft, a sales and marketing software company based in Chandler, Ariz. offers employees access to what they call a "Dream Manager," a life coach who helps employees not just with setting career, but also life goals.
The idea is to give employees a sense of control over their lives, rather than making them feel like a slave to the job. Another way Infusionsoft does this is by offering new employees the option to leave with $5,000 if they've completed their initial training and don't think the company is a good fit for them. Better to weed out the weak from the start.
Better Places to Live
Your home life is going to influence your work life--there's no question about it. Companies are recognizing this and finding ways to offer perks to employees that help improve their living situation, beyond simply giving them a raise. Liderman, a company in Peru and Ecuador that provides security guard services, gives its employees grants to use toward home improvement. Most employees use the money to build bathrooms in their homes, so they no longer have to use outhouses, says Gorman.
Davidson, a consulting company based in France, has built a dormitory for young employees who have trouble finding an affordable apartment in Paris, given the high cost of living in the city. "We know investing in employees and their life effectiveness creates more trust," says Gorman. "And trust is the fundamental thing in workplace culture."
Healthy Food That You Cook Yourself
Increasingly, company perks are being designed to give employees access to a healthy lifestyle. It's not just in-house gyms or fitness perks; some companies, like Intel, Marriott, NetApp, and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, offer employees an on-site farmers market where they can stock up on fresh produce.
Software company SAS Institute Inc., based in Cary, North Carolina, runs a culinary farm that supplies fresh produce to its company kitchen, which employees can order from to take home with them. And Acuity Insurance in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, has an onsite pond stocked with fish where employees can take home their catch.
If you're a high-tech company in Silicon Valley, you're competing for the same talent pool as companies like Google. That means you have to have the same benefits those companies offer and more, says Gorman. But it's not just perks that attract the best employees. It's how they feel about the people they work for. "Trust comes from how leadership behaves," says Gorman. "Do they say what they're going to do? Do they make decisions in a way that’s transparent and fair?"
"This sense of integrity capital comes from the top of the organization," she says. "Employees know if they've got it and they know if they don’t."
[Thank You Fast Company, More Here > July 2014]
VP, Digital Marketing
Phil Mora (@orsusvirtum) is an Executive Director and VP, Digital Marketing at Hughes Creative, a startup headquartered in San Francisco (hughescreative.net). Obsessed with creativity, fitness, wellness, work-hacking, finance and high-tech, Phil is a thinker, a designer, a doer, a creative, a hacker, and a leader. Find out more about phil at toppgun.net and philmora.com
San Francisco, California