Office Perks Can’t Save a Poor Work Environment

Many big companies looking to attract and retain a talented young workforce try adopting a startup mindset, with some modeling Silicon Valley technology companies that famously offer employees ornate office perks. When companies develop a strong corporate culture, the theory goes, employees will feel fulfilled by their work and increase their performance and productivity.

While elaborate benefits can motivate already engaged employees to give that extra effort, they will be ineffective if just tacked on to a work environment that is otherwise uninspiring.

As many companies continue to pile on the perks, it is important for talent mangers to keep a focus on making an employee’s work meaningful, which is ultimately what will build a positive work environment, according to Teresa Amabile, a professor and director of research at Harvard Business School, and co-author of “The Progress Principle.”

“First, if people don’t have meaningful work — that is, work that they really care about — no amount of perks will get them deeply engaged in their job,” Amabile said. “Second, if people don’t have meaningful work, some of these perks will actually harm the company because people might, for example, simply take so much vacation that they hardly do their jobs.

“Third, if many of these perks involve people being away from the office, and if the work requires collaboration on complex problems, that can undermine the creativity that occurs when people spend a lot of time in the same space.”

Red Frog Events LLC, a Chicago-based production company, for example, offers its employees a litany of perks such as unlimited vacation days, working from home one day a week, a clothing stipend, free food and alcohol, and an office decor allowance, which, to the average worker, are envy-inducing benefits. Many of the company’s employees are proud to work in a progressive environment where employees are perceived as valued. However, in practice these perks may not be as great as they first seem.

Having a free lunch, for example, sounds enticing, but for many employees at companies that offer free in-house meals, such as Red Frog Events, it may mean forgoing an actual lunch break. In addition, many of the unlimited vacation days go untouched because employees are more concerned about losing precious, productive work time rather than taking a day off, according to Matthew Robinson, senior video production manager, culture specialist and event director at Red Frog Events.

“You would think that with an ‘unlimited vacation day’ policy that people would be gone all the time, right? Well, we’ve found that when you hire the right people, that employees won’t take advantage of such a generous policy,” Robinson said. “There’s very minimal policing and, to this day, no one has abused the policy. The average Red Frogger takes off between two and four weeks of vacation in a calendar year.”

While these perks may get employees in the door, it is the work environment that keeps them there. Employees at perk-filled companies report feeling passionate about their jobs, and getting a birthday present every year, as is the case with Red Frog Events, may serve as a subtle reminder of what an employee owes back to his or her company — unbridled alignment with its corporate message, according to Robinson.

“The perks are fantastic, don’t get me wrong. Who doesn’t love having a bar in their office or free snacks whenever you want? But it’s what the perks mean that enticed me to work at Red Frog Events,” Robinson said. “Having such a positive employee benefits program signifies that the organization really cares about its employees and the long-term health of the organization. And, when you feel cared for, you’re going to put in the extra effort to make sure that the company is successful.”

The “extra effort,” according to Robinson, can mean that an employee at Red Frog Events works, on average, about 50 to 60 hours a week.

As a contrast to how it is commonly portrayed and reported, only one in five employees report office perks as among the most important workplace benefits, with medical coverage reported as holding the most importance outside of compensation, according to the July “Glassdoor Employment Confidence Survey” released by Glassdoor.com. But as corporate perks continue to escalate, and companies try to top one another’s impressive benefit packages, more businesses are feeling the pressure to ante up the benefits.

Businesses that continue to add to their employee benefits package should encourage their employees to use the perks available to them, as many workers may forgo lunch and vacation time, for example, if they believe their colleagues are doing so, according to Amabile.

“A great work environment is one where people are respected and recognized by their colleagues and bosses, where they have meaningful work to do, and where they have what they need to make steady progress in their work,” Amabile said. “The best perks show people that they are valued and support them in making steady progress in meaningful work.”

Jessica DuBois-Maahs is an editorial intern at Talent Management magazine. She can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.