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Employee Perks That Don’t Work

Over much of the last decade or two, the subject of work-life balance has been a hot topic in the business world. Such well-respected businesses as Google, Apple, and Microsoft have invested heavily in a variety of initiatives to help create a healthy, balanced lifestyle for their employees.  

With such high-profile corporations leading the way, it is not surprising that many small and mid-sized businesses are following this example and investing in their own work-life balance initiatives.

And while it is great to see that employers are concerned about the well-being of their employees, the unfortunate reality is that many businesses are wasting huge sums of money on work-life initiatives that don’t work for the majority of their employees, or do much of anything to enrich the broader corporate culture. 

For instance:

1) On-site child care.  Upon first glance, the idea of on-site child care makes a great deal of sense. It allows parents to save money on daycare or babysitter costs, and allows them to be close by their children in the event of an emergency. However, only a small percentage of employees would probably use such a service—because they either don’t have kids, or their kids are old enough to be in school or college. The net result is that employees not using the service feel as though they are subsidizing employees who have young children, often leading to resentment and an "us-vs.-them" mentality.

2) Gyms and fitness centers.  A 2010 study shows that only 28% of employees who have access to an on-site gym or fitness center actually use it—presumably, the number of employees who use it regularly is even smaller. The cost of such a facility is significant compared to its reach. 

3) Work-at-home programs.  The idea of working from home one day a week is attractive to virtually every employee—who wouldn’t want to cut back on time spent in traffic and money spent on gas? Unfortunately, I have had many off-the-record conversations with employers and project managers who have seen that the "work at home" day often morphs into a day to go grocery shopping, visit the salon, or get the car repaired. Before long, the work-at-home program turns a two-day weekend into a three-day weekend...hardly what most employers were envisioning!  

Some work/life solutions in the workplace do not produce the magnitude of improvements they are hyped or expected to. Why? So long as employees view these tools as the employer’s way of getting more from them while paying them the same wage, they remain less useful as tools of increased productivity and loyalty. The problem is one of perspective.

When a corporate executive asks me what I recommend they do to change the paradigm of an ineffective corporate culture, I respond, "Concentrate on the soil." Concentrating on corporate soil isn’t providing "more stuff." And while it is laudable to give new mothers nursing stations to breastfeed their infants, on-site gyms or gym memberships for athletic employees, and childcare facilities for young parents, this isn’t the soil. These perks should be a result of good soil, not the soil itself.  

Perks such as these should be part of a larger cultural context, one that the employees believe in. Better yet, one that's actually chosen by the employees, not by upper management.  Just as a single piece of a jigsaw puzzle means very little, such workplace initiatives have little value unless they are part of a larger cultural shift to a more conscious corporation.  

What employee perks have you found that worked to strengthen your company—or didn't? Tell us about it in the comments. For more leadership coverage, follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.


[Image: Flickr user Corie Howell]

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  • Mike Stereth

    It's clear that most of the commentators have missed the point!

    The author isn't saying that these perks don't work, just that they don't work if they aren't part of a larger culture.

    She writes:

    "These perks should be a result of good
    soil, not the soil itself.  
    Perks such as these should be part of
    a larger cultural context, one that the employees believe in. Better
    yet, one that's actually chosen by the employees, not by upper
    management.  Just as a single piece of a jigsaw puzzle means very
    little, such workplace initiatives have little value unless they are
    part of a larger cultural shift to a more conscious corporation."

    Take the time to read before commenting!

  • Peter Rogers

    What is this? The piece seems anecdotal at best. I apparently work for one of the "top employers" in the country and yeah, they have a "gym" - if you call a treadmill in an unheated outbuilding about the size of the average outhouse a "gym". Sure the check box was checked but it's not a anything worth using. We don't have daycare but anyone I know who has onsite day care, covets it. I even know a colleague who left one job for another because they offered on-site day care. And yeah, I work at home occasionally exactly BECAUSE it would allow me to run an errand impossible to do at the office because I couldn't leave until 7 and couldn't achieve it otherwise. The entire onsite perks in this office include: coffee I wouldn't clean my toilet with; milk for said coffee; unsubsidized vending machines full of junk food. End of story. But I'm old enough to know that if a company offers too many trivial perks it means they expect you to work there longer, not better.

    All hail working from home where the coffee and snacks are awesome and living room rug trumps the lousy on-site gym.

    Why bother writing this piece without considering the issue fully? This post is so poorly thought out and considered it angered me enough to sign up so I could log in and tell you how poorly written it is – so if you were looking to sign up people who dump on the inadequacy of your work, well done. Mission accomplished.

  • Moira de Roche

    Any company who offers Telecommuting as an employee perk has lost the plot. Sure it might benefit some employees, but most of all should benefit the company. There are many reasons a company should consider having some of their employees working from home some or all of the time, all to do with cost savings and even increased productivity. Why isn't it more common - well in my opinion it's because of poor management. Employees need to understand what outputs are expected of them, and then be managed on how well they deliver, irrespective of where they are working from. If they have delivered, then they can arrnge to have the car fixed, do the laundry or even laze at the pool with a clear conscience!

  • Mogwai

    I'd weigh under-used perks against more than just participation. You're also using them to compete against other employers for top talent. It sends a signal that, yes you will be expected to put in some long hours, ^and^ yes we have a gym onhand to help you blow off steam and feel reenergised - in fact we encourage it. It signals acknowledgement.

    As for low participation rates, I recommend internal campaigns to encourage greater take-up.

    Other 'soft' perks which would also fall under your knife but demonstrate commitment and shared goal-attainment: secure bike-parking; shower/change facilities; fresh fruit …

  • Mogwai

    On working from home: what does it matter if the car gets dropped in for a service if the output criteria are met? With a certain maturity of role comes the trust of being accountable for outcomes. Sure, availability, responsiveness are requirements, but that doesn't necessarily mean being at the desk 5 days a week.

  • Leslie Mueller

    I wold completely disagree with #3 - I have a scheduled work from home day on Tuesdays and Fridays and I actually feel that I get so much more accomplished. I actually try and schedule most of my conference calls on these days because I am guaranteed that I will not be interrupted or have noise in the background. I can stay focused on the call without someone coming over to my desk and putting something there or trying to talk with me while I'm trying to listen to my caller.  To me a WFH benefit is HUGE! Yes, I do typically schedule my own or a child's dentist appointments on these days but when I know I have something going on I will adjust my time accordingly.Either working earlier in the morning or later in the evening. My company has a seamless transition, we have VoIP so no one even needs to call my cell number they call my direct line and it is forwarded directly to my phone. Most people don't even know I'm not in the office.

  • Todd Raphael

    "Work at home day often morphs into a day to go grocery shopping, visit the salon, or get the car repaired." Wow! I know a huge number of people who work at home and just think that tells only half the story. I mean -- yes, I and others have done, and do, all these things during the day, including quite a number of dog-walks. But I also work like an ER doctor, answering phone calls and emails around the clock; pulling the car over on the side of the freeway to answer questions from my boss; working every weekend day on and off the last six years; never taking a single day off, working on and off throughout every "holiday" when we are "closed" and so on. That's the thing about working from home -- your boss knows when you are *not working* (when she or she calls and you're not there) but not always when you *are* working. You can work any time and everywhere, but you will also work every time and everywhere. I wonder how many of these bosses you've talked to, who call their employees only to find them at the grocery store -- know how many times they've been on Skype at 2 a.m. to their readers/customers/clients in China instead of sleeping. Todd Raphael

  • rafarojasp

    It doesn't exist the "magic perk" that can reach all the employees of a company, the ones you mentioned can reach maybe the majority of them, and definitely I consider them as a very valuable ones maybe a go or no go decision when evaluating a new company. However, at the end, all comes down to the free will, if the employees do not get benefit from them or do not want to use them, or they use them not accordingly to the objective itself, well, shame on them. For instance I use regularly the work at home program, and ironically it's the most productive day of my week, well at least when my kids are not at home.

  • Dr. Serena Reep

    First, I would like to thank all of you for taking the time to respond.   Disagreement is wonderful; disengagement or indifference is not.
    Second, I am so very glad that so many of you responded that you don’t fit the mold I described.  My mission would be accomplished when every single one in this world is able to honestly say they disagree with me. Well, maybe that is too much to ask for; I will settle for a majority of people saying that what I said does not apply to them.
    Third, and my main reason for this response is that, except for Erin and Rob, the central thesis was lost on most of you.  Maybe I am at fault for not elaborating on this point more emphatically.  The point is that a great majority of the people are motivated by external circumstances and external motivations.  For these people, having a culture that reinforces their commitment is likely to bring better results from these perks and programs.  Those who responded negatively to this article, in my humble opinion, are more likely driven by internal standards and motivations.  Congratulations to them.  They will succeed no matter what the corporate culture is. They don’t need a reinforcing culture at work to make them more loyal and more productive.  But my interest is to bring more people into this group of dedicated and committed (don’t forget “fulfilled”) workforce, by arguing for a more congruent corporate culture.  9

  • theyoungbigmouth

    First, I can't work from home very well. But that's the point... output differs from person to person when working conditions are changed. So we can't just dump the whole arrangement. 

    Second, what is the soil? Isn't the main issue here? 

  • abhay singh

    The opinion herein seems to be one sided. WFH options require maturity. commitments and sincerity. I have seen and at times ended up working more than required hours because I felt the responsibility to respond to sense of duty. Like everything there are uses and misuses so it will prevail. So long the good sense prevails its the best option to maximum productivity from team members

  • Gurpal Singh

    Instead of a Work From Home programme, why not have a work by objective programme. So you plan your workweek and objectives, and lets say today you finish your work at 2pm, you leave after. So it's more objective based...


  • MaryCusick

    Honestly, something
    that I think would be more effective than letting employees work from home is
    to have a sort of “creative day” at the office. I first heard about this sort
    of thing in this article:


    David Rock states in the article,
    “I know CEOs who come to the office at least one day a week with
    no plan in mind. They claim that it’s the secret to how they do what they do.
    Extraordinary results have come out of it. Google invented Gmail, for instance.
    Bring your non-conscious resources to bear; you’ll see things you don’t
    normally see.” 

  • Mimi Denman

    I very much disagree on your opinion about working at home.  I have worked at home several days a week for over six years. While it is helpful to visit the office at least once a week and meet your team, I am 100% more productive when I am working remotely. The hours spent getting ready, driving to and from etc. could have been spent working in my case. I make a point to have my first meeting in person when I can but since I work in a global environment that is not always possible.

    Video conferencing has added greatly to quality of life for workers. I use my camera and find I am very efficient - no matter where I am physically. I would not consider working for a company that did not understand this. We use Lync and anyone can see our "presence" at any time. BTW- I am not a recent grad but an experienced professional executive.

  • Susan R

    Just because under 50% of a population uses a perk doesn't mean it's not valuable or "doesn't work". I have taken advantage of all of these perks and they benefited my companies by enabling me to focus and not have to drop everything and run from the office, or not be able to work because I have a child who has to be home for the day. They have also kept me healthy, resulting in far fewer sick days.

  • Deena McClusky

    I hate seeing articles that declare work at home days as a waste. Having worked from home for over nine years at my current position, I can confidently declare that I work harder, faster, and more efficiently and accomplish more in a day than most any office bound employee at any company. A good piece of why this is true is that when all of my tasks are accomplished for the day my day is over. Unlike employees who are chained to a desk and must complete a mandatory 8 or 9 hours plus commute time, my day can potentially end at 2pm with no negative reflection on either me or my paycheck. Work at home is the wave of the future, and that wave will come much quicker as the media stops making fun of it as extra time off.

  • ClickBrain

    You wrote: "The net result is that employees not using the service feel as though they are subsidizing employees who have young children, often leading to resentment and an “us-vs.-them” mentality."

    I think it is a silly generalization to say child care doesn't work because it creates an us vs. them atmosphere. How about the Us vs. Them atmosphere when the parent has to scramble during the day to take care of a child. Only you can create an atmosphere of teamwork and understanding of the value to the co-worker. From my perspective having day care would mean that I would think long and hard about taking a new gig that didn't offer it and it would be a HUGE factor in my decision. Just give "them" something else to make them feel loved too. It doesn't have to be all or nothing. Let people choose their benefits - gym or child care, lunch or child care, etc. or foster an understanding of what it does for the company. That's what culture is all about. 

    Rob Day is spot on on his other points as well in the comments. 

  • Rob Day

    Excellent point.  As a non-parent, I think I kind of glossed over that section.  The choose your own perk idea would be very interesting.  It definitely would cut the us vs them attitude and put the cultural responsibility back on the employer as it should be.

  • Rob Day

    This is a great conversation to have in this environment.  I also agree that benefits should come from the culture or soil as you say and sprout up naturally and genuinely.  This makes a lot of sense to me and would certainly alter the perception that these benefits are ploys to get more for less/the same.

    However, I have a few points of contention with your argument.  Work at home programs DO WORK.  Like everything they have to be done right, but they certainly work and many FastCompany publications on Results Only Work Environments (ROWE) support this claim.  The problem is that your argument focuses on what a manager thinks of what an employee does, or the activities that they might actually do.  I would say, Who Cares?  I don't care if you work 2 hours a day, 3 days a week.  If you complete the goals I assign to you then rock on.  Time spent at your desk is not necessarily productive.  Further, you miss the point that employees with those programs are often happier and more loyal.  These have obvious business benefits.  Lastly, who knows if those people worked extra hours all week leading up to the 'day off' - or put in some hours on the weekends.  When achieving goals is all that matters you'll end up with a better work force. (NOTE: Does not apply to every type of job, some simply require you to be there, but I don't think that's what this is about).

    Also, nursing stations are law not choice for companies according to the Federal Health Reform passed in 2010.  So it doesn't serve as a great example for the point you are trying to make.

    I think you are spot on in the idea that companies shouldn't cater benefits to the few.  This is an inefficient use of resources.  The only exception is when the benefit truly relates to corporate culture such as a track at New Balance, or Dog programs at Pedigree.  These benefits help to reshape the work staff and attract the people who are the culture which is very effective, but it is part of their soil.

    Now for something that I think might work, and it's an experiment I would like to try some day.  I think structured PTO is a myth in a lot of cases, especially 3 weeks (15 Days).  In a typical salaried job it is not unusual to work an extra hour a day M - Th.  Run that out over the course of a year and you get 181 hours (already excluding the 3 weeks off and an arbitrary 15 holidays).  That comes out to 22.5 working days/year.  A company could easily offer 5 weeks vacation (unheard of in most places) and still come out on top in the hours worked.  I think you'd also get happier more productive and more loyal employees.  Facebook I think offers 4 weeks to start and unlimited sick days.  They seem to be surviving.  

    Also, as with my New Balance and Pedigree examples, I think any perk directly tied to your culture can be effective in one way or another.

  • Jeremy Kriegel

    Couldn't agree more with your take on PTO, but it seems to be a more common trend. I recall past employers who provided time for vacation and other personal activities. This let you have a mental and physical rest, as well as take time for personal needs. As far as sick days, the attitude was, "if you are sick, stay home." It showed a lot of trust. 

    A recent employer moved from the latter to the former (although they claimed that unlimited sick days was a policy misinterpretation that had been allowed for too long). Apparently, they felt that a few abused the policy, but rather than dealing with those few, they chose to make the rest of the employees feel like they were untrustworthy. It is a pattern I have seen far too many times. When things get tough, leadership feels like they need to have more control.

    My favorite benefit was the 'choose your own' style from a small start-up. Each employee had a chunk of money to spend each month in one of 4 categories, from fitness to self improvement and going green. Some people had gym memberships, while I got expensive LED light bulbs when they were still very new.