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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]