Offering cushy job perks has become a competitive sport. From tech powerhouses in Silicon Valley to the soap experts at Johnson & Johnson, major businesses are playing an ever-escalating game of, “Is this an office or a Dave & Busters?” Bottomless popcorn and on-site rock-climbing walls are now supposedly the keys to happier employees and, consequently, better performance.
It’s hard to argue with that logic–don’t happy cows make better milk? To be sure, research has shown that punctuating periods of mental focus with unstructured break time can help boost our creativity, productivity, and–yes–our happiness.
But expert opinions vary as to whether we should back away from our desks for a couple of minutes or a couple of hours. And it isn’t clear that dropping our work for certain periods of time is the very best way to improve our approach to it when we finally do hunker back down. After all, how many of us instinctively dive back into our spreadsheets after an energizing round of Ping-Pong? It’s hard to say, since the two activities are so completely unrelated. In fact, it’s that very ambiguity that’s fostered widespread misunderstanding about what actually does drive performance in the workplace.
As our meta-analysis of decades of research shows, people perform best when they enjoy the work itself, find purpose in the impact of their work, and see potential for future opportunities. As a matter of fact, these motives are so powerful that they account for an incredible 28% increase in sales revenue among frontline sales employees. In order for perks to improve productivity and overall performance, they have to tap into one or more of workers’ direct motives–not their love of rock climbing.
The irony of some of the more opulent office perks is that they’re unrelated to the kind of work that needs to get done in the office in the first place. In the worst cases, they can mask or even contribute to a toxic work culture. Sure, we all need to blow off steam in order to work effectively, but if most of your day is spent thinking up ways to return Amy from marketing’s killer serve, your work will be the real loser. The temptation to slack off is even greater when employees don’t have the tools they need to do a great job, don’t understand what’s expected of them, or are given unreasonable expectations.
While some perks might not always improve productivity, at least a few help foster community. Free lunches and arcade games can help people get know each other better, which in turn decreases emotional pressure–a performance-destroying motive rooted in fear of how others will perceive you. Genuine familiarity allows for greater collaboration. But staving off performance fatigue isn’t enough to jump-start the very highest performance the most innovative companies need in order to thrive.
Perks can be a powerful force for creativity, collaboration, and other adaptive behaviors if they meet certain criteria: namely, increasing the play, purpose, and potential employees feel in their work.
So don’t donate the Ping-Pong table to your competitor. Just be more deliberate in the design and combination of the perks you offer employees, and you’ll see their performance increase dramatically. Here are four characteristics of office perks that are actually effective.
Invite influencers in your field to give talks or provide free tickets to similar team-sourced events–what aspiring entrepreneur wouldn’t want to see Tim Cook do a presentation? Instead of poorly attended breakout sessions at your next company retreat, take your team to a fun, interactive workshop or conference related to your field. They can still enjoy the benefits of a nice hotel stay, all while meaningfully thinking about their work in the company of some fellow team members outside the office walls.
Make sure your employees never run out of fun tools to experiment with new, better ways of doing their work. Offer the entire Adobe Creative Suite and something like Tinkerplay to your graphic designers, even if their current projects don’t necessarily require all those applications. Outdated tools and systems are still costing us efficiency. Get your software engineers subscriptions to tech magazines and websites so they can keep up to date on the latest trends. You want more than just capable coders. Help your staff develop skills they can later apply to tackle problems that haven’t even emerged yet.
Let your employees use company resources to contribute to a cause they believe in. For example, if you run a data analytics firm, your employees could choose to devote some time each week to helping the local school district analyze its yearly performance and find new ways to increase high-school graduation rates. Giving back can enlarge employees’ sense of purpose while continuing to hone their work-related skills.
If your company does the kind of work that takes place behind the scenes and rarely connects its employees to customers, certain perks can help bridge that gap. For instance, if you run a factory that manufactures medical equipment, go visit a local hospital so your staff can meet some of the patients benefiting from the products they’ve developed or sold. Remind them of the impact their work can have on a human level, and instill in them a genuine sense of purpose and pride. The Boston Ballet offers employees free tickets to every performance plus discounts on additional tickets. They can find purpose in their work by benefiting from a production they helped make possible.
Invest in the whole person. Help your employees achieve their future goals by preparing them for the next step in their careers. For example, if your law firm hires paralegals who are hoping to attend law school and become lawyers themselves, pay for their LSAT tutoring and study materials. If your senior managers are looking to practice their leadership skills, connect them with local organizations–in the business community or otherwise–where they can serve on a board.
Companies should also consider offering one-on-one sessions with trained career counselors who can help employees see how their current work fits into their broader ambitions.
Perks to relieve emotional pressure can help, too–as long as they’re designed to address the right things: isolation, shame, prestige-chasing, and other social anxieties about how others perceive us.
Unfortunately, workplaces are natural breeding grounds for some of those issues. And an air-hockey table isn’t always the best remedy. It might sound less fun, but try starting a mentoring program between senior and junior staff to reduce the pressure associated with hierarchy and give newer employees a chance to learn from the veterans. A mentoring program in a Hillsborough County, Florida, school district that paired new and experienced teachers helped reduce attrition from 28% to 5%.
Finally, games can be helpful as long as they connect with the skills your team members need to be successful in the roles. Nothing forms strong bonds between employees like a game of Ultimate Frisbee–or any other team activity. As long as the activity in question gives employees a chance to work strategically towards a common goal, it can actually prove beneficial to the work they do together once they’re back at their desks. A game of volleyball might meet that criteria, but a foosball table parked in the corner of the office probably doesn’t.
Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi are co-authors of Primed to Perform(due out October 6 from HarperCollins), which explores the counterintuitive science behind high-performing cultures. They are also cofounders of Vega Factor, a company building technology to help organizations of all sizes and across sectors create high-performing cultures.