For years, companies have spent money on fun workplace perks in order to attract young talent. Google offers free gourmet meals and massages. Nike employees have access to gyms, yoga studios, and lunchtime sports leagues. Facebook has a video game arcade, barber, and dry cleaning on its campus.
But a new study finds that these snazzy office benefits aren’t what young workers really want. Instead, workers younger than 35 place more value on respect. The research suggests that companies should invest more in training managers to communicate respectfully and nurture employee well-being, rather than kitting out offices with trendy new accessories. And in the post-COVID-19 era, when many employers are offering the flexibility to work from home, solid communication from superiors will be even more important than having a cool office.
To arrive at these findings, researchers at Kansas State University and the University of Missouri’s Novak Leadership Institute surveyed more than 1,000 full-time employees between the ages of 21 and 34 who came from a wide swath of industries. They were asked to rank their current workplace for things like how much respect they experienced, how well they were able to bounce back from setbacks, how engaged they were, and the perks employers used to retain workers.
It’s unclear whether office perks were ever important to retaining employees, since there’s very little data about that. But what is clear is that today’s young workers care primarily about how they are treated by their managers. Danielle LaGree, an assistant professor of strategic communication at Kansas State University who led the study, says past research has found that there are two types of respect that employees experience. There’s “respectful engagement,” which refers to being a good member of the team and doing a good job; and “autonomous respect,” which has to do with feeling respected for who you are beyond your position. In the survey, the researchers found that both kinds of respect matter to employees, but the latter matters more. And interestingly, this was true across all industries surveyed. “Autonomous respect is a lot more meaningful to employees, and they want to earn that respect through the interpersonal communication with those that manage them,” LaGree says.
Previous studies have found that most managers aren’t properly trained to be leaders, says LaGree, whose recent study suggests that there should be more focus on developing communication skills among managers. She says that leaders need to take the time to get to know their team members—and not just in the context of how they perform their jobs—which means learning more about their interests and passions outside of work. Leaders can then help nurture these workers across many dimensions. If an employee is passionate about writing but doesn’t get to do much of it in their current position, a manager might offer to send that person to a writing class instead of a traditional conference. “They can invest in employees’ personal development, in addition to professional development, to help them become better citizens of society,” she says.
LaGree says this kind of respectful communication is crucial to establishing a positive workplace culture that cultivates employee loyalty. “It might be that fun work perks like ping-pong tables and beer on tap are effective at attracting new talent when you walk them through the office,” she says. “But over time, they see through all of that. In terms of engaging these employees and retaining them over time, they want their leaders to advocate for them. Part of doing that is showing them respect.”
For a few years, companies seemed like they were trying to outdo one another with a slew of over-the-top perks. But there’s little data to suggest things like on-site dry cleaning and barber shops promote long-term worker happiness. Indeed, some have argued that these benefits actually have a darker side, since they’re designed to keep employees at the office, at the expense of any work-life balance. But the pandemic has forced some companies and employees to rethink workplace perks altogether. After a year of being remote, some workers now say they value flexibility and autonomy more than gorgeous office decor and free food.
Regardless of how work evolves in the future, LaGree believes that workers will continue to prize respect, and suggests that companies make workers feel like valued members of the organization, which in turn helps give their work meaning. “We need to respond to these young workers’ need for meaningful work,” she says, “contributing not just to the bottom line of the organization, but also its purpose.”