I remember reading many stories about a couple of Google employees who lived in RVs parked outside of the company’s global headquarters in Mountain View, California. Their rationale was simple: Why throw away my money when the company provides everything I need?
At the time, it was an amusing tale, one that could really only exist inside of the lavish, bizarre universe of tech. Today, there’s a more horrified emotion that characterizes my reaction to these stories. I’ve come to view many workplace perks not as a benefit to employees, but instead as a way to keep them in the office for longer, later hours, and to further infringe on an already-broken sense of work-life balance that has saturated employment in the 21st century.
Yes, there’s an element of companies providing lifestyle benefits to their employees that feels appealing. It signifies a kind of luxury or comfort for workers, as if to say, “You can go home any time you want, but you won’t want to when you see the snack bar!” But there’s also something deeply sickening about it, because it implies a belief that is now all too common across many companies, but within the tech industry in particular, which is a workplace should be nearly indistinguishable from home.
I once worked with a head of engineering who put it quite well. During an all-hands, he was asked why the company didn’t have (despite having a number of lovely amenities in the office) “nap rooms,” or areas where people could take a rest before returning to work? With a bit of a wry smile, he said, “This isn’t your house. It’s work. We don’t want you to spend 12 hours a day here. We want you to come in, do your job well, and go home to your family and friends.”
We’re already seeing a lot of variance in how companies have reacted to the work-from-home transition. Many have embraced it. Others have allowed it, but are desperate to get employees back into the office, fearing that productivity is secretly waning (despite heaps of evidence to the contrary).
In most cases, it appears that employers are looking for a way to “re-create the office”—and try to occupy just a bit more space in their employees’ lives. And they’re doing it by offering perks that closely mimic the ones they leveraged in offices previously.
Ironically, employees are closer to the office than they’ve ever been before: It’s no longer an engineer or two deciding to live in the parking lot, but the global majority of knowledge workers sleeping next to the office. Workdays have also gotten longer.
So in the era of remote work, what kinds of perks should employers be offering to their employees? The answer is simple: Let them do their jobs well, go home, and give them the space they need to build their own lives outside of work.
Disconnect between employee and company perks
There are many tech companies that are now sending their employees snack boxes. The employer believes that it shows they care about their employees’ health. And for many employees, it might feel that way too. But I see something more selfish at play. It implies that people are going to be sitting at their desk, working while they eat. It also suggests that your employees need to acknowledge that they’re being treated well enough that they should forgive some long nights and early mornings in service to the company.
“Company perks” aren’t inherently bad, but they shouldn’t be confused with real ways that companies can actually help their employees. No amount of free snacks will make up for an employee losing time with their families and friends that they won’t get back.
So what are some examples of true employee perks? Here are a few examples:
- Paying your employees well
- Covering 75% or more of their healthcare premium costs
- Encouraging time off—not as a matter of policy, but as a matter of need
- Not messaging or emailing your employees after 6 p.m.
- Offering flexible, nonlinear workdays that enable employees to keep fluid hours
This isn’t just about protecting employees; it’s also about preventing attrition. The Great Resignation is a result of millions of people living in a chaotic time and asking themselves whether it’s worth the stress to keep working at their job. It’s on the employer to prove that it is worth it, and that it needn’t come at the expense of their well-being.
Flexible workdays is the future
There is now a glimmer of hope for all of us to spend more time with the ones we love, and employers have a massive opportunity to aggressively advocate for that very concept through changes to company policy.
Companies like Dropbox are doing away with the traditional workweek, implementing nonlinear workdays that allow employees to work around a three- to four-hour period where everyone is expected to be online and available for meetings—and then flex their days as they see fit.
There are powerful changes that emerge as a result of nonlinear workdays. They limit the number of meetings within an organization by compressing collaboration time into fewer hours: a welcome change given that, according to a report generated by my firm, meetings have increased 69.7% since the start of the pandemic.
It also enables employees to have more fluid lives, which better reflects the state of childcare and schooling. People need to be able to take time to attend to their families and take care of themselves without fear of reprisal from their employer.
Lastly, it acknowledges something we’ve known for many years: There aren’t that many productive hours in the day. Employers tend to view hours worked in a week as commensurate with overall productivity, and the reality is that many of those hours don’t lead to better results.
If you choose to adopt nonlinear workdays, don’t fall into the trap of using it to create an “always on” culture. After-hours is still after-hours, and time off is still time off.
The mission is what matters
What happens at work also matters to employee happiness and fulfillment—but that doesn’t come from creating a workplace that people never want to leave. It comes from people feeling a healthy sense of attachment to their work, caring about the mission they’re on, with the full and confident knowledge that it can always take a back seat to their personal needs.
Give them this sense of purpose, and your workers won’t be looking elsewhere for free snacks.
Henry Shapiro is a cofounder of Reclaim.ai, a smart friend for your calendar based in Portland, Oregon. Prior to Reclaim, Shapiro was the VP of product at New Relic, where he worked on acquiring new customers and developing new products.