Company Perks Aren’t All Fun and Games

Gregory Ciotti | August 16, 2016

Company perks can form an important pillar of your culture. While they’re often viewed as superficial allowances, the right perks can have a substantial impact.

Worthwhile perks need to fit your company in a made-to-order manner, reflecting where you are, where you’re going, and what you care about. That’s why prescribed advice about “the best perks” only goes so far. Instead, let’s explore a few questions we can ask before putting a new perk into practice.

1. Start with a purpose when selecting your perks

For most companies, learning how unlimited vacation really works is almost a rite of passage — “take as much as you want” usually results in people taking less than they should. Therein lies an important lesson: perks influence our actions and not always in ways we expect. They need to be selected with care.

Ideally, a good perk has a positive result in mind from the outset. As a baseline, research from Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi uncovered common criteria that successful perks share:

In addition to having a goal, perks should be measured against it. What result did we hope to see? Did we achieve it, come close, or completely miss the mark? As many ‘no manager’ experiments have shown, you need to track the impact of new initiatives, because unchecked assumptions can be costly.

2. Company perks are values materialized

There’s nothing wrong with comparison as a source to learning. As with salary, perks and benefits are moving targets, and you can’t assume you’ll get it right on your first try or all by yourself. The fact that a list of benefits can draw tens of thousands of readers speaks to this shared struggle.

There comes a time, however, when the keynote you made tabulating your values needs to be more than just talk. Swapping lip service for dollars spent is how you put skin in the game.

You don’t get the behavior you value, you get the behavior you encourage and reward.

At Help Scout, we wholeheartedly believe in the importance of recovery time, but our remote culture can make things tricky when it comes to implementation. Fortunately, our people ops team found a solution in Free Fridays, a surprise Friday off where everyone is welcome to do something fun or adventurous on Help Scout’s dime. The one ask we make is that you share a photo of what you chose to do.

Finally, it has to be mentioned that misalignment with perks — when there's a difference between what’s projected publicly and what’s offered internally — creates a “not as advertised” feeling that’s irritating at best and disheartening at worst. Everyone misses the mark sometimes, but there’s no point in having values if you’re not actively striving to live up to them.

3. Remember that perks can quietly set the tone

Combine the above and it’s easy to see how perks can have a quiet but notable influence on your culture, and can even fashion a form of “culture fit” without you knowing. A free happy hour might leave out parents or non-drinkers, while in-office rewards might ostracize your far-flung remote colleagues. Certain groups can be favored, certain conduct can be favored, and before you realize it, you’ve accidentally promoted “fit” over “contribution.”

The point isn’t that a every perk should have a 100% use rate, or that you can’t offer something if everyone doesn’t have the opportunity to partake. The point is that you should be cautious and considerate about the impression a perk leaves on those who use it and those who don’t.

4. Beware of the creature comfort arms-race

The tough reality for smaller companies is they can’t offer everything the big ones can. It seems a clever alternative to provide something “fun” instead. But a reckless focus on frills can divert dollars needed for the benefits that enable long-term careers.

Even in mature companies, where fundamental benefits are in place, there’s a sincere risk of letting the occasional indulgence turn into opulence:

1. What happens when the tide goes out? “We’re a family here” is complete nonsense, but so is spending the best years of your career working with a fly-by-night team. If perks are the only thing that attracted them, perks are the only thing keeping them around. What will happen when the good times stop rolling? Shared luxury is the weakest bond known to humankind.

2. Excessive comfort can make you complacent. It’s a warning echoed by countless founders and VCs: celebrate too early or too often and you’ll trick yourself into believing the race is over. It’s hard to stay hungry when you’re convinced you’ve already made it.

3. Finally, the actual cost. You can only generate profit by making more or spending less. You’ll quickly find yourself eating into growth if the business equivalent of “lifestyle inflation” has you spending an ever growing sum on amenities you don’t need.

The greatest perk can’t be purchased

Anyone who’s worked construction on a cold morning has heard this saying: “The heat is in the tools.” Work can be its own reward; in this case, physical effort creates warmth that even a jacket can’t fully provide. Maybe I’m waxing poetic, but I think this idea crosses over to careers: there isn’t a vacation policy on this planet that can displace the need to do meaningful work with talented people. The work is what counts — the heat is in the tools.

When forming, evaluating, or pruning your company perks, remember the fundamental goal is to build a welcoming environment that’s conducive to doing great work. Everything else is ancillary.


About the author: Gregory Ciotti is on the Growth team at Help Scout, the invisible help desk that helps you build a company your customers love with more human, more helpful customer support tools.