Stop the Madness: Providing Perks Without Results

As we have all heard before, the definition of insanity has been described as “doing the same thing, over and over, and expecting a different result.”

Organizations can have a tendency to rely upon less-than-optimal and archaic approaches to managing today’s workforce. Leveraging perks and benefit approaches from the 20th century leads to 20th century perspectives (ping pong tables and free snacks) and 20th century results (Dot-com busts and lots of unused vacation time), neither of which effectively aligns with 21st century employee needs and expectations.

Many of the ways in which employers are approaching the employee experience are based upon what everyone else is doing. This strategy simply puts everyone back in the same field position. Some of these choices certainly have good optics, in that they look and sound good both internally and externally. The recent article in the Wall Street Journey from May 4th, 2016 entitled ”Offices Give Workers Some ‘Me Time’ ” is an excellent example of employers providing time off perks with catchy phrases, all of which are designed to allow employees to take time off to do something they really want to do that may have little relation to their work or the company.

Don’t get me wrong – It’s critically important for employees to have time off for ventures and activities they are passionate about, especially outside of work. Employees come to work as a “whole” person which demands for employers to develop ways in which employees are able fulfill goals and be happy across their work and personal lives. For employers with especially strong social values integrated into their business models, being able to provide quality and quantity off work time shows that such companies truly live by what they sell. One of the best examples is Patagonia where employees are supported to try new sports and work locations are purposefully closed at reasonable hours to ensure employees have a meaningful life outside of the office.

However, many employers who are jumping on the time-off and free snacks bandwagon don’t necessarily benefit in the same way. While well intentioned, there are several questions employers should consider before adding yet another perk that won’t be valued beyond the short term and will then be seen as a give back if it’s eliminated in the future:

  • First, do employers truly know what their employees value in terms of perks, policies and benefits? 
  • Second, are there differences across generations? Across family situations? Across cultures?
  • Finally, are all perks, polices and benefits valued equally?

Let’s look at each question separately.
First, do employers truly know what their employees value in terms of perks, policies and benefits?

If the answer is “no,” employers simply need to ask. There are a number of ways for employers to obtain this information (roundtables and surveys being the most commonly used) to ensure they are making the most informed choices as possible and not simply following trends in other companies.

Second, are there differences across generations? Across family situations? Across cultures?

The answer to this question is both “yes” and “no.” While there are often common themes within a specific employee grouping, there are certainly differences within these broad categories. While it’s convenient to put everyone in the same box, it can be too simplistic and an ineffective means of connecting in a substantial way with employees who are outliers on the normal distribution curve.

Finally, are all perks, polices and benefits valued equally?

The answer to the last question is unequivocally “no.” Employees are unique individuals, which means they will value different aspects of the employment experience differently from one another.

What implication should these notions have on how employers approach perks, benefits and other aspects of their total life-work offering?

Let’s look at the difference between a blanket approach to extra paid time off which covers the entire workforce versus enabling employees to customize this aspect of their benefits. On one hand, an employer may decide to grant 2 days off for personal pursuits. However, as the U.S Travel Associated noted in the WSJ article, Americans get on average 21 paid vacation days annually but forfeit almost 5 of them. So, in a company where many employees don’t take their full vacation time nor are they permitted to roll over unused days (a concerning topic for another article), how would adding 2 more paid days off impact the value proposition from the employee perspective? The answer: not so much.

However, what if employees instead had the option to channel up to 25% of the dollar equivalent of these 2 vacation days into something that mattered more to them? Perhaps towards advanced education or learning a new language. Or, perhaps employees could be given the option of re-allocating the dollar equivalent from the company-provided cost of medical benefits into an educational benefit that is valued more highly to ensure a cost-neutral outcome.

Could this type of approach work? Yes, I firmly believe that it can. Will it require new ways of thinking and establishing new assumptions? Absolutely. This is a concept that can and should go beyond benefits and perks, however these are likely easier places to begin the conversation. This concept of employees prioritizing the most important aspects of their worklife can include many different components of the employee experience. There would need to be clear guidelines and ways in which employees can make individual trade-offs while not compromising a base level of offering that covers everyone.

Companies should be challenging themselves with these type of difficult questions, thinking differently about how to better meet the needs of today’s workforce and not get stuck in antiquated approaches. Sometimes it’s simply easier to do what Google is doing vs. digging deep, mining for data to truly understand employee preferences, and making different choices than the competition.

Unfortunately, many of today’s approaches to managing the workforce come in sandwich packaging– the peanut butter gets spread across the entire piece of bread evenly distributed. Everyone gets the same and the overwhelming desire to treat everyone consistently has resulted in a significant number of workforce practices that are no longer as relevant to all employees. While consistency and treating everyone the same has important merits (from a legal and moral perspective especially), it isn't always the most effective means of meeting the needs of today’s workforce – a workforce characterized more by its differences than its similarities.

Karyn Detje