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Office Perks: Appreciated, Silly, or Insulting?

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Does your office have that cool factor? Casual Friday? Fridge full of beers? A baskeball hoop? Some people might like these perks. But often, they have the opposite effect of what’s intended.

A piece from Bloomberg titled Office Perks Are Dumb argues exactly what’s implied by that headline:

The office ping-pong table is insulting to the intelligence of employees. We all want to be happy at work, where Americans spend a large chunk of their lives, but employees aren’t dumb. We know ping-pong tables and kegarators don’t make work fun or fulfilling. It’s certainly not a replacement for a decent paycheck.

Ping Pong

© Flickr user Sport Nottinghamshire

Before we get into this, a quick review on the nature of compensation. If you do some work, there’s an implicit agreement that you’ll be paid for that work. Maybe it’s a crumpled $20 bill from the old man down the street in exchange for mowing his lawn. Maybe it’s all the pizza you can eat from your brother’s new roommate who needs help moving in. Or maybe it’s, you know, a biweekly paycheck. We expect to be compensated when we work.

Sometimes it makes more sense for the company to spend some of that money on your behalf—because it’s a lot more sensible and efficient to do so as an organization for your employer may divert some of your paycheck to cover your health insurance. Perhaps instead of being paid your full rate for 52 weeks out of the year, you agree to slightly less with the understanding that you won’t work for two weeks of vacation. The same might be the case for any other benefit, ranging from short term disability to dental coverage.

So when does something go from being a valuable benefit to an insult? Often, it’s because we’re missing something more fundamental. Writing for US News and World Report, Alison Green advises employers:

Forget the foosball table in the break room and the gourmet snacks in the kitchen. The benefits employees really want from their employers are much more basic – and in many cases they center around being treated like trustworthy adults capable of getting work done without so much oversight.

And it’s not as if many of these unusual perks actually have the effect we want. Take for example a casual dress code. A piece from The New Yorker explains:

Modern research has borne this idea out, suggesting that clothes indeed influence self-perception. People who feel dressed-up are more likely to think of themselves as competent and rational; in contrast, those who are dressed casually tend to describe their personality accordingly, as friendly and laid-back. Recently, a team of researchers from Columbia University and California State University, Northridge, took this idea a step further and conducted a series of five experiments that suggest the clothes we wear don’t just influence the way we think about ourselves; they also seem to influence the way we think, period.

Specifically, they found that people who felt more formally dressed than the people around them were more likely to think abstractly. “And by that we mean, basically, holistic or big-picture thinking — so not focusing on the details but seeing bigger ideas, seeing how things connect from a more high-level perspective,” said Michael Slepian, first author on the new paper, which was recently published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

What do employees really want at work? The answer is simple: respect and dignity. And as we’ve said before, you should stop working so hard on your company culture.

The best benefit you can offer is a fair wage for fair work. Don’t worry about controlling when, where, or how people get their job done. Focus on freedom and respect. That’s what employees need, because employees are people.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
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