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Does office Tai Chi or a fridge of free beer actually benefit employees?

Papering over huge gaps in employee rights with “perks” doesn’t feel particularly smart, says Caroline O'Donoghue

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

Recently, a friend of mine was offered two jobs by two incredibly respectable companies. It’s a dilemma that is commonly known as “a very nice problem to have”, but it doesn’t feel very nice when you’re in the midst of it, because the choice you’re about to make is about to affect the next few years of your life, and that’s a lot of pressure to put on a single decision. She called me to talk the whole thing over.

“Everyone’s super cool at the first company,” she said. “There’s free food, gym membership, a chance to travel to the US a couple of times a year.”

“They sound great,” I say soothingly.

“The only problem,” she responds, “is they only have one month paid maternity leave.”

This is a conversation I’m having a lot lately. People are moving on from jobs more than ever, with the average UK job stint lasting about five years. The days of working in one company for 50 years and getting a crystal fruit bowl at the end of it are long gone, so employers have to work harder than ever to get – and retain – talented, skilled staff. And, believe me – they’re trying. Every year, the “perks” section on any online job description gets longer and longer, with promises of a snack cupboard, a free gym membership, lunchtime yoga classes, subsidised lunches, air miles, cinema tickets. It’s hard not to be seduced by it, especially by the numerous promises that the company takes their “company culture very seriously” and has a monkish dedication to the phrase “work hard, play hard”.

As a millennial who has had more jobs than hot lunches (paid for, sometimes, by my employee lunch pass), I’m very familiar with the semi-formal workplace tour that you’re given on your first day. “This is our beer fridge,” they say, beaming like a child who has just unwrapped their Mr Slush and desperately wants you to try some blue ice. “And this is our sales gong!”

And it’s nice! Of course it’s nice. It’s lovely when, at 4.45pm on a Friday, someone drops off a beer at your desk and you both sit there for a bit like cowboys in the old West, inexplicably on swivel chairs. It makes you feel like you’re part of something important and it makes you feel closer to your colleagues, making it way more likely that you’ll do a good job for them. What’s less nice, however, is staying at your desk until 8pm, your beer now piss-warm, because the work hard/play hard atmosphere has unexpectedly shifted to an 80/20 ratio of “work” to “play”. Or watching someone leave after being served the bare legal minimum of a severance package, while the rest of you enjoy a subsidised crazy-golf tournament on the roof. Or saying goodbye to your pregnant work colleague the day before she’s scheduled to give birth, knowing you’ll see her in six weeks' time. I asked a friend, Laurier Nicas Alder, who has been a hiring manager in the advertising sector during the perk-splosion of the last few years.

“Soft benefits matter – they show the type of environment that you'll be working in and demonstrate how the employers think about their staff. But ACTUAL benefits matter more. Fundamentally,” she says, “they're both necessary. But proper benefits should come first. That says we care about you. Then the soft stuff to show what the office culture will be like and that they want to keep you.”

And it’s nice! Of course it’s nice. It’s lovely when, at 4.45pm on a Friday, someone drops off a beer at your desk and you both sit there for a bit like cowboys in the old West, inexplicably on swivel chairs

While the most popular perks have been “wellness” related – health screenings, yoga classes, Tai Chi, that kind of thing – new evidence suggests that it doesn’t particularly increase morale or benefit employee health. What’s more, the people who used these programmes were just as likely to leave their jobs as the people who didn’t.

Having said all this, I still have sympathy for the struggling start-ups that are desperately trying to recruit small, reliable teams of dependable talent but can’t afford much more than a few beers and free bagels on a Friday. The sad fact is that a lot of small, new companies can’t afford longer parental leaves, better redundancy packages and robust HR departments, but that doesn’t change the fact that these are all things employees have a right to. Papering over huge gaps in employee rights with “perks” doesn’t feel like a particularly smart way to deal with the problem, but, for many, they see “perk culture” as a necessity if you want anyone decent to work for you. Ultimately, the work culture everyone is trying to ape is a trickle-down effect of the huge Silicon Valley companies, like Google, Apple and Facebook, where egg-freezing, death benefits for your spouse and free intern housing sit alongside free breakfasts and lunchtime lectures with Salman Rushdie. New companies are constantly looking over their shoulder to see what bigger, richer behemoths are doing, and then inventing their own versions of what that looks like. “We can’t afford compassionate leave and free bicycles, so here, have a beanbag, a £10 Deliveroo voucher and the unspoken expectation that you will work this weekend.”

Ultimately, it results in a situation where employees feel screwed and overworked, and employers feel confused and resentful. Has the solution – for everyone to leave their desk at 5pm, feeling neither guilty nor fearful that they’re underperforming or about to be fired – become too antiquated for a world where you’re expected to answer work emails on a Sunday? Is perk culture relative to how much we are forcing each other to work – and do we need to fix that problem, first?


Photo: Getty Images
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