I work at one of those companies that has an environment similar to those made famous by the west coast tech firms, with subsidized food at on-site bistros, beer taps, a bowling alley, a full-sized basketball court, yoga classes – the list goes on.
It sounds great, and it is. But as an HR leader, I worry.
The best way to explain why I worry is to show you, so for the next several minutes let’s pretend this is “Take An Anonymous Stranger From The Internet to Work Day.”
We’ll arrive to Red Ventures headquarters around 8:15 and go get breakfast. I’ll order a large latte with almond milk and a cup of oatmeal – and I’ll buy whatever you’re having too. (Don’t think too much of it – the food is subsidized). Assuming you order something similar, this will cost us $6 bucks.
We stand in line and see Diana, who greets me every morning with a great big smile. As soon as she sees me, she starts ladling oatmeal into a bowl and then tops it off with fresh blueberries, granola and almonds.
You head over to the grill station and order a double side of home fries, because, well, homefries. We pick up our coffees, pay, and thank the baristas for giving a great start to our day.
I don’t work at an office – I work on a campus.
During the day I can work out at the on-site gym, shoot hoops with teammates on our basketball court, or take a break in our bowling alley. At least once a month, I can attend an event where we’ll turn on the beer taps.
With all of that provided for employees, what could possibly go wrong?
Come get lunch with me, and I’ll show you.
We waited in the salad line for 15 minutes. When we finally get up to the front, I realize they don’t even have spinach, so I have to pick between arugula and mixed greens. The salmon that I added to my salad looks completely over-cooked. And as they douse my greens in champagne vinaigrette – one of 10 house-made dressing options – I roll my eyes, turn to you and say, “Ugh, they always over-do it with the dressing. They can’t ever get this salad station right.”
So, what‘s the difference between our breakfast and our lunch? (Hint: It’s not the amount of fish in our food.) It comes down to humility versus entitlement. Much like our experience at the bistro, culture can be enriched or destroyed by the work environment you build.
More and more, companies are building their cultures on a foundation of perks. Sure, it makes for an easier recruiting pitch. But just as gluttony is a deadly sin, indulgence kills culture.
Indulgence breeds an entitlement that can turn benefits that once seemed special into expectations. Then, somehow the schedule I have, or the promotion I want feels like it’s a given. And should my Mocha Java Chip Latte (yep, that’s a real thing) ever go away, it would be a personal travesty.
The alternative is to build a culture on a foundation of beliefs. Beliefs are convictions that individuals or groups have for ways of being and doing. They can be ingrained in a company and passed down from one employee to another. And when there is misalignment between those beliefs and one’s behavior, it is painfully apparent.
When beliefs are present in a culture, the perks don’t just become part of the background – you can see them for what they really are. The glass meeting rooms are signals of transparency.
Teammates playing a pick-up game of basketball reflect the autonomy and trust they’re given to get work done. The comfortable seating in common spaces are invitations for employees to come together as a community.
The indulgence of perks can quickly make us forget the grit that got us here.
However, cultural beliefs remind us that nothing is guaranteed. That each day, I earn my spot to come to work the following day.
Now you may be sitting there thinking, “Wow Josh, I feel so bad for you. Life sounds so hard as a HR leader if the toughest challenge that you have to deal with is the battle against office perks.”
To that, I say: “I know, right? Sometimes I’m so stressed out I have to add an extra 15 minutes to my afternoon massage.” Just kidding, we don’t have masseuses on staff. Usually.
But my point is this: as creative office layouts and nap pods have become the norm, they won’t attract and certainly won’t retain the best talent.
Top employees still crave managers who support them, work that challenges them, and to be compensated for their results at market value.
Great companies still succeed by innovating faster than others, out-hustling the competition, and creating cultures that sustain.
So whether you’re Google or Gary’s Bar and Grill, focus on what matters. Make sure that the perks you provide represent more than the latest trends or a carbon copy of another company. They should be visible and experiential representations of the beliefs that you want your employees to embody. If not, you’ll be left with employees who are more committed to your beer kegs than to your company.