Workplace perks have come a long way since 1636 when the then township of Plymouth, Massachusetts created a pension plan for injured colonists. Now, Silicon Valley leads the way in offering the world’s most extravagant incentives – $500 weekly draws, ten tonnes of snow to play in, office slip ‘n’ slides, a custom painting of yourself as a dragon slayer, on-site massages, car washes, live concerts, and everything in-between. Even small upstarts are getting on-board with treats like ping-pong tables and pizza nights. But when start-ups rely too heavily on toys and home comforts, it could be a sign they’re missing the foundation of a solid company culture, begging the question: how did perks get so out of hand?
Is the Road to Hell Paved in Pizza?
Generally, start-ups are guided by a small team of directors or founders who create a work culture based on their personalities and professional values. In the same way a brand’s business strategy acts as a roadmap helping the company to reach its vision, work culture is a guide for team members, demonstrating both personal and professional practises that support the brand’s values and image. Unfortunately, executives often put the creation of a positive, and sustainable, culture on the backburner until problems or losses force them to make a shift. This is likely because of the time and effort involved in defining and creating a company-specific culture from the outset. But regardless, most founders know that workplace culture is important, and can impact their success. Even if a start-up attracts valuable talent, a toxic (or non-existent) workplace culture will likely increase the chance of high employee turnover, decreased motivation, and less than ideal financial results.
Certainly, shortcuts pay off, in the short term. $1000 incentives to use paid vacation and week-long benders in Italy keep employees happy in the moment – but once they come up for air (or water), the reality of the situation could hit hard. As Lean Orb Founder, Anastasia Mikhalochkina told Forbes, “Taking a shortcut for better returns is easy, sticking to a worthy long-term goal takes courage and a lot of discipline. But if you do both well, you'll get to build both excellent products and culture.” In the same article, written in 2020, Forbes goes as far as to suggest that the future of a brand’s success is perhaps less about the quality of its product and services, and more about achieving a lasting culture. They advise start-up founders to invest the necessary time, focus, and resources to retain better talent, achieve improved communication, and even improve customer loyalty.
So, What’s with All the Fluff?
Excessive perks aren’t always connected to procrastination. In fact, they’re more likely the result of an extreme drive to succeed – to be the best brand in an industry – which means hiring and retaining extremely talented employees who can withstand the ups and downs of start-up life. While established companies prosper by focusing on giving employees clear direction and ensuring as few as possible (costly) errors, start-ups rely on experimentation, and that means trial and error. For most people, the thought of making a big mistake at work can be scary – even anxiety-inducing. So, getting them to take risks and explore new ideas thoroughly often requires some next-level incentives (rooftop dog parks, free haircuts, or trampoline rooms for example).
Furthermore, founders offering group-based perks like basketball courts or surf lessons could be trying to encourage workplace collaboration. When effective, collaboration can offset unhealthy competition between departments and individuals and reduce the urge to knowledge-hoard. In addition to adding more “team spirit”, group activities can also help execs spot barriers linked to poor group dynamics. Understanding how a team interacts and what’s holding them back could very well come out during a frenzied game of ping-pong.
Keeping the Baby in the (Luxury) Bathwater
Perks are definitely out of hand. But let’s slow down and remember their original purpose. Carefully considered perks can help strengthen and communicate messages about a company’s values and identity, and in some cases help employees feel secure. In the beginning, perks were meant to show a connection between executives and employees, providing them with valuable resources to make their day-to-day easier and more satisfying – one of the benchmarks for hiring and retention. Rather than the focus, incentives are a part of a well-considered and successful start-up culture – a culture based on satisfaction, respect, and inclusivity.
– Jasmine Reimer is a Canadian writer, visual artist, and educator. Currently based in Berlin, she holds an MFA in Studio Art from The University of Guelph. Her research ranges from 18th century German and Italian grotesque to Neolithic goddess mythology to contemporary spirituality, religion, cosmology, and the occult. In general, she is interested in the construction of cultural myths, collective memory/consciousness, archetypes, and traditional and contemporary mysticism. Specifically, Jasmine focuses on the hybrid body as a powerful feminist symbol of transformation and fluidity – ecstatic, abundant, and transgressive. East Room is a shared workspace company providing design-forward office solutions, authentic programming and a diverse community to established companies and enterprising freelancers. We explore art, design, music, and entrepreneurship; visit our news & stories page to read more.