Perks build culture like lust builds a relationship

Perks and Culture

You’re in a nightclub (they still have those, right?). She’s got a figure to die for / he moves like a demi-god. You make a move. But you know where it will end up. And how long it will last…

You’re in tech consulting. Or you run a digital agency. Everyone else in Shoreditch has a foosball table. So you buy a foosball table. Or you offer a breakfast bar with croissants and muesli.

You’ve now got “a culture” which will attract and retain great staff, right?

I’m fed up of seeing the posts on LinkedIn. “I’m COO of Scooby technologies. We give all our staff breakfast. There’s organic soya low-glycemic high-fibre stevia-based muesli. And cookies. I love our culture.”

In the Silicon-valley copycat rush, every “startup”, as well as a few who’ve been round the block a few times, are trying to out-perk the Joneses. But the direction of causality is important. If the reason you get the foosball table is because everyone else has one, but your values include that “work time is work time”, then you’re only sending a message out that you’re an unimaginative wannabe. Don’t do it.

Your perks don’t define your culture – rather, they should be defined by them and by your values.

Align perks to values and culture

Perks and benefits are important. But they need to be consistent. Choose your perks to reflect and reinforce your values, or to reflect elements of your culture that you want to maintain. Because if they don’t, then at best they’re a waste of money, and at worst they’ll undermine what you are really about.

I’ll fess up. We bought a foosball table, probably back in 2004. BUT it grew organically out of our culture. We were employing younger people who suggested it. It reinforced an office culture where people laughed loudly and often. BUT, we were also able to put it in a cafe area so that it didn’t distract from work.

After we were acquired, it was taken off to the local head office, presumably to make it more attractive for us to go to. But it felt as if it were in a library. There was no noise and joy around it. So it became an indictment of culture, rather than a reinforcement of it. And gathered dust.

Key Lessons

  1. There’s nothing wrong with perks. But perks aren’t the most important thing. If you micro-manage your team like children and don’t demonstrate trust, an acre of table-tennis tables won’t make your culture less toxic. Make sure you’re nurturing what’s important rather than playing perk-catchup.
  2. If you’re early on, be clear about your values, and let the perks reflect those. Unless your values suck, in which case see the previous point.
  3. If you’ve been around a while, then have any perks reflect and reinforce the culture that you have (if you’re proud of it!).
  4. Make sure you’re not undermining the perks by having office norms and processes that blatantly conflict with them. Otherwise you’ll be rubbing your team’s faces in things they’ll be afraid to use.
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