Last year we were featured on Inc. Magazine’s first ever 50 Best Workplaces list (we recently found out that we made it onto this year's list too), and to celebrate the news, we put up a billboard near our office. Observe:
And while this is obviously a friendly jab at businesses that think a ping pong table equals an awesome work environment, it’s also become something of a mantra. The billboard was ultimately a statement that you can create an amazing culture and workplace without resorting to gimmicks.
Whenever the topic of workplace ping pong (and all it represents) comes up, I’m reminded of a personal experience. Prior to joining 97th Floor, I worked for a company that (you guessed it) had a ping pong table. You might be expecting me to say that the thing was little more than an expensive dust collector, but you’d be wrong — it was used constantly. My team had two set times each day during which we could use the ping pong table. As those times would approach, employees would stop what they were doing and rush over to play ping pong.
The Risk of “Rewards”
For me, the ping pong table came to represent flawed company culture. How so? Simple: Ping pong was the reward. It was the reason employees came in in the morning. It was what prevented them from sending out resumes to other employers. The drive for success and self improvement was replaced with ping pong tournaments and nerf wars, and an inspirational company purpose was as far from everyone’s mind as could be.
When I came to 97th Floor, I made a decision: I would never allow a ping pong table to find its way into our company workspace. Do I hate ping pong? Of course not; in my time with the aforementioned company, I was just as excited to play during work hours as anyone. But ping pong is not what 97th Floor culture is about.
Company perks are great. However, too often, they’re misused. Patty McCord, the former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix, suggests that perks should have a purpose. She says that many of the extravagant perks offered these days are a “race to the ridiculous.” Giving people more stuff won’t make them happier, but perks that support the company’s values, mission, and purpose will.
A 2014 survey by BlessingWhite demonstrated that engaged employees report that the top reason for staying at a job is that they like the work they do. The second most-reported reason for engaged employees to stay at a job is that they believe in the company’s mission and culture. You may notice that ping-pong (or whatever other fun attractions an employer might showcase) isn’t up there. So where is it? Quite a bit closer to the bottom, actually. Only 5% of engaged workers identified perks as a reason they stay at their job.
So few? What about the ping pong enthusiasts I mentioned from my own experience? Well, if you take a quick look at the wording of the survey, you’ll notice it’s talking about engaged employees. For disengaged employees, however, the numbers start to flip. Disengaged workers report perks as a much more important reason for staying at their job. The survey backs the saying that “the engaged stay for what they can give, the disengaged stay for what they can get."
Want to attract the wrong people? A ping pong table looks like the way to go. If, on the other hand, you want a workforce that can grow your business and make a positive impact on your industry and your community, then realign your focus to highlight your company values and mission. This is why at 97th Floor, we often shy away from discussing employee perks (of which we have many) with potential hires and interviewees — particularly when the purposes behind said perks aren’t obvious.
And what purpose should perks be filling? In my opinion, the best way to use perks is to reinforce the purpose, mission, and values of the company.
For example, we at 97th Floor value the thirst for knowledge. To promote that thirst, we instituted the 97th Floor Library program, in which the company will purchase any book an employee wants, with the caveat that the book ends up on the break-room bookshelf once they’re done with it. Books may not cost much, but they do cost something. We don’t want our employees hesitating when it comes to furthering their own knowledge, and with the book then available for any other employee to enjoy, we’re able to offer a fun perk that benefits everyone, while also reinforcing a key company value.
Now don’t get me wrong, not every perk we have at 97th Floor serves some higher purpose other than to provide a bit of entertainment. We have an Xbox One in the break room right next to the bookshelf, and when it’s time for company-wide rewards, we’ve been known to spring for the occasional massage or movie outing. I think this is perfectly fine, but I hesitate to call these examples ‘perks.’ These aren’t the things you should have on your job ads. These aren’t the things that everyone should talk about at the office. These aren’t the things that management should expect will retain the right employees. These are just diversions. The perks that promote your company’s mission and values are the ones that will have the greatest impact on employee success.
A Simple Test
Too often I see companies attempting to use perks to fill a void that only satisfying work, a worthwhile mission, and an inspirational vision can satisfy. Want to see whom among your acquaintances works for a business that understand this? Here’s a simple test you can perform:
The next time you’re catching up with friends, ask around to see how everyone feels about their jobs. Of those who say that they like their jobs, ask them what it is about their jobs that they like most. If they start talking about the nap room, the free donuts every morning, and even the (dreaded) daily ping pong tournaments, then take note. There’s a good chance that these are the ones who’ll have a new job the next time you see them. On the other hand, identify those that tell you about the awesome work they are doing, the challenges they are overcoming, how their contributions move the company forward overall, and how their company is impacting the world, and you’ll have found employees of businesses that really understand the value of perks.
Perks come and go. In fact, perks are usually first to go during recessions or hard times for the business. So ask yourself, if you took away all of the perks in your company, would the employees stay? If not, you may have a serious problem on your hands. When all is said and done, team members should be willing to stay for the right reasons.
At 97th Floor, you’ll never see employees jockeying for a place in a ping pong tournament. You will see people that are doing fun, exciting, challenging, and purposeful work. You’ll see that work contribute to a company that is growing our client companies and helping those companies fulfill their missions. You’ll see people making an impact in the world through charity. You’ll see people controlling their lives and their work. You’ll see people mastering their crafts. You’ll see people growing in their careers. You’ll see people putting a ton of effort into helping others grow. You’ll see perks that are meant to help people with everything listed above. And while you may also see a few perks that are just for fun, you’ll notice that they mean almost nothing to the people when it really comes down to what truly matters in the workplace.
Now, all things considered, doesn’t that sound better than a round of ping pong?