"Not another pinball machine" - It's time to rethink workplace benefits

Friday, March 11, 2016 - 15:13

"The cubicle farm is dead. Long live the office of the future."

That seems to be the call to arms for many firms that are starting to offer new office spaces that are more than just cubicle farms. After companies like Google set the bar with a wide range of employee benefits that place the focus on fun and well-being, many companies are now following suit.

Great workplaces grow considerably faster than their competitors while also seeing lower staff turnover.

However, there's a world of difference between those first trendsetters and the new range of copycats that are cropping up across traditional offices. The problem is one of culture. The perks of companies like Google are a direct outgrowth of the company culture - one that is sustained by every employee and manager. For many imitators, office perks are seen as a shortcut to building this culture where it doesn't exist, which simply isn't the case for companies that are doing this well.

In pursuit of a great workplace

Part of the reason for companies to invest in staff perks is the now well-recognised link between high performing companies and those that offer a strong range of benefits, grounded in a strong culture. In fact, research from the Great Place to Work Institute found that companies with great workplaces grow considerably faster than their competitors, while experiencing lower staff turnover.

The research also found industry-specific benefits, from better WHS practices through to improved patient outcomes in the health care sector.

What's important to note about that research is the companies that are building a great culture are doing so as a logical extension of their existing employee value proposition. It is a product of the office culture, rather than seen as a fix to a perceived lack of employee engagement.

Free fruit and coffee is no solution for a dysfunctional office environment.

Engaging workers beyond the pinball machine

When we locate office perks within the broader conversation about the factors that are attracting and retaining workers, the reality is that perks are pretty low on the agenda. In many cases, it is the relationship that a worker has with their manager and colleagues that matters more than fun office gadgets. 

For example, an article published in the Ivey Business Journal suggested there are 10 'C's that make a strong office culture. These 10 are:

  1. Connections between workers and managers
  2. Career advancement
  3. Clarity of purpose within the organisation
  4. Conveying expectations
  5. Congratulations for successful work
  6. Contribute to the company's performance
  7. Control over their workflow
  8. Collaboration
  9. Credible leadership
  10. Confident leadership

The 'C' that is missing from that list? Unlimited cupcake deliveries. In fact, not one of these ten features of an engaged workplace come from the office itself, they are all grounded in their relationships within the business.

In a similar vein, research from Bain & Company found the most successful engagement efforts are led by line managers rather than HR and require a candid conversation between manager and employees.

These are all factors that companies like Google will have already mastered - they wouldn't rank as one of the best places in the world to work if they hadn't. The additional workplace benefits they offer are complementary to this central commitment from management to keep workers happy and engaged.

Are your workers empowered, or are they just there for the freebies?

Drive engagement, don't outsource to the pinball machine

For managers, office perks can seem like an easy fix to the much more fundamental issue of employee engagement. However, the reality is that it isn't an easy fix at all. The only way to become a more engaging manager is to invest your own time and energy into improving your relationship with staff.

There are many ways for organisations to promote this behaviour among managers as well, from customised short courses through to shifting HR resources to support disengaged workers.

That's a topic for another post though. For now, let's agree that the pinball machine isn't the answer.