Forget Free Beer + Unlimited Vacation: Defining the Employee Experience in the Age of the ‘Perk War’

Employee perks have never been more at the center of workplace conversation. Ever since the rise of trendy tech companies in the 2000s and the famous reveal of the Googleplex in 2012—equipped with slides, basketball courts, putting greens, and a replica tram—the perk war has gone full steam ahead.experience

Today, we’re seeing perks like beer on tap, dog-friendly offices, and catered meals become a standard across the American workforce, with some companies taking this a step further by offering ax-throwing workshops, an in-house barbershop, and free pilot lessons.

Perks aren’t an issue on their own—it’s great that companies are providing innovative offerings to their employees. But an issue arises when organizations mistake perks for culture. Perks have their place, but when they’re not in alignment with employee engagement, productivity, and business success, they ultimately don’t positively impact the employee experience or help retain talent.

To effectively create a positive culture and retain top talent, organizations must think beyond shiny benefits and create a strong foundation of values to build an authentic employee experience.

Listen to Your Employees

The most important tool an organization has when it comes to culture is employee feedback. There is power in listening to your employees and knowing what experiences and opportunities actually matter to them, and for the majority of the American workforce, perks are low on the list.

Research has shown time and again that employees regularly value opportunities like career growth, training, and the overall workplace culture more than perks. A study from Deloitte found that employees view career growth and overall company culture as almost twice as important as benefits. Another survey from market research firm Clutch found that employees value equal compensation and fair treatment more than benefits.

A study by Culture Amp looked at the top drivers that impact whether employees are engaged at work. Employees who feel they have personal growth, feel confident in the leadership, work in a culture that values people, and feel there is sound decision-making translate to a more engaged workforce.

Although this can be unique to each company, below is a list of foundational pillars across some of the best organizations in the world:

  • Strong leadership: The second-highest driver of an engaged workforce, according to Culture Amp benchmark data, is strong leadership. Companies with strong leadership have an 80% engaged workforce, as opposed to weak leadership with 60% engagement.
  • Career growth: Long gone are the days of “lifers”; Millennials and younger people in the workforce are far more likely to switch jobs. But which age group is most likely to leave? According to Culture Amp research, 18- to 34-year-olds are still the most likely to switch jobs.

In order to understand why they are more likely, I was able to analyze hundreds of thousands of employee comments regarding their experience at work. Comments about career development tend to be negative, highlighting a disconnect between personal and professional growth. Interestingly, perceptions of career opportunities decrease with age (Generation X and Baby Boomers), indicating that employees hit ceilings in their careers well before retirement.

Build from the Ground Up

Too often, organizations offer a massive benefits package with loads of engaging perks, but what they offer is not tied to anything that’s culturally relevant within the organization. Ultimately, that results in a net negative for the overall employee experience and talent retention.

A critical first step is to develop a clear mission that drives every decision the company makes.

Values underline meaning to the everyday grind. In fact, Culture Amp benchmark data found that 80% of employees feel more engaged when they know how their work contributes to the company’s goals. These engaged employees then pay it forward: 84% of employees in highly engaged companies feel they make a positive difference compared with 57% in disengaged companies.

It’s proven that values are critical to employee engagement and retention, and when an organization builds its benefits or perks package based on what it values most, it can have a lasting impact. Giving away free snacks and happy hours doesn’t necessarily stand out, but changing the sick leave policy to include looking after elderly parents sends a very direct and powerful message to employees about what the organization stands for.

Shaping the Future of Work

Although perks will always have their place and have become a mainstay in the American workforce, perks without considering employee feedback or company values are meaningless. They may help get new talent in the door, but they won’t benefit the company culture or retain the best talent.

Look Beyond the Perks

As we head into 2020, it’s a good time to think about what’s important to your organization and the intentional and subliminal messages you might be sending to your employees via your programs and perks.

If you’re heavily investing in your recruiting and onboarding process so that new employees are showered with benefits and perks but all of that dries up after the 3-month mark, you’re sending a signal that you value new employees more than tenured employees and that opportunities to grow and develop inside the organization aren’t as highly valued.

The same can be said of organizations that offer free meals to employees but don’t offer anything above the mandatory parental leave offerings. This sends a message to current and potential employees that this organization doesn’t have parent-friendly policies and is optimizing its benefits and perks for employees who are willing and able to stay at work for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Ultimately, a company’s culture is the cumulation of its values, behaviors, systems, and processes. All of this can be measured and optimized. What you place value on sends a message to your employee base; is this the message that you want to be sending?

Damon KlotzDamon Klotz has spent his career working at the intersection of people & technology. He’s spent time as an HR consultant, digital strategist, and cofounder. He joined Culture Amp as an early employee where he scaled their community to one of the largest in the world.As Culture Amp’s first Work Culture Evangelist he represents what’s possible within People & Culture through storytelling, consulting, coaching strategy execution, and thought leadership. He has spoken at events in four continents, with the aim to speak on every continent, and is the host of The Culture First Podcast.

He’s also the winner of a Deloitte Social Innovation Pitch and multiple social entrepreneurship awards for his work as a cofounder of the Men’s Mental Health Charity Spur Projects, an organization that uses technology and marketing to reduce the suicide rate of men in Australia.

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