Company Culture

The perk paradox: When office freebies become golden handcuffs

4 mins  |  15.02.2024

We all love a perk. Don’t lie. Lacing up those discounted trainers and setting your subsidised smartwatch to a 5km target feels better than any endorphin rush. It’s only human to want a little booster; a cheeky cherry on top. Especially if you work hard at what you do. Sometimes, the salary doesn’t seem incentive enough. It’s the perks that you get which go a long way.

They don’t have to be grandiose. In fact, it’s often quite the opposite. You should have seen the look on my accountant flatmate’s face when I told him that we have eggs in our office kitchen.

“Eggs? For what?”

“To eat.”

“Yeah, but when?”’

“Whenever you fancy one.”

( 👁️👄👁️)... “Free-use eggs?? That’s… so amazing.”

What seemed so natural to me was totally alien to this friend of mine. Now, you could probably see a ‘count your blessings’ type of lesson here somewhere. But no. Not today. Instead, I suggest we take a leaf out of my flatmate’s book and audit our work perks. Let’s check our box of eggs before buying – we’ll see if some of them are cracked, or even rotten.

Getting Radical, man 🏄🤔

I usually dislike pint-sized Philosophy lessons but I need to talk to you about Renée Descartes for a moment. More specifically, his method of “Radical Doubt.” 

Now, our friend Renée was a bit of an ‘overthinker’ some might say. He decided that he couldn’t be sure of anything in this world. He couldn’t even be sure that he existed – been there, pal. Descartes proposed that one cannot rely on what we think we already know. He likened one’s knowledge of all things to a basket of apples. If we want to survey our knowledge, separating truth from fiction, we must empty out the entire basket. Then, we must carefully assess each apple before choosing to believe or disregard them.

It’s my contention that this is the same approach we must take with work perks. Let’s have a look at a couple common ones:

Free tea and coffee

This is a good egg. People like hot drinks. People love that first tangy sip of an Americano. The satisfying squelch of a dunked Ginger Nut being crushed between your tongue and palette. Some people will tell you that an abundance of free caffeine is designed to keep you “up” when you want to be “down”; like a drugged-up racehorse running through its arthritis. I disagree. These moments of respite matter to people. They’re going to do it everyday so why make them pay? It’s a small thing that goes a long way. 

Free healthcare

Very good egg. A policy like this can be life-saving to some people and simply helpful for others.

Expensed Deliveroo after 8pm

Now this egg is slightly cracked. Picture this: Something huge has come across your desk out of nowhere and now you’re burning the late-night oil to get it done. The next day your manager says ‘I heard you ended up having to stay late because of the BusinessCorp amendments. I’m sorry that happened but well done for getting it over the line. Send me the bill for your Deliveroo and we’ll expense it.’

Sounds fair enough, right? How about this: ‘Good news, guys! This one goes out to our night owls. If you stay in the office working past 8pm, we’ll pay for your Nando’s! Not too shabby, eh?’

Whilst the latter is obviously hyperbolised for comedic effect (hope you laughed), it sends off a wildly different message to the first. It is incentivising people to spend those late nights in the office. You’re suggesting that people exchange their time for food.

Whilst it may seem like a nice work perk, you need to think about what you’re instilling in your workforce. Something like this should really be an egg-ception and not a norm.

Gym in the office

This is cracked.I think this is once again a wolf in sheep’s clothing. What first appears to be a fantastic streamlining of one’s efficiency can quickly become a trap. 

Goodbye early mornings! You’ll just gym at work. Nail some legs in the morning, hit the spreadsheets and shake some hands. Make some £££. Then it gets to 6pm and you’ll head downstairs to smash out 45 mins of charms (that’s chest and arms, bro) before hometime. 

Suddenly, that email you were expecting tomorrow morning has pinged on your work phone. Some actionable tasks in there. Well, seeing as you’re already at the office you may as well towel off and get that done.

Suddenly it’s 9pm and you’re heading home. Damn, that means no time for an episode of Succession. At least you won’t have to get up early to workout! You can just go to the office to nail some legs…

The cycle continues.

A nice idea with a potentially worrisome outcome. Is this helping you manage your time better, or simply making you spend more time at work?

Free cabs after 8pm

Now this one is a tricky egg.  Expensing cabs can be important. On a business trip, or in the HIGHLY UNLIKELY event of a train strike. Notably when it ensures a safe journey home for employees in an awkward situation. But, it can end up the same as our Deliveroo debacle. You may incidentally incentivise people to stay late in exchange for free travel. That’s when it becomes a slippery slope. I’ve even heard stories of people asking the driver to keep the metre running whilst they take a quick shower at home before heading back. They do say time is money… especially for cabbies.

Unlimited holiday

A sticky egg. I know what you’re thinking. ‘Unlimited holidays sounds siiiick.’ I’m sorry, but this is a workplace and not a drum-circle. There need to be a few lines in the ground. Note my use of ‘ground’ and not ‘sand’ – that’s because these lines shouldn’t be at risk of being scuffed and altered into disappearance. 

When you say people can take as much holiday as they like, no matter your intention, you’re playing a psychological game with your employees. An inexperienced hire will be scared to look to be taking the mick with the policy. It’s likely that they will follow the lead of their manager – who may only take 10 days off per year. Then you have the issue of keeping track of who’s been away for what amount of time. You see how this can get messy?

Instead, you’re better off saying ‘you have 25 days off per year, not including Bank Holidays. We encourage you to use as much of this as possible for your own well-being.’ 25 days may sound like a tiny amount in comparison to an undefined amount – but then again, does it really?

Let’s wrap this up.

Now, I’m not saying let’s do away with innovative perks. In fact, quite the opposite.

I love a perk. I’m on holiday in Perkina Faso, eating Perk chicken, wearing a pair of Perkinstocks (toe-out.) I’m a big fan..

I just think that we should really consider the implications of new initiatives. Are we helping our employees, or are we actually encouraging unhealthy behaviour? It’egg-secutionhink that every idea made with a good intention will have the desired egg-secution.

After all, we shouldn’t count our chickens before they hatch.

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