Gym memberships and office dogs: why now is the time for HR to forget about the perks and focus on what matters

Last year I was lucky enough to go on a study tour of San Fran and Silicon Valley. Along with some of Australia’s other emerging companies, we visited the headquarters of some of the world’s biggest companies, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Salesforce and Slack. 

The visits taught us a lot about what it takes to build an iconic company, with some sessions and companies better than others. There was one thing though that I felt like they were all competing on:

Who had the best free lunch.

It was incredible the amount of time and effort went into catering for their staff members. Gourmet food for three meals a day, healthy snacks to grab at your leisure. Even the water was amazing, with everyone having a Bevi Machine (because of the Valley’s infatuation with flavoured water, the water vending machine Bevi is now worth somewhere between $100m – $500m).

It was clear that a competition had begun where every company in San Fran is jostling over staff perks, to the point where we spoke to an Aussie company who had expanded over to the Valley who said that a catered lunch is a bare minimum now for attracting talent. 

I couldn’t help but wonder – do staff really care? And how much time are companies sitting around developing and maintaining these supposed ‘staff perks’?

Don’t get me wrong, everyone loves a free lunch and no one is going to turn their nose up at a job when interviewing when they hear lunch is covered. But the saying ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’ exists for a reason – employers are offering it in exchange for loyalty and often an expectation you won’t be leaving the office, hence improving productivity. 

With the world currently going crazy, I wrote recently about what role HR needs to play during the COVID-19 pandemic. I said that HR teams who have traditionally been too focused on recording tasks and compliance are unlikely to survive the chop when companies are looking to make cuts. If your HR team hasn’t been able to step up in the middle of this crisis and shown its value in spades, it likely never will.

Well, to build on that, it’s time for the arms race of employees perks to end. HR teams need to use this opportunity to focus on issues that really matter to employees. 

One place where you won’t see office dogs and useless perks is Netflix. Netflix’s original Chief Talent Officer Patty McCord believes that people don’t join a company, nor stay at a company, because of these perks, rather they stick around when working on impactful projects with high-performing team members. 

This is in fact the biggest perk of all.

So if HR teams aren’t focused on the ‘fun’ side of HR, where should they focus their energy to improve employee engagement?

Well firstly by giving your employees the opportunities to discover what they’re good at. At WithYouWithMe we’ve worked with a lot of HR teams on internal talent plans, and it’s amazing how no one ever gets asked what they’re good at and how the organisation can leverage those skills. Develop your talent plans around this.

Second is looking at upskill training. And I don’t mean investing in a course in conflict management or excel, I mean helping staff map out a career path based on what they’re good at and investing to help them get there. Upskilling should be around helping an individual get their next job, or a completely new job. Give people the roadmap to success. 

And finally, HR should be focused on finding top talent. If the biggest perk a staff member can have is working on impactful projects with high-performers, HR’s job should be on finding high-performers and weeding out those who are ineffective. I promise this will keep more people than any membership to a gym which isn’t even open. 

And for the record, if I had to choose a winner in the Silicon Valley lunchroom arms race, AirBnb would be a clear winner. But I’d take working with my awesome colleagues at WithYouWithMe over a roast lunch at the AirBnb cafeteria any day of the week. 

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