Perks @ Work: Building Community and Culture

Most companies identify their people as their most valuable assets. And in an era of global economies, advancing technology, and constant connectivity, relationships between companies and their employees have never been so complex. As employees check emails in between bedtime stories, employers are stepping up to address their wellness with strategies that go beyond traditional benefit plans. We are in the age of the perk.

Perks have always existed in workplace culture: think Don Draper’s drink cart in Mad Men. There is, however, an increasing variability in how extensively companies use perks. Perks are “extras” provided to employees in addition to salary and traditional health care benefits. They take such forms as flexible working arrangements, professional development opportunities, and freebies. Interactive offices are now home to everything from climbing walls to beer fridges to daycares. Perks allow companies to develop a culture that has a positive impact on the health and happiness of their employees.

Markham’s own Allstate Insurance Company of Canada has seen that impact firsthand, having been named one of Aon Hewitt’s Best Employers in Canada—based on employee feedback—for the last three years. In addition to competitive salaries and benefits packages, Allstate offers perks that include discounts on services and products such as fitness memberships, event tickets, and home and auto insurance. The company also supports employee charitable initiatives, encourages career development (through tuition reimbursement, cross-departmental opportunities, and coaching programs), and recognizes employee contributions through bonuses and milestone awards. The most popular and widely used perk is the formal work-from-home program.

For large companies like Allstate, perks are one of a number of tools used to engage and reward employees. “Perks can attract employees to your organization,” says Adrianne Sullivan-Campeau, the vice president of human resources at Allstate, “but in isolation they will not be enough to make them stay. The proper mix of good benefits, a strong corporate culture and our ability to create opportunities to keep employees engaged [is what] will attract and ultimately keep employees.”

For smaller companies, perks often play a more significant role in defining workplace culture and encouraging engagement.

The Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) is a co-working space and community for social innovators and entrepreneurs. CSI staff perks reflect a culture of networking, collaboration, and a focus on work-life balance. As Director of Culture Adil Dhalla describes it, CSI seeks to “make social change and have fun while doing it!” CSI staff start with four weeks of vacation per year. They participate in many of the activities they arrange for the community. Recently, this has included an annual free trip to New York to celebrate the anniversary of the CSI space there. Staff meetings feature improv classes and games of Family Feud. According to Dhalla, these activities, along with the chance to participate in updating organizational values, encourage employees’ “sense of co-ownership.”

For companies like CSI and Allstate, perks have their perks. They show workers that they are valued and heard, and encourage feedback between management and employees. And, while some perks cost money, others produce savings. Allowing employees to work from home, for example, often results in a reduction of overhead costs. Most importantly, satisfied employees tend to be more productive and loyal, which benefits a company’s bottom line.

The most obvious downside to offering perks is that many do cost money, which can burden smaller businesses. For larger companies, not all perks are appropriate to all jobs, and the employees who miss out may feel resentful. Perks can also be difficult to revoke, a fact that Marissa Mayer at Yahoo found out when she rescinded the ability of employees to work from home.

Perhaps the more important and complicated question concerns quantifying the importance of perks to potential employees, particularly Millennials entering the workforce. Jillian Masters, in her final year of university, points out that perks speak to a company’s culture, which is an important consideration for job seekers. “Our generation has an image of what we want in the workplace.” When asked about what that image is, she thinks about it and then laughs: “Google.” The internet behemoth is famous for its free food, bocce courts, and bowling alleys. But Masters, like most workers, identifies the most valuable perk as the freedom and flexibility to decide when and where to work. More people are taking that philosophy to the next level and quitting traditional workplaces to freelance and chase that elusive work-life balance. For those who have stayed, the biggest perk may not be a perk at all.

“Whenever we ask employees […] what they value most about working for the company,” says Sullivan-Campeau, “the top response is always ‘the people.’”

It’s a sentiment that employers, big and small, and their employees can get behind.

“Working with people you like, as we move away from hierarchical work structures, it’s not even a perk,” says Masters, “it’s a fundamental.”

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