5 Guiding Questions for Picking the Right Employee Perks

Massages, in-house chefs, free oil changes, and so on; we all know about the amazing employee perks the likes of Google and Facebook provide. Even small startups often give generous perks. Tech startups like Codecademy enjoy daily catered lunches. So what perks are best? The answer, as always, is it depends. Here are 5 questions that will help you determine what's right for your company

1. Budget

In our case, we knew we wanted to do something in the $3,000 to $5,000 range. We have about 25 employees, so we needed to keep it under $200 per employee. We also wanted to cover the tax that employees would owe (talk to a tax expert to learn what kinds of perks are taxable), which means we only had about $170 per employee to work with. Budget alone won’t give you an answer, but it’s good to figure this first so that you can explore realistic possibilities.

2. One-time or ongoing?

A baseball game outing is a one-time thing. The employee who starts a week after the company baseball game won’t get to enjoy the game. That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s worth considering. Other perks, like gym membership, are ongoing, and as new people join, they start getting the perk. One-time things can help spice things up, since they aren’t predictable. But you can let prospective employees know about the ongoing perks available.

3. Impact

With any form of non-monetary compensation, you have to ask, why? Why not just give everyone more money. They can buy a gym membership, get oil changes, and see baseball games with that money. Impact is the answer to that question. The goal is to provide something that has an impact beyond the monetary value. Many companies do things to save their employees time - oil changes, chefs, and haircuts at work. Being able to get your oil changed while at work has a bigger impact than the $40 value of an oil change. The more impact the perk has, the more authentic it will seem. Giving everybody Target gift cards to buy milk is a great example of a very poor impact.

4. Secondary benefits

As with anything, the employee perk you chose will send out ripples through your company and cause secondary effects. For example, Giving in-office haircuts would have a secondary benefit of better looking employees who may experience a boost in self-esteem. Gym memberships can have a secondary benefit of healthier employees. Moreover, the very perception among employees that the company cares for their well-being can be a great secondary benefit of a number of health-focused perks. But it cuts both ways. Pizza every Friday for lunch can lead to a decrease in productivity in the afternoon, and higher blood pressure among employees.

5. Is it really a perk, or a trap?

This last point is an extension of the point above, and each company needs to decide where they stand on this issue. Many of the perks commonly associated with tech startups are designed to keep employees at work as much as possible. Video games, places to sleep, catered dinner - all reduce the need for a life outside of the office. Now, the fact is that many companies are full of single 20 somethings who love the idea of not making it home every night. But be mindful of what signals you’re sending your employees with perks that replace what otherwise might be part of their home life.

What we did at Graphicsland

It all started when we provided employees with breakfast every Monday, a snack on Wednesdays, and lunch on Fridays during the two busy months in spring. We decided to get some decent quality food that would be healthy to help fuel the team through the busy season. It was a hit. So we thought, “Maybe we should do this all the time?”

We figured it would cost about $5,000 per year to provide a nice lunch every Friday. So we started to think about what else we could do for $5,000 that might have a bigger impact. We thought of going to events like concerts, but many employees have families and might be unable to attend any given night.

Eventually we settled on getting a Fitbit for each employee. Fitbits are not uncommon as employee perks, thanks in part to Fitbit’s focus on that market. We set up a company group, so those who want can share their steps with others and compare “scores.” For us, Fitbits ticked all the boxes - they’re an ongoing perk that we can offer any new employee, they’re something that most people wouldn’t spend their own money on, they send the message that the company cares about health, and they (in theory) will help employees be more active and healthy. Moreover it’s helped create a little fun, which is a critical part of building a well-functioning team.

I’ve even started taking some of my weekly meetings with managers outside, walking around to get some steps, which is no easy task for an office worker.


Difficult conversations and raises: two sides of the same coin

Personnel decisions are never easy. Denying a raise, giving less than happy feedback at a mid-year review, or even letting somebody go are certainly among the toughest parts of my job. But I’ve realized that if I’m not willing to follow through with those difficult but necessary actions, then I’ll never be able to create a work environment that is highly successful, productive, and full of people that have many career choices but choose to be part of our team.

The easiest and most enjoyable parts of a boss’ job are congratulating a team on an accomplishment, giving well-deserved raises, and promoting from within. That guy who you need to stay on top of to get him to do his job, do you think you’ll be giving him a promotion? If you feel like half of your employees are just mediocre, are you going to be willing to provide the kind of benefits that would attract top talent?

Delivering the hard news when it’s needed sets you up to deliver good news to those who are growing and contributing to the growth of the company. Moreover, it’s not fair to under-performing employees to string them along while resentment grows in your mind until one day it becomes impossible to allow things to continue. Every employee deserves to know where they stand, and nobody should be shocked that they’re being let go.

As Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister put it in their classic Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, at some companies there is the shared belief that they are simply the best, and that only a fool would want to work elsewhere. That’s my goal, and I think it should be the goal of every manager. To reach this goal, every employee needs to be held in high esteem by his or her peers. Keeping a few under-performing employees around can crush that culture of excellence.


Ikea Bekant Sit/Stand Desk Review

I work from home, so when I kept hearing about studies showing I was slowly killing myself by sitting, I knew I had to do something about it. But I also have a hard time spending money on myself, so the $1,000 price of a GeekDesk (once you figure tax and shipping) kept me from getting one. Things changed when I realized I could buy an Ikea Bekant Sit/Stand desk for $500.

The base comes in two boxes that aren’t big but are on the heavy side, and the top is 63″ by 31 1/2″ which is a great size in my opinion. Setup was quite easy. Since I bought the top designed to work with the base, it had pre-made holes that lined up with the base. Plastic connectors snap in to secure the top to the base. I was concerned about these at first, but they seem to do the trick. You’ll need a second person to help you flip it over at the end, but other than that, it’s a one person job.

Bekant Sit/Stand Desk Raised Operation of the desk is very simple – so simple you might call it primitive. A small plastic box with up and down triangles mount to the edge of the desk. There’s no height readout or presets – just an up button and a down button. After using it for a few weeks, I have found that to be totally adequate. Not once have I wished I could get it right where it was before. A few times I’ve given it a slight adjustment.

The motors do make noise when it goes up and down. It seems similar to other sit/stand desks I’ve observed, but if you’re on a conference call, you’ll probably want to mute yourself before moving it.

Bekant Sit/Stand Desk Lowered One interesting fact about the desk is that it can go down to 22″, which is pretty low. It could work well as a desk for younger children who need it lower, but you can still raise it up for a full sized person when needed. Even for “normal” sized people, it makes a great regular sitting desk because you can adjust it to the exact height that feels right for you in whatever chair you happen to be in.