Last week I was back at a familiar place for a day-long meeting with a client at their country-club style conference/gym centre. This is a client I used to work with for almost 10 years – the first 10 years of my professional life. It was really surprising to see again the facilities that I had taken for granted when I was an employee there myself.
It made me think of what workplace perks you become blind, how they influence your feelings about work and what they are really worth.
Just for a bit of background: I worked for a company for about 10 years from around 2005 – 2015. I’ve been away for 4 years but the job I have now includes this company as one of my clients. Like how you can’t really appreciate your own culture until you see it through someone else’s eyes, it’s the same for company culture. Looking back now, I had it good! But since it was all I knew, it didn’t appreciate it then as much as I should have.
Anyway, the company bought many years ago a large period house on the outskirts of the city in a very leafy area – the sort of house a baron might live in – complete with a turret and sitting on a plot of about a hectare.. Since buying it, the house and grounds have been developed to now include:
- Meeting/conference rooms
- Hotel rooms (~20)
- Football pitch (outdoor)
- Sports hall (indoor)
- Putting green
- Squash courts
- Gym with weights, machines
- Steam room
It’s all very high standard – it’s all smart, stylish and good quality and all of the above is accessible for no cost and if you go to the gym you even get fresh, clean towels. Of course, the bar/restaurant/hotel aren’t free but they are great value of money and not generally available to outsiders. Essentially it’s a country club and I’ll call it that.
In the main office building, you’re not slumming it either – again up the standards that you’d expect at a high-quality gym (with free fresh towels) – as well as two Costa Coffee franchises and a great canteen (reasonably priced too!) – that’s how the other half work.
When I was staff, colleagues would complain that there was no sauna or pool at the Country Club and many had membership at other gyms (possibly due to location or facilities or private trainers). I tried to use it as much as I could but since I didn’t always have a car/transport it was a bit of a problem to get to/from there. Who wants to cycle for 5km to then play football for an hour and then cycle home again?
It all begins to be taken for granted though when you work there. It’s free, it’s yours and it’s part of the package. Back in the day we even had a free lunch in the office too which saved me thousands over the years – didn’t help my weight though.
When I left that company in 2015 to join the company that I spent 4 years with (before leaving in September), there was no country club, no gym and no free lunch – this place didn’t even have any restaurant facilities for the over 100 employees. They treated employees badly and were cheap. Instead the grim reality was that you had a roadside chip van (streetfood if you like) or you could sit in the 1970s themed crappy kitchen and use the antique facilities to microwave what you brought in as a packaged lunch. It was so bad for one employee that he brought in his own Nespresso machine so that he wouldn’t have to drink Nescafé! I stayed long enough to even get used to the coffee (dirty little secret).
From one end of the spectrum to another
Happy employees stay forever
Ambivalent workers jump ship fast
Miserable serfs toil forever
That’s sort of how I see things. At the first company I worked for it was not unusual to find people who had been at the company all of their working lives – often 30+ years. This was more than a company, it was like a cult (and leaving it was not easy). The company I joined had a high turnover but some people had sat miserably for years putting up with the shit conditions like a abuse victim with Stockholm syndrome. This place I am at now, people jump around and there’s less loyalty.
Whilst the work might not change – the perks can and they differ from one workplace to another. These workplace perks can include:
- free phone (beware, you maybe on call 24/7!)
- laptop (ditto)
- Christmas/Summer parties
- parental leave
- company pension – final salary pensions
- share schemes
- free coffee (and more importantly good free coffee
- onsite gym
- onsite childcare
- free parking (or free shuttles/transport)
- free snacks
- onsite canteen (even subsidised or free food)
- working from home
- training courses / jollies
- employee discounts
- health/life insurance, the list can go on and one
- sick leave
- adequate lighting
- heating/air conditioning
- toilet facilities or just latrines
- sufficient oxygen
There’s an argument which says that employee perks are a substitute for just being paid more. Would you rather have all of the above or an extra £50 a month in pay? What about £500 a month? Every man has his price so to speak.
There’s a thought: give employees good working conditions, job security and decent coffee! They’ll focus more on work and less on complaining. They’ll be less stressed, focused on the long term success of the company and even stimulated to work harder!
(Like how much time in a week do you spend at work complaining about work? Maybe a good hour or two – from the cold drafts from the windows to the scalding water from the taps in the toilets – we all like a moan but maybe it’s a sign that things aren’t great. Whatever it is, you are not working 100%).
What’s brought this into focus for me now is that I have started my own company and I’m contracted to a new company now. Since I’m not an employee, there aren’t any “employee” perks as such. For a large office (around 500 people) there isn’t even a vending machine let alone café and the drinks choice is Tetley, Nescafé or water. I don’t get a laptop or phone and the Xmas party isn’t free or cheap. The office itself is great but it’s a bit spartan and I miss the perks.
Every company has an “Employee Value Proposition”, part for recruitment and part for retention. Whether the employees know it or not, these “free” perks are part of the equation. From the company’s perspective they want to offer employees something that’ll make them stay and work harder or get paid less.
I suspect that HR and management decide if they should make people stay by being nice to them or treating them like shit (shit costs less and it’s the way things are going in many workplaces). You see in a lot of Tech sector companies that they – god forbid – treat employees well with little things to make working there better. Soft snowflakes! How dare they not want to work like slaves/serfs or extras in a remake of a Dickensian novel!
Anyone looking to start a new job should talk to an enthusiastic current employee about the place – see how they describe it. If you can’t find one – DO NOT WORK THERE!
Swapping Perks for Bucks
The thing is, I could use the money they pay me to give myself the perks that I would like. There’s nothing stopping me doing that at all. But judging by the behaviour of others, people don’t treat themselves as well as they would like others to treat them. Maybe these dour Scots are all tight-fisted and penny-pinchers (I know I am) or maybe they know that there is no such thing as a free lunch.
Often what is given away as “free” has questionable value anyway. Shit coffee in work? Cost of 3 Americanos from Costs £6 – but I bring in my own – cost 20p per day + my time maybe – value of a decent bean-to-cup machine – more than 20p but certainly less than £6? Would you rather have the money and drink instant all day long? As a thought experiment – what would you need to be paid to give up all your freebies? That might give you a better value of what’s for free.
Same with the free lunch – hardly anybody who worked at my first company has avoided putting on weight over the years, except the contractors who never got the free lunch. There’s no such thing as a free lunch and the price you pay may well be your health!
Finally, pensions. I had a final salary pension and because of that I stayed longer than I would have at the company if I had a defined contribution pension. Looking back, I could have raked it in going contract back in the day but that’s choice I made. At the very least, the more time you spend getting institutionalized in one company the worse it’ll be for you in the outside world – that’s why it’s called the prison camp.
Unless you want to be a prisoner in an open prison – remember the high walls and gates at the country club are there to keep people in as much as they are there to keep people out.
Back to the Start
It was funny to be back at that meeting and seeing the fantastic facilities. I took it for granted when I had it and now, I can see that I would love to have the same opportunity. There’s no stopping me now if I want to spend that on myself and family but there’s something fundamentally different about acquiring something for yourself and sharing something because you are part of the club – you belong, you’re a member.
My brief visit allowed me a view of the inside as an outsider and I have to say that these perks are a powerful illusion. If you don’t have them, you envy those who have and if you do have them you take them for granted. Personally, I know that money should trump it but I would like the feeling of belonging – but the door has closed on that old job, so I can only dream of getting the opportunity to have it all – and this time I’ll eat less at lunch and visit the gym more!