When to Fear Office Perks

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Facebook and Google, with their unlimited food and free amenities, might offer the gold standard for employee perks. But small and midsized tech companies are increasingly getting in on the benefits act.

At companies across the country, remote work and flextime are on the rise, and many are paying for meals, transportation, massages, and more. The growing number of perks isn’t necessarily an attempt to keep up with the Googles of the world—precious few of those companies boast a multi-billion-dollar war-chest that can go toward fulfilling employee needs. If anything, it’s more of a response to the dearth of talent, as well as an attempt to lure in the best candidates.

What Sort of Perks?

Many of the perks are geared to younger professionals—people sold on the idea of what it’s supposedly like to work at a tech company. As noted by Dan Finnigan, CEO for Jobvite: “At tech companies like ours and at many of our customers, fun activities and amenities are a real attraction for younger, talented workers.”

Jobvite has regular team-building activities such as ping-pong, foosball, complimentary Uber for commuters, and even an in-house bulldog named Pancake.

But Finnigan thinks perks aren’t usually enough to seal the deal when it comes to pulling in talent. “Perks can’t take the place of a deeper company culture, which needs to offer real support on issues like career development, work-life balance, and leadership.”

The Feel of Home

Tech-consulting firm SWC Technology Partners runs elaborate team events, such as weekly happy hours, tickets to Cubs games, boat rides, golf and theme park outings, birthday celebrations, and a large and expensive holiday party with company-paid hotel rooms. An employee-run wellness team sponsors events such as dodgeball, lunchtime yoga, chair massages, and fun runs, as well as weekly fresh fruit delivery.

“We work hard to create a collaborative work environment,” said Jill Neumann, the company’s corporate recruiter. It’s all about making work “feel like home.”

Like Finnigan, Neumann admits that fresh fruit and massages aren’t enough to lure people in and keep them onboard: “You have to balance the fun perks with professional development. Everything else has to fall in line—duties, pay, and job benefits, too.”

What’s the Motivation?

Joseph Flahiff, president and CEO at Whitewater Projects, a leadership and team-consulting firm, suggests that a fun culture is more than a perk. “Studies have shown that while people believe they work better under pressure, they are actually less creative,” he said. “Knowledge work by its very nature requires creativity. So, having a fun and relaxed atmosphere is actually a strategic move.”

While tech-company execs argue that perks create a cozy and collaborative environment, they sometimes serve as a slick way to keep overworked tech pros complacent about long, stressful hours.

Donna Wells, CEO at Mindflash, a training-software company, believes it all comes down to supply and demand, and the crazy perks are sometimes a symptom of that: “There are a disproportionate number of engineering teams out there that are poorly run.”

Teams are often lacking the necessary manpower, she added: “If people are putting in 80-hour weeks, you have to have unlimited food and do their dry cleaning.”

When to Fear Perks

“What you really want is a company that uses perks to enable you to have freedom and work creativity,” Flahiff added. “It really comes down to the executive leadership’s attitude to the perks and their purpose.”

Flahiff suggests that tech professionals find out if they’re applying to the kind of company that wants to keep you chained to a desk, where perks are simply meant to appease you.

Ask the interviewer whether or not their last software release was on time. “You don’t want to ask about crunch time directly, but if you know they were four months late getting a release out, then there’s some serious crunch time involved,” he said.

You can also ask your interviewer about the company’s work-life balance, although you may have to do a little interpreting of what he or she says in order to get a true sense of how it operates. If possible, query some current employees—you don’t have to ask them if they’re chained to their desks, but a few questions about schedules, workloads and perks can make the situation clear.