When Are Perks at Work Necessary?

If you announced tomorrow that you would no longer be paying your employees, how many would show up to work the next day? Better yet, how many would get up and leave then and there?

Even in the healthiest office environment, with the most resilient and engaging work culture, you can’t ignore the fact that the core function of work for most people is employment that pays the bills. That isn’t a bad thing; it is just the nature of work. And even if getting a steady paycheck is the most important part of work for people, it is far from the only important feature of a “good” job. A job that does nothing else besides paying the bills for employees is a pretty prime example of how to burn people out and drive them to quit or seek work elsewhere.

Also read: A Wellness Culture at Work Takes More Than Words

So money matters. In terms of getting people to work every day, it arguably matters the most. But how can you separate money and paychecks from all the other elements of a healthy, happy, productive work climate? And, perhaps more importantly, should you even try?

From Motivation to Inspiration With Money and Meaning

While money may be a sine qua non for motivating employees to show up in the first place, it isn’t the single most important factor in performance. Studies have shown, and continue to show with ever more clarity, that employees of all ages and background want purpose from their work; they want desperately to feel their work matters, that their performance is appreciated, and that they are contributing to something greater than themselves. Millennials, in particular, have gained some notoriety for equating purpose at work with satisfaction, even as they struggle to turn their degrees into jobs and their crushing student loan debt into nothing more than an unpleasant memory. In other words, even in the face of crippling debt, money only goes so far.

So while money may put butts in seats, so to speak, purpose puts coal in the fire. Money is an extrinsic motivator, an incentive to anyone considering work at your company. Everything else — your company culture, your corporate dress code (and the degree of hidden sexism it may or may not entail, depending on how strict or “traditional” it is), your management team’s style, the importance you place on joy and satisfaction as well as output and productivity, the nature of the work you do, the relationship you have with clients or customers, the interest you take in coaching, mentoring, and developing both the employee and the individual at work — becomes, for the individual employee, part of an intrinsic motivator, a deeper answer to the big “Why?” that drives them to do more than just show up.

And yet … focusing on engagement is about dollars and sense: it impacts productivity and helps give staff intrinsic motivators to do their best and be their most. A lack of attention on answering the big “Why?” or neglecting employees who are dissatisfied with their work, the culture, or the limits of purpose it all comprises can spread disengagement across the company like a cancer. A disengaged workforce can cost you more than payroll does; it can spell the end of your organization entirely.

The Employee Who Works for Perks

Beyond wages or salaries, there is a massive spectrum of grey-area benefits that can help sweeten the deal at work. Sponsored health coverage and employer-matched retirement savings have entered the mainstream, such that as far as many employees are concerned, these benefits are equally important to getting a paycheck in deciding whether or not to show up to work. Historically, that is arguably the purpose of non-wage employee benefits: a little extra compensation to employees, with tax write-offs or other tangible benefits to the employer. Everybody wins, and everybody gets a little more scratch out of the deal.

Also read: Money (really!) isn’t Everything — What Benefits do People Want?

But perks go beyond these traditional cash substitutes. Virtually every office for the last half-century has featured a break room, usually with free coffee and other nice-to-haves of the kitchen pantry variety. Depending on the nature of the job or industry, other workers get access to company computers, phones, cars, and other materiel. As the world has learned more about the health perils associated with desk work and sedentary lifestyles, more workplaces are integrating fitness plans and wellness initiatives to soften the damage, if not reverse the trend. One might be tempted to say you can’t put a price on your health, but as Americans are learning, there absolutely is a price, and it is much higher than anyone is comfortable with.

So no matter how closely associated the perks are with compensation or price tags, they can be counted under both “Compensation” as well as “Culture” in tabulating what matters to and motivates workers. Vacation days help work-life balance; work-life balance helps productivity. A laid-back, unserious work environment may look counterproductive, but like recess at school, a little break from focus now and then increases focus when it is needed.

Blurred Lines and Blended Benefits

All of this amounts to one simple, familiar truth: feelings matter. At work, feelings about one’s work can overpower the tangible finances attached to one’s paycheck. A sense of purpose can feel more important than maximized earning potential in a specific role. The promise of a higher paycheck from a rival or alternative employer can feel less tempting when intangibles like culture, or even perks like remote work opportunities or a progressive vacation policy, are available at your office.

Accountants can put a price tag on anything and everything that comprises your workplace culture; so, too, can employees, in terms of the benefits they receive, rather than the expenditures it all entails. And while money talks, as the saying goes, money doesn’t feel. Striking a balance that blends compensation with engagement, extrinsic with intrinsic motivation, culture with accountability, is a matter of making sure you value the feelings of people at work, not just the functions they perform.

Without the promise of a paycheck, most people wouldn’t feel like working — at least not for the person pinching pennies with payroll. But there is a lot of value associated with the perks, the people, the culture, and the features of a job that aren’t preceded by a dollar sign. A good job isn’t the same thing as a good salary.

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