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Making Perks Work for Your Company

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For tech workers across the Bay Area, New York City and elsewhere, it's a great time to love free stuff. A fevered competition for talent has led many companies to embrace lavish perks as a recruiting tool, showering employees in desk outfitting allowances, delicious meals and home cleaning services. Some make sense as a means of keeping people at the office for longer, while others seem completely superfluous. In trying to make decisions about what types of perks I'd want to offer at my own company, I set out to discover what works and what doesn't.

Are these perks important for a company's culture, or are they an expensive distraction? Which perks matter, and which don't? To find out, I spoke to a number of companies in New York City, and discovered a nuanced truth: perks are important, but not necessarily the flashiest and most expensive ones. Subtle, timely, and team-building perks make all the difference.

The bedrock explanation for why perks, and more broadly a strong culture, are necessary is to serve talent retention. As Jim Moran, co-founder of Yipit, the daily deal aggregator, explained to me: "Once we started hiring, and realized that the people we were hiring were so talented and so specialized, it was our job to make Yipit a place they wanted to work."

If the goal is to build a company that people want to work for, how do you get there?

Spencer Fry, founder of Uncover, believes that hanging out as a group will go a long way towards building a strong culture. As he says, in his experience founding three companies, "As you grow, a lot of employees don't know each other, there's not a lot of bonding going on. Getting together after work, sharing experiences...they help organizations and they help a lot with recruitment."

When viewed as a means to get people together, a lot of ridiculous perks start to make sense. On its face, Dropbox's music studiolooks like a pretty ridiculous perk to have in an office. Why would a company that produces hit cloud storage software also produce hit records? But it seems like there's no better way for musically-inclined employees to spend time together than recording a funk demo on their lunch break.

Finding interesting ways to spend time together certainly seems like an investment worth making. That time doesn't need to necessarily cost money in all cases; the smallest, most personal perks can have the largest impact on culture. As Eli Goodman, engineering director at Etsy, the marketplace for handmade goods, told me, "The perks that matter the most to me are not the most expensive or the most glamorous, but they're the ones that happen at the right time and with the right thought."

Goodman's spent a lot of time thinking about what makes company culture tick, having co-hosted Cultivate Conference in October, which was attended by tech workers who "aspire to be leaders and to make their company into something better than what it currently is." He said that, while free stuff is great, it's really the desire to constantly improve that holds a team together.

Like a sense of personal pride, another of the strongest cultural benefits I found a company can offer is actually free: transparency. Yipit, for example, holds a bi-weekly retrospective where employees share what's working and what isn't in the company. As Jim Moran described it:

I would recommend any company that is trying to come up with ways to improve quality of life at their company, to try to institutionalize an informal feedback process like that, really make the purpose about generating ideas...You basically lower the cost to getting these ideas, let it passively happen as a process, and from there it makes your job as a manager a lot easier.

Moran noted that the output of those retrospectives can range from anything from what tea people want in the pantry to a desire to change a section of code; nothing is off limits or taboo. It certainly seems like a great concept for any start-up to implement, although it could get unwieldy as a company becomes large.

At the end of the day, one issue I struggle with in forming the culture of my own company, is how do we measure the impact of any of this, especially as a company becomes large enough where you can't meet in one room? How do we know what's working in terms of culture and perks, or what's a waste of time and money?

Fortunately, Spencer Fry's working on tools to help change that. He's building software to simply and regularly measure employee satisfaction and get feedback across a number of different categories, and suggest fixes in the event of a low score. For example, if a company scored poorly in social interaction, Uncover could automatically suggest and arrange an outing for the team.

Putting all perks aside, the biggest message I heard echoed repeatedly, was the idea that doing meaningful work and being recognized for it makes all other problems melt away. As Eli Goodman said, "There's no substitute for changing the world. There's no substitute for doing work that matters and that succeeds."

Companies love to tout flashy perks, and writers love covering them. The legend of the Googleplex has consumed many an article about corporate culture. What I found in researching this piece, is that large, ostentatious perks aren't what make companies tick on a daily basis. A foundation of meaningful work, subtle and personal perks, and enjoying time with talented colleagues sounds like the perfect formula.