Human Resources

Perks vs. productivity: what employee experience is and isn’t

Employee retention starts with a workplace culture that’s focused less on free cupcakes than on connection and collaboration

An illustration of a frustrated employee surrounded by distractions
Image Credit: Kelsey Wroten

Craft-beer taps, game rooms—there’s no denying that these things are fun, but in-office “perks” aren’t the only, or even most effective ways, to create a meaningful employee experience. Employees can quickly outgrow these workplace extras (some may even find them distracting) and go elsewhere to find deeper and more genuine connections with leaders and coworkers

In 1990, people held an average of 1.6 jobs within five years of graduating from college. Twenty years later, however, that number nearly doubled. And though this increase in job-hopping can’t be ascribed to just one cause, it’s clear that strong employee engagement and meaningful professional relationships are more important than ever. Teams need more than a few free cupcakes to feel happy, engaged, and productive in the office.

Like sugary treats, superficial perks will leave employees unsatisfied if they aren’t combined with a work environment that fosters substantive and meaningful work. More valuable than free snacks is a workplace that caters to the core needs of employees and a workplace culture that supports their professional goals.

Workspaces and the employee experience  

Employee engagement often starts with the physical workspace. Despite regular team activities, employees will spend most of their time at their desks, so that environment should be peaceful and productive. Think about your company’s office—do you have an open-concept floor plan with a lot of shared tables? If so, do you also have spaces for employees to work quietly and uninterrupted?

Open floor plans can encourage collaboration, but the one-size-fits-all mentality can also fragment your team. Office design and layout are like team parties and video game tournaments—some workers will enjoy them, but others won’t.  

Once you’ve got the desks in place, open the discussion with your team, especially as you scale, and brainstorm alternative ways to increase their productivity and engagement. Do they prefer fewer meetings? The opportunity to work from home? More transparency from senior leadership?

“You need to learn to listen in both individual meetings and at the group level.”

– Christine Riordan, President of Adelphi University
Christine Riordan
President of Adelphi University

Christine Riordan, a leadership expert and the president of Adelphi University, says managers should take a holistic approach to motivating and inspiring employees. “You need to learn to listen in both individual meetings and at the group level,” she says. Paying attention to your team’s needs and wants, and asking for feedback on current processes, can help each employee feel heard and ultimately more connected to the company. What’s more, when employees feel that their leaders are listening, they’ll be more inclined to speak up in the future.

Of course, communication and collaboration don’t just happen in the office. Feeling isolation at work is one of the leading causes of disengagement, especially for remote workers. More than any perk, being intentional about creating an inclusive employee experience and giving remote workers opportunities to contribute is a great way to improve happiness across an organization—and across time zones.

Employee experience in the long term: the benefits that matter

It’s easy to assume that millennials are the driving force behind modern-day office perks, but much like workers of other generations, they’re beginning to appreciate more traditional employee benefits. In a survey by Glassdoor, 80% of employees said they would choose additional benefits over a pay raise, and a survey by Monster showed similar findings: 32% of respondents want a health-care plan above all else, while 25% indicated vacation time as a key benefit.

Flexible work schedules are also important to the employee experience—65% of workers say they’re most productive when telecommuting—so consider how letting them work from home every once in a while could be a win-win.

Salesforce is one company that takes its employees’ needs seriously, emphasizing the importance of opening the floor to ongoing, active dialogue in the workplace to ensure that everyone is happy, whether they’re remote or not. “As companies grow, their needs will change, and so will the benefits that matter to their employees,” according to the software provider. “It’s about listening, responding, and making them successful.” It’s this type of communication that helps companies realize what their employees need to feel engaged at work.

Bringing balance to the workplace

As many as 20% of highly engaged employees are at risk of fatigue, so effective employee engagement sometimes means encouraging your people to get out of the office, not keeping them there with team activities that extend their workdays even more.   

If you really want to show employees that you care, focus on things that improve well-being and bring more balance to their lives. A spike in employee productivity can sometimes be attributed to something as simple as ergonomic office furniture and increasing exposure to natural light. Or, if you want to go one step further, try incorporating wellness and mindfulness programs into your benefits package so that employees can better care for their mental and physical health outside of work.  

Another way leaders can help employees feel engaged is by providing opportunities for learning and the proper tools and resources to help people reach their career and professional development goals. Training, experimentation, and ongoing learning in the workplace are a few of the things that employees value most: 91% say it’s a leading factor when they’re deciding which company to work for.

The most underrated employee value: collaboration

Employees may enjoy extra incentives and perks, but here’s the rub: They also enjoy getting actual work done, and they want to be able to do their jobs as best they can. According to Slack’s Future of Work study, 52% of employees want to work where processes always improve, and 50% want to be part of a collaborative team.

Clearly, employee engagement goes far beyond free snacks and foosball tables. It’s about creating a comfortable work environment and a workplace culture that inspires employees to bring their best to work every day.

As a leader, the best thing you can do to create a fulfilling employee experience is to communicate with your team. Whether it’s in group meetings, one-on-one conversations, or surveys, ask for their thoughts and opinions to avoid putting any of your square pegs into one round hole, and give them the benefits they need to actively (and productively) evolve as the company grows.

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