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Opinion Editorials

How employee perks give competitive companies a serious edge

(BUSINESS) Breakneck speeds of innovation are now the norm in business, and the most competitive are offering employee perks in the name of progress.

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The nature of business is simple when you boil it down: get the edge and monetize it. To keep the doors open, companies either have to do one thing extraordinarily well that transcends trends or innovation, or they must continually progress and change the rules of their platform with each release.

Case in point, there’s little to improve on when it comes to a Chicago hot dog or a New York slice; these culinary feats will forever be favored because they’re ingrained into the culture as a staple. A pair of Levi’s jeans or Vans sneakers don’t need to innovate, the classic appeal of the brand sells itself.

Technology is a different animal. Innovation is everything.

People wanted a new app or SaaS (Software as a Service) tool yesterday, and they want to hit a button on their phone to get it. We want new apps to automate mindless tasks, and we’re always looking for a way to cut paperwork when it applies to everyday life. We want to pay bills with a click or know who’s ringing the doorbell via the camera attached to our network. We love Nest because it controls our house and who doesn’t love a Spotify playlist connected to a wireless speaker out by the pool?

Companies bending over backwards to create faster and with more of a wallop allowed for these breakthroughs.

Because anything technology-related is crushing financially-speaking, there’s a constant hunger for talent. And talented developers, marketers, SEO junkies, office managers, all use the hyper-competitive talent market to their advantage. If a new job pops up that pays more with better benefits, people will bounce without so much as more than two-week notice and a “sorry, not sorry” letter of resignation.

The company loyalty of the past is long, long gone.

Companies like Twitter or Google throw the kitchen sink at their teams to keep them happy and offer everything from education stipends for their kids, dollar for dollar 401(k) matching, improv classes, catered gourmet meals, and even monthly mani-pedis. These things seem crazy, but they’re small measures to make sure the best talent doesn’t walk for a huge reason – they need the best minds to keep pushing the brand to new heights.

Make no mistake; if a SaaS tool is dominating the market, there’s one right behind it, ready to pounce at the first sign of weakness. Because of the dog eat dog landscape, retention is critical. If the best members of a team move on after a year or two, pushing the brand forward becomes harder and harder because there’s a rotating door. Teams have to find ways to keep their staff engaged not only through work that matters and a thriving culture, but the perks offered need to be sticky and make it hard for employees to walk away from.

One of the more revolutionary retention methods of the last few years has been student loan debt repayment, and as a result, teams are staying together, longer.

The probability market for student loan repayments is massive.

Nearly 70% of new grads walk off the stage with at least 25K owed to private and federal institutions and the debt clock is ticking upwards toward $1.4 Trillion, with a T.

Because student loans are a soft target, it’s an easy win. Often touted as the new 401(k) for millennials, many companies are offering to match dollar for dollar with their teams or just make a monthly contribution on their employee’s behalf. For the companies, this move is killer because of simple math: the average student loan bill is low thanks to all of those deferments, loan interest rates, etc.

In some cases, the loan amount could be as low as a $200 monthly contribution, which is easy for an enterprise-level businesses pocketbook. The employee’s student loan is out of sight, out of mind, and often with a few bucks extra, moving the debt needle faster. The best part: the employee feels like the company has a vested stake their well-being and future growth.

One of the easiest wins for a company is how they view time spent in the office. Because wifi is everywhere and checking email on an iPhone is only a swipe away, more and more companies allow for staff to work remote. Life happens and some days, sitting at the desk is a real wrench in the gears if the dog needs to go to the vet or the AC goes out in mid-July.

A change of scenery helps, and for many people (and let’s be honest), banging out six hours of good work is a more realistic output than drifting through eight hours of “sort of” productivity. Fully 53 percent of workers want free time over a raise.

Companies with a liberal work from home policy lead the charge in perks employees want. Same goes for generous vacation time policies. Even if the average employee doesn’t come close to using their allowance, the central thread that matters is the freedom of knowing they can.

Another way to put a lid on employee churn? Companies are taking a real swing at healthcare.

Because affordable medical care isn’t always available, many companies are covering significant portions of what’s taken out of an employee’s check. Some ultra-progressive businesses like Google or Atlassian even offer 100% covered healthcare for their American workforce. While universal healthcare would make sense, many companies are picking up the slack and are keeping their employees healthy.

Employees, especially millennials, see these moves toward a workplace with a work/life balance, but also as a place that cares about their wellbeing. Gone are the days of death by a thousand papercuts during the workweek. Today’s workforce knows what they’re after and it’s up to companies to decide if they’re willing to play ball to make that work.

Progress is everything in business and if companies are looking to continue to lead trends or upend the status quo, they can’t have their brightest and best looking toward the horizon wondering what else is out there. Perks most definitely matter.

Robert Dean is a writer at Adia and The American Genius. He is a writer, journalist, and cynic. His most recent novel, The Red Seven is in stores. Currently, he’s working on his newest novel, Tragedy Wish Me Luck. He also likes ice cream and panda bears. He currently lives in Austin. Stalk him on Twitter.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Tina

    February 26, 2018 at 3:48 pm

    Great article! Human Resource Departments need to look at hiring creative “employee happiness coordinators” who aren’t corporate ingrains, who can feel the pulse of the workers. As a small start-up, I wish we had the funds to pay our employee’s student loan debt. Instead, we try to do what we can, like stock their favorite K-cups (so they don’t stop to buy coffee every morning) and I purchase lunch fixings each week so they don’t spend their money on fast food. I would love to hear from other small business/start-up business owners on what small perks they are offering their employees!

  2. Colin

    March 1, 2018 at 10:27 pm

    Great article! You are definitely correct in saying that the company loyalty of the past is dead. I agree with the comment up above that HR departments need to look into hiring employee happiness coordinators who can feel the pulse of the workers. Often HR is out of tune with what employees really want for their work perks, and hiring somebody who can focus on that is a great idea.

    I think one idea that can help give companies the edge is in their reward and recognition program. It may seem small, but the way you reward employees can have a huge impact on retaining and attracting the best talent for the company. Companies like Bucketlist are breaking through to give employees experiential rewards instead of gift cards, and something as small as that can have a huge impact on company culture and attracting the right talent.

  3. Jeddie Busch

    March 3, 2018 at 9:51 am

    Employee perks are great but they often change early on especially for start ups. I would recommend only adding in a poerk if you were confident it would be in place for at least a year. Nothing worse than having something “cool” go bye bye.

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Opinion Editorials

Culture can be defined by what employees don’t say

(OPINION) What your employees say defines your business. What your employees don’t say defines your culture.

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Whether the boss realizes or not, employees – the folks who often manufacture, handle, and sell the products themselves – can see sides of the business that management could easily overlook, including potential risks and improvements. So how do you make sure your employees are speaking up? A new study by Harvard researcher Hemant KakkarSubra Tangirala reveals that when it comes to speaking up, your company culture is probably either encouraging or discouraging it.

Tangirala wanted to compare two theories as to why employees choose to stay quiet when they could share their worries or ideas with company management. The “personality perspective” presumes that shy, reticent employees simply don’t have the gumption to speak up; therefore, the way to get more perspective from your employees is to make a point to hire extroverted people.

Meanwhile, the “situational perspective” posits that the company culture may either be encouraging and even expecting employees to speak up or discouraging it by creating an environment wherein employees “fear suffering significant social costs by challenging their bosses.”

In order to test these two theories against one another, Tangirala surveyed nearly 300 employees and 35 supervisors at a Malaysian manufacturing plant. First, the survey measured each employee’s “approach orientation,” that is whether or not, all things being equal, they had a personality more inclined to speaking up or staying mum. Next, employees were asked whether they thought their input was expected, rewarded, or punished. Lastly, supervisors were asked to rank the employees as to how often they spoke up on the shop floor.

The survey showed that both personality and the work environment significantly influenced whether or not an employee would speak up – however, it also showed that environmental factors could “override” employees’ natural inclinations. In other words, if employees felt that they were expected or would be rewarded for speaking up, they would do so, even if they aren’t naturally garrulous. On the other hand, even the most outspoken employees would bite their tongues if they thought they would be punished for giving their opinion.

The study also identified two major areas wherein employees could be either encouraged or discouraged from sharing their perspective. First, employees can be encouraged to suggest improvements or innovations that will increase workplace safety and efficiency. Secondly, employees should be expected to speak up when they witness dangers or behaviors that could “compromise safety or operations.”

Although the study was limited, it seems to point towards the importance of creating a workplace culture wherein your employees are rewarded for speaking up. Doing so could potentially provide you with invaluable insights into how to improve your business – insights that can only come from the shop floor.

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Opinion Editorials

How to change your negative mindset into something of value

(EDITORIAL) Once you’re an expert, it’s easy to get caught in the know-it-all-trap, but expertise and cynicism age like fine wine, and can actually benefit you/others if communicated effectively.

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In conversation with our friend John Steinmetz, he shared some thoughts with me that have really stuck with us.

He has expanded on these thoughts for you below, in his own words, and we truly believe that any individual can benefit from this perspective:

Over the last few years I have realized a few things about myself. I used to be trouble, always the dissenting opinion, always had to be on the opposite side of everyone else.

Then, I started reading everything I could get my hands on dealing with “how to change your attitude,” “how to be a better team player,” etc.

Over the course of that time I realized something. I realized that there was nothing wrong with me, only something wrong with how I communicate.

Unfortunately, once someone sets the context of who you are, they will never see you as anything else. I was labeled a troublemaker by those who didn’t want to “rock the boat” and that was that.

In my readings of books and articles by some of the most prominent technical leaders, they all had something in common. Paraphrasing of course, they all said “you can’t innovate and change the world by doing the same thing as everyone else.” So, in actuality, it wasn’t me, it was my communication style. For that reason, you have to say it out loud – “I will make waves.”

Physics

There are two things I reference in physics about making waves.

  • “A ship moving over the surface of undisturbed water sets up waves emanating from the bow and stern of the ship.”
  • “The steady transmission of a localized disturbance through an elastic medium is common to many forms of wave motion.”

You need motion to create waves. How big were the waves when the internet was created? Facebook? Just think about the natural world and there are examples everywhere that follow the innovation pattern.

You see it in the slow evolution of DNA and then, BAM, mutations disrupt the natural order and profoundly impact that change.

Communication

Where I was going wrong was, ironically, the focus of my career which is now Data. For those who do not know me, I am a product director, primarily in the analytics and data space.

More simply: For the data generated or consumed by an organization, I build products and services that leverage that data to generate revenue, directly or indirectly through the effectiveness of the same.

I was making the mistake of arguing without data because “I knew everything.” Sound familiar?

Another ironic thing about what I do is that if you work with data long enough, you realize you know nothing. You have educated guesses based on data that, if applied, give you a greater chance of determining the next step in the path.

To bring this full circle, arguing without data is like not knowing how to swim. You make waves, go nowhere and eventually sink. But add data to your arguments and you create inertia in some direction and you move forward (or backward, we will get to this in a min).

So, how do you argue effectively?

First, make sure that you actually care about the subject. Don’t get involved or create discussions if you don’t care about the impact.

As a product manager, when I speak to engineering, one of my favorite questions is “Why do I care?” That one question alone can have the most impact on an organization. If I am told there are business reasons for a certain decision and I don’t agree with the decision, let’s argue it out. Wait, what? You want to argue?

So, back to communication and understanding. “Argue” is one of those words with a bad connotation. When quite simply it could be defined as giving reasons or citing evidence in support of an idea, action, or theory, typically with the aim of persuading others to share one’s view.

Words matter

As many times as I have persuaded others to my point of view, I have been persuaded to change mine.

That is where my biggest change has occurred.

I now come into these situations with an open mind and data. If someone has a persuasive argument, I’m sold. It is now about the decision, not me. No pride.

Moving forward or backward is still progress (failure IS an option).

The common thought is that you have to always be perfect and always be moving forward. “Failure is not an option.”

When I hear that, I laugh inside because I consider myself a master of controlled failure. I have had the pleasure to work in some larger, more tech savvy companies and they all used controlled experimentation to make better, faster decisions.

Making waves is a way of engaging the business to step out of their comfort zone and some of the most impactful decisions are born from dissenting opinions. There is nothing wrong with going with the flow but the occasional idea that goes against the mainstream opinion can be enough to create innovation and understand your business.

And it is okay to be wrong.

I am sure many of you have heard Thomas Edison’s take on the effort to create the first lightbulb. He learned so much more from the failures than he did from success.

”I didn’t fail. I just found 2,000 ways not to make a lightbulb; I only needed to find one way to make it work.” – Thomas Edison

It is important to test what you think will not work. Those small failures can be more insightful, especially when you are dealing with human behaviors. Humans are unpredictable at the individual level but groups of humans can be great tools for understanding.

Don’t be afraid

Turn your negative behavior into something of value. Follow these steps and you will benefit.

  1. Reset the context of your behavior (apologize for previous interactions, miscommunications) and for the love of all that is holy, be positive.
  2. State your intentions to move forward and turn interactions into safe places of discussion.
  3. Learn to communicate alternative opinions and engage in conversation.
  4. Listen to alternative opinions with an open mind.
  5. Always be sure to provide evidence to back up your thoughts and suggestions.
  6. Rock the boat. Talk to more people. Be happy.
  7. A special thank you to John Steinmetz for sharing these thoughts with The American Genius audience.

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Opinion Editorials

Why tech companies should embrace Artist Residency Programs

(EDITORIAL) With technology founders wiping themselves with money while also truly caring about culture and inclusion, they’re missing a huge opportunity by ignoring artist in residency programs. Even Amtrak does it – come on, y’all.

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There’s a ton of cash in the tech industry. Like, more money than your primate brain can process, like “get-the-country-out-of-debt” money – Scrooge McDuck swimming in gold levels of cash. That’s how profitable technology has become.

And we’re not just talking laptops and smartphones, either. All of those monthly subscriptions you’re not thinking about, the Hulu, Netflix, Microsoft Office, that extra storage for your MacBook or iPhone, that’s all got a name: Software as a Service (SaaS) and with major players like Apple and Disney upping their stakes in the game – this model ain’t going anywhere.

Our thermostats are connected to our iPhones, and our cars are plugged into a matrix that’s fed into the Internet. Everywhere you look, the tech industry is changing everything. Everyone has a smartphone, a tablet, and a laptop, or a television that’s Internet-enabled.

And for everything that’s connected to the Internet, someone’s making a buck.

According to CTA, the tech industry will make $398B this year, and The Big 5 – Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook are worth a combined three trillion dollars. What do these companies do with all of the cash?

These companies typically pay well. To hire the best, workers want a payday. That’s fine, everyone who bangs at their job should get their slice of the action. After that, companies invest in culture and hiring that next tier of top talent. But, after the company offsites in a wooded cabin, the multi-million-dollar research projects, and the fully covered healthcare are accounted for, there’s still dough to play with.

Let’s get creative.

A lot of the more prominent tech companies have established that giving back is critical to their mission. Teams do charity work, they fly to other countries to help build schools; all kinds of amazing wonderful things are happening thanks to some of the world’s biggest players.

But what if those same companies established a new precedent – What if they established artist in residency programs?

One of the greatest professional experiences of my life was working for Atlassian and traveling between the Austin, San Francisco, and Sydney offices. While I was there to write for them, I’m still a writer, I always worked on my stuff. I’ve written in cafés in North Beach after browsing City Lights books where Ginsburg stomped his feet. I’ve been in bookstores in Sydney, never taking for granted for a second that I was beyond lucky to have this chance; that experience opened up a world that money had prevented me from exploring.

Can you imagine being allowed to fly to another office to work in a different environment, just for a change of scenery? It’s staggering what a comprehensive program could do for the arts community. The money and infrastructure is there, and so long as companies continue their dedication to paying it forward, this should be an added flavor to that mission.

This might sound like a shocker, but most of your friends who pursue art for a living ain’t exactly making windfalls of cash.

Most artistic types are freelancers or have multiple side hustles – they wait tables, or slug away in the bars, they cut corners on life’s everyday expenses in pursuit of their art. Your average painter, cartoonist, writer, filmmaker, they’re all chasing the project that gives them a chance to make their art their living. The problem is, for most creatives, it’s a dog chases its tail kinda life and that tail ain’t getting any longer or tastier.

How would it work?

Companies should work with the Alliance of Artist Communities (AAC) and set up a residency program. The AAC had been setting up residencies across the country for years, so while this is a feel-good philanthropic endeavor, the organization knows every tax break and loophole out there.

And realistically, the AAC has to, considering the culture of treating the arts in our communities is seen more of a begrudging, “we should probably do this” offense rather than an important investment. Most artistic programs receive pennies on the dollar, and most creatives live hand to mouth in pursuit of their dreams, and for many tech founders, the story is relatable, only they’re masters at problem-solving. Creativity doesn’t have to be pen to paper and the outcome being a funny doodle of a dog riding a skateboard, the creative mind is our innate core, we’re programmed to search for inventive ways to solve problems.

We just turn it off as society deems creativity an expendable commodity.

Creativity shouldn’t be relegated as frivolity, but essential.

In the world of artistic residences, paying bills is an issue. So, many programs have to drum up funds, find donors, seek out worthwhile endowments, search for tax breaks. Many are non-for-profits because they need grants for just about everything.

But in tech, cash is there aplenty.

Instead of throwing a Christmas party with a $100K budget for each office around the world, that money could be better spent on social enrichment. I’ve worked in the tech world for the past six years, and I’ve seen a lot of wasteful spending. While I love a good massage chair experience, that money could have been spent elsewhere versus giving staff of over three hundred already fabulously well paid people fifteen minutes of “me time.”

For one year or whatever predetermined amount of time, a company would allow a creative in their city to “join the team.”

What’s that look like?

Allow someone to create in these offices that are more like adult Disney World with their free snacks, open collaboration, catered meals, and endless perks. Give an artist a space that was once a small meeting room and let them do their thing.

The culture aspect of a creative being dropped in the average technology environment would blow their minds – most tech companies strive for diversity and inclusivity, and this program would be a brushstroke in that palette of reasoning.

By giving the creative the chance to mix it up with people who think in code, in marketing campaigns or how to “disrupt the market,” the influence would be impactful: a developer might become a nature photographer, or maybe a mixed media artist helps the marketing team see a problem from a different point of view. If there are anything companies in tech suffer from, it’s a little too much inward focus.

Change everything with a pen stroke.

Some campuses are so big (Facebook, Apple to name just two), they could support two or three artists at a time.

Indeed, Atlassian, Oracle, Uber, Lyft, all have multiple offices around the world. Imagine an extroverted painter working in a common room, while people move to and from meetings, getting that flash of inspiration, even if minute.

That’s beautiful.

Maybe instead of continually talking about code depositories or the next sprint, people got hip to new books? Maybe an essayist learns how to use Trello to manage their weekly pitches or maybe even further, they learn about how agile principles work could make their processes more manageable?

And while this person is getting paid, maybe they’re earning more money than they’ve ever seen. What if someone who’s always worked minimum wage jobs were given an $80K gig to create? Sure, you’d need to coach them on saving up for when the program is over, but for that period, being restricted to the dollar menu wouldn’t be everyday life.

The results would be staggering. The average working artist has to grind while others are asleep, early in the morning or late at night, they find ways to communicate their feelings, but while still making sure rent is on time.

Companies could establish an annual open competition where artists of whatever designated mediums submit their work.

Maybe it’s film or painting, or gosh, even a writer. But for that year, the winner gets to attend the fun parties, the culture building events, but most importantly gets paid well for their residency.

If the competition is opened up beyond the borders of the company’s home base, that works, too. Most bigger companies have a few corporate apartments that are barely used. Giving someone a room wouldn’t be that big of a deal.

Artists could donate their skills to workshops, creative programming, even create art specifically for the space. Most offices anywhere could use a little freshening up, or at least an ongoing blog series, something.

As for the perception of “selling out” the artistic culture has changed, where it was once punk rock to keep everything as DIY as possible, most of us creatives are fighting against a sea of other talented people all of the time, the chance for exposure on a bigger level, but also being financially free is worth wearing a few corporate branded t-shirts. And honestly, tech companies generally aren’t as gross as the old school monoliths of the past, most of the executive boards are made up of actual people who started from the bottom.

As my friend Jason Saul of BirdNote once told me, “don’t think of it as ‘selling out’ we’re in a hip hop-driven culture, you’re blowing up.”

There are residency programs on farms, a recycling center in SF, in the woods, the Florida keys, Amtrak got into the residency game for a while, just as Padre Island in Texas, the national parks all have them, even the CERN large hadron collider has an artist in residence program.

To double-down even further, even The Mall of America, the place where you can buy a corn dog or visit one of five Victoria’s Secret stores (who needs that many panties?) or ride a rollercoaster, has an artist in residence program.

The artist is given $2500 for a week, plus a hotel room and are allowed to roam the mall 24/7. LaGuardia airport in New York rehabbed an old Hudson News and converted it into a kiosk to people watch and create, so why not the tech companies who purposely set up shop in buildings in the heart of downtowns across the world or amongst trees in sprawling acreage?

This is possible.

Who’s going to be first?

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