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21 March 2023

The death of workplace perks

Major companies are cutting back on benefits, from free meals to laundry services  – and our understanding of what makes a “good” workplace is shifting.

By Sarah Manavis

When I left university and got a competitive job at a famous advertising agency, the thing that jumped out to me most about my new employer, beyond their prestigious client list, was the company’s refreshing focus on staff well-being. Along with my offer letter I was given a seemingly endless list of perks. The office covered multiple floors in a central London building overlooking the Thames with espresso machines on each level; Christmas parties were hosted in historic venues such as the Natural History Museum. Staff were offered free breakfast and yoga classes, weekly subsidised reflexology, an in-house beautician before events, and an annual stipend of £200 to spend on an “inspirational” experience (most people I knew used this money to go on holiday or to Glastonbury). I was invited to events in fancy venues with free drinks on a regular basis. In my 22-year-old naivety, I believed all this confirmed that I was set for a glamorous life.

The punchline was that, despite the add-ons, and despite the focus on well-being, my salary was barely above the living wage. (Actually I didn’t have a salary, I had a “flex fund”.) Even staff years ahead of me only made a grand or two more. Almost everyone was working long hours. I found the culture competitive, lonely and hostile – working there was, for me, a pretty miserable experience.

What I didn’t know at the time was that I was living through the peak of perks. In the 2010s, brought about by the boom of start-up culture, there was a sharp rise in companies – particularly ones in technology, media and marketing – offering employees workplace add-ons that were pitched as evidence of the company’s strong emphasis on staff well-being. These perks included things like free meals, laundry services, gym memberships, snack walls, merch and invites to glamorous events. Offices had expensive furniture, iMacs, ping pong tables and beer fridges – all of which were used to appeal to young (cheap) workers and to project an image of a culture that was cutting-edge, cool and, above all else, cared.

It didn’t take long for most people to realise what these perks were masking. Rather than better renumeration or working conditions, companies made the far cheaper choice to offer glitzy-sounding “benefits” that conveniently served as eye-catching PR and helped recruitment. While successful, this strategy eventually became transparent. Now, it seems that the time of perks may be coming to an end.

[See also: The power of the platform]

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Following major tech and media lay-offs over the last nine months – affecting big companies including Facebook, Twitter and Amazon – corporations are aggressively looking to cut costs. One of the first things on the chopping block is the perks that have become synonymous with working in these industries. This death has been a long-time coming. Since the pandemic increased working from home, these extras were already beginning to wane (a recent report in Wired found that the number of posts on Glassdoor, the job listings and employer rating website, by UK tech workers mentioning workplace benefits more than halved between 2019 and December 2022.) Many companies sold their flashy offices by the end of 2020 and downsized to more humble spaces. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, announced cuts to its dinner, valet and laundry services in the spring of 2022. This change – at one of the companies most responsible for popularising perks – was seen as a death knell for perk culture.

The circumstances in which workplace perks are disappearing are undoubtedly grim – the change comes amid mass layoffs and a rising cost of living. But, alongside the death of perks, we are seeing the emergence of workplace interventions that are more beneficial to staff well-being. Shared parental leave is on the rise, hybrid working has become an expectation for most companies, and just last month more significant evidence of the benefits of the four-day working week was published. Strikes by rail workers, nurses and teachers show employees’ commitment to fighting for fairer pay. The workforce appears to be gaining awareness of what real investment in employee well-being looks like, and the cynical nature of perks. Workers are increasingly viewing a corporate emphasis on perks over pay as a red flag.

This shift in our understanding of a good workplace is undoubtedly a positive one – but the presumed death of perk culture may prove to be mere dormancy. Perks did not arise because of some sudden bout of corporate benevolence, and nor will fairer workplaces. Companies will always be looking to maximise profits and will inevitably create new ways to project the image of good working conditions as cheaply as they can – especially on social media. Of course, office perks shouldn’t need to be a casualty in the fight against poor pay or long hours. In an ideal world, people could have a healthy work-life balance and free lunch. But we should welcome this moment when the mask has slipped. This isn’t the end of companies caring about their staff – it’s the end of them getting away with only pretending to.

[See also: Silicon Valley Bank unmasks the hypocrisy of libertarian tech bros]

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