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Chasing perks: is there a darker side to fancy offices and benefits?

As employers try to catch up with the Googles of the corporate world, are they descending down a slippery slope of office perk madness?

CHASING PERKS: Why that model Insta-worthy office doesn't tell the whole story about the company.

CHASING PERKS: As employers try to catch up with the Googles of the corporate world, are they descending down a slippery slope of office perk madness?

Hubspot's corporate culture is writ large as its common spaces and leisure activity rooms attest to.

Hubspot's corporate culture is writ large as its common spaces and leisure activity rooms attest to.

Alcohol beverages company Diageo's bar that is the centrepiece of their newly revamped office.

One of the many workspaces at the new Diageo premises.

THESE days, that ping-pong table in the office is not so unique anymore. In Singapore, employers are now dangling increasingly outrageous benefits such as unlimited vacation, cryopreservation, and fully-paid sabbaticals as the war for talent continues to heat up. That’s not forgetting the free food, sleep pods, massages and childcare, which are practically par for the course. This comes as offices physically transform their workspaces into Instagram-worthy spectacles that aim to impress the Millennial jobseeker. What once existed only in the domain of top tech giants in Silicon Valley has seeped into mainstream offices here, with employers everywhere embracing one-upmanship to lure the best and the brightest. Yet, workplace perks and workplace culture are not quite the same thing. Even as the line between the two continues to blur, industry watchers flag that employers need to be clear about the difference, or risk falling into the trap of favouring style over substance.

Copy that

At the Singapore office of NYSE-listed software firm HubSpot, workplace perks are taken to a whole new level.

HubSpot might not be particularly well-known in this part of the world as its Asia-Pacific headquarters in Singapore is relatively new, but it was named one of the best places to work in 2019 according to the annual ranking by Glassdoor.

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Among its vast array of benefits include those that relate to professional growth, such as unlimited free books of your choice related to business, and reimbursement of US$5,000 annually for courses or programmes for professional self-improvement.

Then there are those that will make others sit up, such as unlimited vacation and egg-freezing coverage.

The egg-freezing benefit - no doubt an unusual one in most workplaces - was inspired from the experience of a director in the US office who found out that she faced fertility issues. She shared the news with her manager, who helped push for action in the company to do more for couples trying to conceive.

HubSpot also has benefits that cater for the needs of each local office.

For example, for Singaporean males in the sales team who have to go for reservist training, it was recently announced that they get 100 per cent of their sales commission for the two weeks, as well as a quota relief.

Shahid Nizami, managing director, Asia-Pacific at HubSpot, explains that the new policy came from staff feedback. "It was totally a ground-up initiative. It was raised to us by employees that affected sales staff were stressed out over the issue," he says.

As a global tech firm, HubSpot's perks may not be too surprising, given the competition out there in the industry for top talent.

Another global company that is leading the way when it comes to benefits is Diageo, an alcohol beverages company known for its brands Johnnie Walker, Baileys and Guinness.

Just stepping foot into their shiny new Singapore office is enough to make you wonder if you accidentally entered a fancy restaurant instead. A huge bar - not surprisingly - is the centrepiece of the office, while an exclusive Johnnie Walker whisky room houses some of the rarest whiskies in the world.

Spirits are certainly kept high in the company, with an open bar on Thursdays and Fridays, where employees and their guests are welcome to drinks from 6 to 9pm.

The entire office at Diageo is open-plan, with no fixed desks or dividers to create a fluid and collaborative workspace.

Sam Fischer, president of Greater China and Asia, Diageo, tells The Business Times that he is no exception to the rule. "I have no desk and I have nothing that looks like an office," he says, chortling. "There is a meeting room for confidential discussions or sensitive conversations, but I'm no different from anybody else."

And in case you think Diageo advocates a rowdy, drinking culture just because of the sparkling bottles of alcohol adorning the office, the benefits they offer are decidedly more family-friendly. Its most recent initiative is to offer 26-week parental leave for many of its markets, including Singapore. This means that fathers, too, get to take up to 26 weeks when their babies are born.

Dark side?

HR experts say that more companies are leaning towards outrageous perks or transforming their offices into Silicon Valley-esque workspaces as a way to differentiate themselves. While one purpose is to lure staff, they note that there are a whole host of other possibilities as to why firms are moving in this direction.

Sam Neo, CEO of HR consultancy People Mentality, notes that one key reason that companies are moving to a hot-desking concept is to maximise the office area.

"Essentially, for many that have transformed their office layout, employees are getting smaller workspaces than before," he says.

"While it is supposed to enhance communication, it has also proven at times to create more issues such as (increasing) the noise level and the setup being a distraction."

Studies have found that open-place offices ironically result in less face-to-face interaction while emails and texts went up.

There can also be a dark side to all these perks being trotted out. "There is literally no free lunch in this world," notes Mr Neo. "When you have perks like a nice office, childcare and a nap room, what the company is doing and telling you is that they expect you to work longer hours."

"People often fall in love with the fact that perks are cool but don't think much about the implications and hidden message behind it."

Abhijeet Mukherjee, CEO of Monster APAC and Gulf, concurred that a growing pool of critics are pointing out that perks do not add "any real value" - not just for employers, but also employees. "Contrary to popular belief, most millennials are actually looking beyond fancy perks," he says. "What entices them is real, incremental investment in making them feel satisfied in their current career path."

He notes that work perks can even be a source of stress for staff. Unlimited vacation, for example, is one that is particularly problematic. "It can mean employees are a bit more hesitant to go on holiday for long periods of time even though it's technically allowed for fear of becoming replaceable and unnecessary to the broader team."

Perks vs culture

This is particularly true in Asia, where the local work culture still has some way to catch up with these "very Western-driven" perks, he adds.

Research has also found that offering unlimited leave actually results in staff taking less vacation time. Yet, such practices are becoming more common. HR experts say that the trend of employers copying the perks of other glamorous workplaces will likely backfire if done to achieve certain frivolous or disingenuous objectives.

Martin Hill, associate director, HR, Randstad Singapore, says: "Perks are implemented to improve productivity and companies should not use them to guilt trip their employees to commit more."

This means that companies cannot expect staff to work longer hours just because free food, sleep pods and laundry service are provided, he notes. Ultimately, addressing the underlying needs of the people is more important than superficial perks. He explains: "Instead of following a fad, companies should evaluate how the perk will help improve organisational productivity and employee loyalty."

For example, providing an on-site masseuse to relieve stress does not actually resolve the crux of the issue, which is actually the mounting stress that employees are experiencing at work, he says.

While office perks have often been used in the same breath as workplace culture, they are actually not quite the same thing.

HubSpot's Mr Nizami sums it up as such: "You can buy perks, but you cannot buy culture."

He acknowledges that there appears to be a trend of firms out there trying to one-up each other by introducing increasingly outrageous perks, which he finds problematic.

According to him, culture is "way beyond and above" perks. "You can't just throw money at culture - it takes a lot of time, effort and resources," he says. He adds that culture is not a priority of HR, but a business priority.

Workplace culture might be a nebulous concept in most places, but at HubSpot, it is encapsulated in a 128-page document known as its signature Culture Code. There is even a Culture lead in each office, complete with a Culture committee made up of representatives across the functions.

It is an indication of just how seriously the software firm takes its culture.

At the core of this culture code are three key values: transparency, autonomy and flexibility.

He says: "We don't care how many hours you put into work. The way we work is that you are not chained to your desk anymore."

As a father with a young son with an early bedtime, he tries to leave the office every day by 5.30pm, in a move that he dubs as "leaving loudly".

"I don't sneak out of the office. I want to spend time with my son, and after his bedtime I can get back to my work… you don't need to be in the office 24/7," he says. Remarkable performance is still expected, but how employees do it is up to them. HubSpot considers its culture - not its perks - as a key competitive advantage for hiring and retaining talent, especially among a crowded pool of well-known names.

"You can't hire great people unless you have something different from the others, so we rely a lot on our culture," he says. Amazing perks are just a bonus.

As a former Googler, Mr Nizami knows what he's talking about. It was HubSpot's culture that was the hook for him to make the leap a year ago. "One thing that was non-negotiable for me when I was in Google, was that I will only leave for somewhere with an equally amazing culture," he says.

Similarly at Diageo, it is its work culture and core values that drive its policies and benefits, not the other way round. Its newly transformed office is simply a physical manifestation of that, says Mr Fischer. He says: "This is us being true to ourselves, not us trying to beat Google and Facebook and trying to have the best office."

In a hot-desking environment, it is all about fluidity, speed and agility in the organisation to move quickly behind the things that matter, he points out. There cannot be any more hierarchy or barriers that get in the way. The office is set up to remove the boundaries between home and work so that there is no significant difference where employees choose to work, he says.

"Of course, performance is important - I'm not going to say that there is no accountability in our business. We are just not tracking how people deliver it," he adds.

While critics have been vocal about offices that blur the boundaries of work and home, Mr Fischer is firm on his stand that it is about doing what is right for Diageo. "It is not about trying to drive excessive work hours to squeeze the last drop out of our employees. That cannot be further from the truth," he says. "We want people to go home to their families and to enjoy family life. The (26 week) parental leave benefit attests to that."

Getting it right

Employers need to focus on building a solid company culture even as they try to attract and retain talent with their perks, say HR experts.

Dangling attractive benefits when there are deeper issues at work can only fool employees for so long. Monster's Mr Mukherjee says: "It's easy to appear to be a cool company with big-screen TVs and an in-office bar, but these things won't change the work culture if it's already toxic and negative."

He points out that perks can attract and engage staff, but they have "diminishing returns": "They don't add any real value to an employee's real needs, and will eventually lose their appeal," he says.

Staff certainly appreciate the free perks if offered, but the question is whether the company is making sure their actual, underlying needs are met. Benefits are just the cherry on top, and certainly not the main course. No good employee will stay on in the company just because they get freebies.

Instead, the challenge for companies is to build a positive and productive work culture where employees feel empowered and find real value in their work. It is this emphasis on creating the right employee experience that separates employers of choice from the rest.

There is also no one "right" workplace culture across top employers, and what works depends fully on their business and HR objectives, points out Randstad's Mr Hill.

"If the organisation is one that is results-driven, the culture will be centred on productivity and processes," he says. "If the firm thrives on creativity, the organisational culture will be designed to encourage people to contribute ideas as easily and as frequently as possible."

Regardless, building the right culture requires input from both management and employees, and not simply a top-down approach.

Employees should have a say in company policies or changes that would affect them, as this establishes mutual trust and respect. Office redesigns are an example of how employees should be invited to pitch in.

That being said, People Mentality's Mr Neo points out that leaders have a particularly significant role to play. This is because leaders drive the culture with their value system and their actions.

To create the right culture, they must first understand their people - what are their profiles, what makes them tick and what their needs are - before they can align these with organisational objectives, he says.

In addition, more time and effort must be spent on identifying and equipping leaders with the required skills and mindset, says Mr Neo.

Ultimately, it is what leaders do in reality that speaks a lot louder than what they actually say about the culture.