At well-funded startups, “perks” like coconut water, nap pods, dry cleaning on-site–even ping pong tutoring sessions–and more have become the norm (as well as the subject of plenty of jokes within and outside of Silicon Valley). Tech journalist Kara Swisher calls this phenomenon “assisted living for millennials.” Competing for our talent with other companies of comparable size and growth, many startups use perks for recruiting and retaining talent in addition to cash compensation.
Here are a few of the perks offered by tech companies:
- Google offers a concierge service to run employees’ errands and save them time.
- Apple pays for fertility aids including covering female employees freezing their eggs.
- Airbnb offers $2000 travel bonus to go anywhere in the world.
Essential benefits vs. perks
Let’s break down perks into “nice to have” and essential benefits, aka things that you really do need in order to maintain your general well-being and feel happy at a company.
Essential benefits include: health, dental, and perhaps vision insurance, a solid retirement plan, fair parental and sick leave policies, decent vacation allotted, flexible hours and remote work policies. On the less essential side but still very good may include things like good, strong coffee onsite and snacks so you don’t have to leave the office and walk twenty minutes in order to get a bite while in the middle of a coding session. For you, other essential company benefits may include a formal education stipend so you can continue your education and increase your skills, or childcare reimbursement, or flexible spending accounts, or a gym onsite so you can work out during lunch to feel balanced and help you focus. Or maybe a remote office stipend so if you’re a remote employee you can work outside your home in a community-filled, secure, reliable location.
When is a perk a distraction?
Geography of Genius author Eric Weiner argues that so-called perks can actually curtail creativity. Weiner says we need some friction in order to facilitate the creative processes so crucial to startup success. Weiner says we actually do our best work without all of the perks. “Discomfort, and even a degree of hardship, are what drive creativity, not bean bag chairs and ping pong tables,” says Weiner. The “is this a perk or essential benefit?” question is encapsulated in this sardonic tweet:
TECH CO: how do we retain talent
WOMAN TRYING TO HOLD BABY AND LAPTOP SIMULTANEOUSLY: help
TECH CO: lets increase the free cereals to 37
— Casey Johnston (@caseyjohnston) October 28, 2016
Indeed, perks can masquerade as valuable but may actually be a distraction from something essential a company is failing to offer. If your company introduces yet another kind of cereal but fails to offer a sane parental leave policy, then that perk may be a distraction from a real benefit. If a startup offers annual lavish trips to the beaches of Mexico or skiing in Tahoe, but has a cutthroat culture and doesn’t allow employees to actually enjoy their PTO undisturbed (at least most of the time), then that perk may be a distraction. User onboarding expert Samuel Hulick calls this “getting drunk off our own kegerators.” If your company has a luxury massage chair onsite but offers crappy health insurance, then there’s an issue.
You are the only one who can determine which benefits are truly essential. If you’re considering working for a startup, think about the benefits as they relate to the total compensation package, as well as your experience at a company. Don’t overlook startups that don’t offer tons of fancy perks, as long as they offer the essential benefits you care about. By re-framing the lack of flashy perks at a company as potentially a commitment to invest in essential things, you could find a work opportunity you really love that you’d otherwise overlook. Ensure the essential benefits you care about are covered in addition to things like alignment with the company’s core values, or risk missing out on an otherwise awesome startup work opportunity while you’re beelining it to the nearest nap pod.