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Perks and Recreation: Creating ‘cool’ workplace belonging

Perk up employee engagement

Jennifer Dunkerley

criene via Twenty20

Unleash The Perks Adapt your employee benefits to the new normal whilst keeping your office cool

  • 80% of employees would choose added work perks and benefits over a pay rise
  • 12% of businesses are happy with employee retention rates
  • 58% of recruiters said cool perks were increased to help draw better candidates

Do office perks matter more than we care to admit? In the run up to the Holidays global orgs are re-evaluating how to translate previously available office sweeteners into meaningful perks for those stuck working remotely.

Work perks like free snacks helped employee enagement
criene via Twenty20

It reminded us of one of the episodes of HBO’s millennial-drama GIRLS in which lead character Hannah (played by show creator Lena Dunham) gets an actual, real job. 

Set in the hipster-cool of New York City, we often see Hannah and her equally flakey graduate friends flit between careers, unfocused, working in part-time coffee shops, deciding to ‘find themselves’ by traveling or going back to school. Other than partying, they don’t know what they want. Definitely not a 9-to-5, anyway. 

Then Hannah gets one in the advertorial section at GQ magazine and the draw of the trendy office perks keep her coming back for more.

The real highlight of the episode was GQ‘s snack bar. Apparently GQ gives away free food all day — including donuts, finger sandwiches and even lox and bagels from Russ & Daughters. On day one, Hannah can’t get enough of the snacks. She brings them armfuls to a meeting — and even smuggles some home for her and boyfriend Adam to celebrate her great new job.

Sure, Hannah’s killing it at GQ, but she keeps telling everyone it’s just temporary. As she tells her co-workers, she’s a “writer writer, not, like, a corporate advertising, working-for-the-man kind of writer.” But it turns out that all of Hannah’s co-workers are even more legit writer writers than she is: One’s a decorated poet, another published some great essays in n+1 and a third was in The New Yorker. And they’ve all been in the GQ advertorial department for years. Why? The snacks. Well, that and healthcare, on-site gym, laundry, job security, etc. 

enforced team fun, free lunches and kombucha on tap doesn’t kick it anymore.

Fast forward to 2021 and a pandemic-hit world where office perks like enforced team fun, free lunches and kombucha on tap doesn’t kick it anymore.

The myth of the ‘cool office’ doesn’t work when most employees are remote and we’re all digital-first over real human interaction.

We’ll remember pre-coronavirus legendary talk of Silicon Valley office perks such as Apple’s free tech vending machine, Twitter’s rooftop play garden, Dropbox’s music room, complete with a piano and guitars. Skype had a pool-and-foosball room, its walls upholstered with cheeky (and sound-minimizing) Astroturf; YouTube an indoor slide: one story high, three lanes wide, fire-engine red.  Instead, 2020’s boast is becoming how well your workplace adapted to digital-first tech. 

But the events this year mean employees aren’t looking for futuristic offices and promises of fantastic colleagues anymore. And enticing employees in a fully virtual workplace is a little different.


“Every month on a Friday we actually have a company shutdown,” said Luan Lam, global vice president of people at the software startup Harness. “That is probably the best perk we implemented because everyone — everyone — every time we have a Friday off, we get thank you emails, thank you Slack messages.”

Lob, another software startup that like Harness is based in San Francisco, rolled out a monthly childcare stipend in October, aiming to help the 25% of Lob’s 100 or so employees who are parents.

“We’re hearing from our parents how hard coronavirus has been,” said Lob’s VP of people, Anne Wylde Serpente. “Even though we offer a great sense of flexibility in employees’ workday, it’s still hard because you’re still finding yourself working very late to catch up for the hours that you’re doing homeschooling or the hours that you’re putting your child down for a nap.”

Wylde Serpente said Lob employees have also shown a huge response to at-home snack delivery, which the company pays for by reallocating its in-office snack budget. They will likely never go back to their trendy Mountain View HQ full time.

sashapritchard via Twenty20

Elsewhere PepsiCo launched their Flextime policy for non-manufacturing staff, where workers have no start or finish times in their shifts. PepsiCo said the business trust their staff enough to allow them the freedom to construct their workday in a way that works the best for them.

Uber launched UberPet to help encourage employees to look after their furry friends as data showed pets boosted workplace morale. 

And other businesses now have employees scattered in various locations across the country staying connected via the internet. Chief technology officer Mitch Malone from software company Linktree has only spent four days in the office in six months of working at the job. The rest of the time he has spent traveling regional Australia in a caravan.

Mr Malone said provided he has connectivity, he can do his job from anywhere and his employer is fine with that. 


 “An employee’s entire workplace experience is linked to engagement with the business and successful performance,” revealed Dean Corbett, Chief People Officer at Avado, who is going one step further, by expanding in-house new technology to enhance engagement. He’s also currently finishing his MSc in Psychology. 

Avado is a professional academy that helps businesses through interactive learning in data, marketing, people, and technology. They have over 800 global clients, including Google and Tableau.  Dean led the design and delivery of its people plan throughout the pandemic facilitating an untouchable culture of success and belonging by deploying new technology and people strategy. Prior to joining Avado in July 2018, Dean held senior HR roles in fashion retail (Private Equity-backed Jack Wills), and health insurance (Bupa) internationally, having grown his career spanning these sectors along with FMCG (Carlsberg) and CRM outsourcing.

Dean explained: “Technology has come a long way in HR over the years and we’re now seeing platforms change the face of how we operate and engage with employees. We’re not aiming to replace human interaction with new technology, but enhance the technological capabilities to better support people and operate effectively.

“Technology has been evolving fast throughout my whole career, but 2020 has been a challenge on a whole new scale. So rather than being the secondary, less preferential choice for communicating, it’s become necessary, central, primary, and preferential for communication, not just for productivity and performance, but for adding benefits like supporting mental health.”

it’s about how well an employee feels their COMPANY takes care of them. 

For Dean, it’s not about the free snacks anymore. But it’s still about how well an employee feels their company takes care of them. 

Dean found that adding more options for staff to access digital perks, as they would in the office without having to ask permission helps employee engagement in the virtual office. They leveraged new tools to access perks online as well as a digital platform to help better connect employees to personal workplace goals and communicate objectives with line-managers when there is no in-person 1:1s. 

Dean said: “One technology company we’ve partnered with is Perkbox, an online platform that allows us to customize the interface and benefits we provide as a company with theirs. This gives our people a one-stop place to see what benefits are available to them. We added lots of options from online shopping discounts to useful services for supporting mental health and overall wellbeing. 

“Within the top ten lifestyle perks and benefits that Avado people have shown a particular interest in, include:

  • discounted cinema tickets – which have seen reductions because of lockdown cinema closures 
  • access to online workout classes, even since gyms reopened 
  • discounted rental vehicles, we believe for weekend getaways
  • discounts on healthy food, where it’s been available
  • and free online movie streaming. 

“The most popular has been free coffee, particularly during the pandemic in between the two national lockdowns.”


But it’s not just the freebie perks. The cool office culture and added benefits help employees maintain a sense of belonging to the business, mainly because they feel looked after.

“Leveraging Perkbox has helped digitalize some of our wellness offers, and give employees the power to log in and see what is there is without having to email or call the People Experience team or managers. We find a lot of people want the time to research then ask questions, so an online platform that is safe, secure, and bespoke to our EVP and culture has helped enhance our offering.





“Another tool we’re working with is Clear Review, as we’ve recognized the importance of goal attainment, communication, autonomy and alignment with a higher purpose on engagement, wellbeing and performance. The introduction of Clear Review is quickly confirming our view on the importance of ‘alignment’ for our people’s individual performance, motivation to deliver, self-determined growth/development/progression, and a sense of belonging. These are all proven to be key to positive employee engagement.”

It didn’t stop there. Dean added: “In all virtual group meetings, all staff are tooled up with a virtual whiteboard functionality to clarify understanding during and after interactions

“Technology is helping us to drive behavioural change in line with our values, as well as help individuals stay connected, raise concerns, and know where to find support.”

“We’re seeing positive results in our weekly engagement pulses, with another platform (OfficeVibe) in areas such as Relationship with Manager and Relationship with Peers, all of which have shown improvement in the data since the beginning of lockdown.

“Another way we’re using technology is within Clear Review’s manager/employee tips sections, where we are able to edit the content. In those, we have suggested standard structures for meetings. 

“Now, managers and their teams start meetings with ‘how are you really?’ instead of, ‘what’s on your list?’ 

“Technology is helping us to drive behavioral change in line with our values, as well as help individuals stay connected, raise concerns, and know where to find support.”

Dean’s Golden Nugget: 

“Businesses that have happy employees are less likely to experience high rates of sickness-related absence and high employee turnover, both of which are costly and negatively impact a company culture, which can cause a negative spiral. Technology can help to make this easier, more efficient and more suited to employees’ needs while freeing up HR time to really focus on issues at an organizational level. Next year is likely to be the time the solutions to this year’s tech problems start to materialize, following MS Teams’ developments in this quarter. Be prepared for further and different upheaval compared to the last year, but also further technological advancement.”

And cancel the snacks.

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