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Competing With Silicon Valley's Cushy Benefits

Nov 04, 2013

Competing With Silicon Valley's Cushy Benefits

You get up whenever you want, dress in whatever you want, plug into your company-provided MP3 player, grab your company-provided smartphone, and amble to the nearest bus stop. Soon the company-provided bus, equipped with wifi, picks you up for the hour ride to work. Once at work, you pick up a free latte, grab a free bike, and pedal to the building with your office, where you pick up your free breakfast and start working. At various points during the day, you get a free massage, a free haircut, a nap in one of the “nap boxes,” and drop off your dry cleaning. In between, you get a free lunch, snacks, and dinner, along with, perhaps, a free lecture from a famous person or a free concert in the evening. Then you get back on your free bus, which takes you home, which got cleaned for free while you were at work.

Sound idyllic? It’s the way employees for some big tech companies and startups -- such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and eBay -- actually live.

Searching for “perks” on Quora is instructive, as tech workers scope out the competing benefits of their various potential employers. One of the biggest and most valuable benefits companies offer is the food, which includes gourmet meals of every ethnicity and dietary preference, coffee, snacks, and freshly squeezed juices. Workers say it’s not just a matter of the food being free, but of being healthful and readily available.

Then there’s the commute. Literally hundreds of company buses traverse various parts of the Bay Area, taking workers to and from work. The buses have tinted windows and are full of coworkers, so people don’t have to worry about a competitor eavesdropping. They also have wifi, meaning people can use their commute to get work done. And, of course, they don’t get stressed out, distracted, or even injured due to traffic or accidents.

Benefits don’t just include free food and buses, but can also include generous (for the U.S.) maternity and paternity leaves -- on the order of four months – as well as bonuses of hundreds or thousands of dollars to help take care of the new arrival.

Detractors say all the free benefits hurt local businesses, which naturally can’t compete with free. There are others who say the freebies could be bad for employees themselves in the long run because they never leave the office, interfering with work-life balance. There’s also talk of taxing the benefits as income. And, of course, should the economy go south, the fancy benefits are likely to as well, writes Kathleen Pender in the San Francisco Chronicle.

While not all companies can offer pricey benefits such as transportation and food -- let alone unlimited vacation -- not all perks have to be expensive. Letting people dress the way they want and keep flexible hours doesn’t cost anything, and may even save money in terms of improved productivity. And certainly it should be the goal of any company to be able to offer to its employees the ability to work with congenial people on challenging, rewarding opportunities.

More to the point, the companies themselves say that the benefits don’t make that much difference in terms of attracting and keeping employees, according to Tom Foremski at ZDNet. In fact, he writes, Todd Carlisle, director of staffing at Google, told a panel at the Inforum conference on “How to attract tomorrow’s talent” that they were not necessary -- that no job applicants ask about work perks, and no one turns down a job based on what perks are available. Similarly, Jedidiah Yueh, CEO of virtual database startup Delphix, told him his company doesn’t offer such benefits, saying “We don’t run an adult day care center. The best engineers want the opportunity to work on solving hard problems and that’s what we do here.” 

Moreover, these companies aren’t handing out all of these benefits out of the goodness of their hearts. There are several reasons why tech companies are engaged in a perks “arms race,” as Pender puts it. First, companies need to offer comparable benefits, because of competition for getting and keeping good employees in tech hubs. Second, if people don’t have to worry about buying and cooking food, cleaning their houses, or getting their laundry done, they have more time and attention to focus on work -- and never have to leave the office.

Similarly, Pender points out, the unlimited vacation, aside from being a perk, is an attempted way around California’s laws on vacation. It keeps companies from piling up liabilities -- which the company has to pay out when the employee leaves -- from all the vacation employees are accumulating and not being able to take because the hours are so arduous.

Ultimately, the best benefit of all may be acknowledging that employees have lives outside the office, and supporting that.

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