bring on the perks

if there was ever a time for free snacks, it's now

Have you read that NY Times piece on the ‘YOLO economy’?

I’ll give you minute to open it in another tab if not. NYT have a nice little audio functionality on the article, so you can even listen to it while you read this, if you like. That’s called multitasking, which is a key feature of being a #girlboss, which is, of course, the target audience for a newsletter titled ‘guess i’ll die’.

I read this article and had a lot of thoughts. Thoughts such as ‘wow, must be fun to be rich enough to “YOLO” rather than falling into a pit of despair about how to make money at a job that doesn’t make you miserable’ and ‘weird how they frame this as YOLO-ing rather than burnout from a traumatic year’.

There was one line in this piece that gave me - and I imagine a lot of other people - pause: ‘Fearful of an exodus, employers are trying to boost morale and prevent burnout’. The article then goes on to list a couple of the things big businesses have introduced to keep their workers keen: a paid week off, $20k, holidays.

Surely I’m not the only person who read this and thought something along the lines of: ‘wait, where are my perks? What is my employer doing to “boost morale and prevent burnout”?’

It’s true, many employers are absolutely fearful of an exodus. As they should be.

Few things make you question your life quite like having it turned completely upside down by a pandemic. All the loss and fear and reminders of the fragility of life really does make you wonder if chasing targets and sitting at a desk is what you want to be doing. Then there’s the immediate ego bump of being told in clear terms that your job is nonessential, that it is, effectively, kind of pointless.

Getting someone who has suddenly realised death is all around to continue clocking in at 6am is hard enough. Then some workplaces have decided to give themselves an extra challenge: let’s try to get these same demoralised, demotivated people to return to the office!

This was always going to be a challenge.

Sure, working from home hasn’t been great for everyone. I’ve completely wrecked my back by working on the sofa, and I was taken aback by how much of a difference not having a commute has on my ability to switch off from work and actually relax. I’ve missed seeing the people on my team. I’ve found it difficult to be creative and come up with ideas when I’m not able to chat ideas through, soak up conversations around me, observe what people are doing (although to be clear, this does not require being in the office, more just not being at home).

But for those who have been able to work from home, we’ve been given so many gifts - of time, previously sucked up by toing and froing, of quiet, of the comfort of being in our own space, of freedom from office tensions that somehow permeate the air between cluttered desks, of being able to play songs aloud and sing along, of eating snacks without any pressure to bring in enough for other people.

Now, big bosses are asking us to jump right back into life before. They don’t see this as a loss, because we did this with no complaint a year ago! What’s our big issue!

But what they don’t realise is that people are possessive beings. Once we’re given gifts, even if they come with some other not-so-great side-effects, trying to take them away will only make us cling harder.

And again, we’ve started to ask questions. Why do we need to do things this way, when we’ve done them another way for the past year? Why are you taking away these nice gifts? Why would I allow this, and ask for no exchange, nothing to fill the empty space they leave?

These questions pile in with the bigger ones, the ones about life purpose, and happiness, and what we’re all doing, and suddenly the management that thought they were just ‘getting us all back to normal’ has become the enemy, the MAN, the organisation, them.

They’re baffled that people are angry and asking for something, anything, to show they think of us as people, not just workers. We’re baffled that they don’t see what they’re asking of us.

Then it becomes the principle of the whole thing, doesn’t it. It’s not even ABOUT the commute now, that’s fine, whatever, it’s that the curtain has been yanked down and we’re looking at the big, ugly, question: why can’t you just care about me? Why can’t you treat me nicely? Why won’t you make me happy?

A lot of people will respond to this by cutting their ties and ditching their current job. If they’re wealthy and confident, they’ll ‘YOLO’. If they’re not, they’ll try to find another job and ask about the ‘workplace culture’ in the interviews, consider a drastic career change, talk about wanting to do something with their hands, you know, actually make something, then come around to the idea of just doing a nice job with regular hours that doesn’t make them feel like shit. Maybe they can make pottery in the evenings, or start up an Etsy for an embroidery business.

But the crux is that they’ll leave, so defeated by the past year and then this final indignity that they’ll just give up. Or, alternatively, so enraged by this unveiling of badness that they want to resign not out of weariness but as a grand ‘fuck you’.

How do you fix that? How do you get people not only to stick around, to continue the slog, but to now ease themselves into smart jeans that cut, cruelly, into soft flesh on tummies and to sit at a desk where they can’t just have Four In A Bed on as background noise?

The answer, of course, is not making work more meaningful or pretending to care about workers’ mental health.

The answer is perks. Lots of them.

It doesn’t matter how righteous your cause, how lofty your morals, how deeply you’re questioning the very fabric of our existence, the promise of a free lunch will lure you to wherever the bosses want you to go.

Free pizza on Fridays? Guess we’ll be in the office on Fridays from now on, as long as it’s actually ordered hot and there’s no unspoken etiquette about only grabbing one or two slices.

Unlimited snacks? No charges for hash browns at breakfast? A fancy coffee machine with a constant stream of capsules? Reel us in like bears awaking from hibernation, in search of a feast, until we are so comfortable in the thought of money saved that we feel like we’ve won, as though we’re scamming the big guys by grabbing two cans of Coke at a time and a packet of crisps to eat at home.

This isn’t a failsafe method, and it’s not going to pull back the most cynical workers on the list. But it’ll absolutely work to get a lot more people in and quieten complaints. It’s a lot harder to ask why it’s so important to be in an office when your mouth is filled with M&S treats.

Yes, some people will still leave. Some people will take advantage of all the freebies, and the ‘return to the office and we’ll give you money’ bonuses, and the false niceness, then still turn around and hand in their notice.

But surely those demanding workers’ returns don’t actually care about keeping people around long-term? If they did, they’d be bothered about how these people feel. They might chat with them about flexible working and see what would actually be mutually beneficial.

No, the purpose is not retention. It’s people in seats, and for that, the solution is clear: bring on the perks.

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