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Within a few days of Facebook announcing plans to build a residential housing community that is walking distance to a sprawling Menlo Park, Calif. campus described by the Wall Street Journal as already, “so full of cushy perks that some employees may never want to go home,” a former Google contract worker questioned here at GeekWire as to whether the plush amenities and laid-back work style that works so well for recruiting actually reflects the reality of the work.

Facebook and Google are just two of the corporate giants in the war for talent influencing the lifestyles offered by company offices around the country. Taking cues from the more-relaxed environment of college campuses, the increased flexibility and collaboration of the modern-day workforce, and, yes, even bringing back some dorm-inspired foosball and ping pong tables from the early dot-com days, creativity abounds in the perks being offered.

It’s not just the big guys, either. The ever-present “best places to work” surveys highlight small companies with “cool” benefits. And start-ups, where 80-hour work weeks and all-nighters rule the day, bring in some of the creature comforts of home since most people won’t be going home soon anyway.

But as the Facebook “company town” and the ex-Googler’s stories diverge, an important and oft-forgotten fact is exposed: perks may help boost a work culture, but only if it’s a good culture in the first place.

Google Chef Jason Wilson, right, holds some chocolate chip cookies at the company's Kirkland campus.
Google Chef Jason Wilson, right, holds some chocolate chip cookies at the company’s Kirkland campus.

Let’s go back to Google.

The contractor’s plight aside, Google’s headquarters is perhaps one of the plushest on earth, to the point employees could conceivably never leave. There are free onsite restaurants, free haircuts and laundry services, pool tables and arcade games in break room and much more. Importantly, job satisfaction is sky high.

But do Google employees love their jobs because of these perks?

No. Surveys regularly show that Google employees even in less decked-out offices still feel great about being a part of a cutting-edge company doing interesting work.  And, because they’re engaged, they’ll willingly work the epic hours required of them.  So, by all means, let’s throw some fun at them, as well as some of the conveniences they’re giving up when they can’t clock out before dinner.

So what makes for a good culture or engaged employees? Forgive me for being simplistic, but it’s really just three things: good pay, good people and interesting work.

Good pay is table stakes. Business is a money game, and everyone needs a return on their investment, whether its salary, benefits, stock options, or the promise of a financial pay-off down the road.

Good people build cohesion and help each other grow. Companies are social organisms, built around shared experiences and expectations. These aren’t just the people you like. In the workplace, they should be the ones who not only help you succeed but hold you accountable to doing so.

Chris Smith
Chris Smith

Interesting work is probably the most variable, as everyone has different interests. But I’m not just talking about the “follow your passion, change the world” interests, but about projects that stretch your skills, create tangible improvements for your company or your customers or expose you to insights and challenges that make you a better professional.

This simplicity is something lost on many companies. And in trying to attract and retain talent, they’re adding all sorts of superfluous perks to their workplace without really considering why. Plop a ping pong table in the break room of a broken company and you’ll see what I mean.

Employees on deadlines will be distracted by others they view as doing less than they should as part of the team. And, when managers start monitoring the table, watching who’s spending their time playing instead of working, that table will seem more like a trick than a treat.

All of this is to illustrate the simple fact that a decked out office is too often used as window dressing for an otherwise lackluster culture. Companies think it will help with recruitment or with retention. If the culture is broken, in the end it does neither.

Before splurging on the perks, ask yourself this simple question: Are we strengthening an already healthy work culture, or simply trying to create the appearance of one? 

Chris Smith is partner and co-founder of strategy consulting firm ARRYVE, a three-time “Washington’s 100 Best Companies to Work For” honoree. You can follow Chris on Twitter at @disruptsmith and at @arryve.

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