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The pizza and pool myth: why businesses need to recognise that culture is built not bought.

As recruiters we come across all sorts of different companies. From rapidly scaling start-ups to steady, established global brands, each one comes with their own ways of working. Recent years have seen Google-esque offices and lavish perks becoming an expectation for many candidates and employees, with an increasing number of job descriptions boasting ‘games rooms’ or ‘quarterly socials’ as value-adds. But do perks really build a company culture? Our marketing manager and newest recruit explains why culture should never be built upon false promises or flashy ‘treats’.

The concept of ‘perks’ is a funny one; everybody loves a freebie, but what about at the expense of a healthy work environment? I spent years thinking that having a slide-and-ball-pit entrance or dart board in the office would make my day job more fulfilling, until I understood that there are companies who value material perks above company culture. Rather than investing time in developing their people to create productive environments, some leaders believe that throwing money at a dissatisfied workforce is the best way to improve staff retention and company success.

I’ve still never had an office with a slide in it, but I have known companies with pool tables that were never played on for fear of management scorn, or ‘help-yourself’ beer fridges strictly monitored at management discretion in some bizarre carrot-and-stick scenario. I’ve had friends whose companies offered incredible discounts and holidays, or else huge bonuses, but constantly moved the goalposts for employees. As it transpires, working for a company which genuinely values integrity and trust before anything else is immeasurably important.

The problem with perk-as-sales-pitch.

With talent harder to attract than ever, an increasing number of businesses are marketing themselves on employee perks and benefits (pool tables, free fruit, discounted movie tickets, Thursday drinks), all designed to prove that they have a great internal culture. Superficial perks like these are great ways to attract talent – especially graduates and younger workers who hold an idealised view of what work should look like – but unless a business boasts a genuinely supportive and healthy culture, sky-high salaries and fridges full of beer are not enough to improve the environment or staff retention. A breakout area is only relevant if staff feel comfortable using it to bounce around ideas and quarterly socials only have prudence if you can bear to be around your co-workers for a second longer than the contractually obliged eight hours.

staff party photo

Where a lot of companies miss the mark is by investing in things rather than people. Justifying a pinball machine rather than identifying training needs and knowledge gaps or asking employees what they need to thrive is short-sighted at best. Investing in people and their individual success means they will invest in the success of your business. Companies should champion learning and development, creating an environment where employees are allowed to say, “I don’t know” and encouraged to find out. Just knowing that there is support for self-development makes teams unafraid to ask for help when they need it, ultimately increasing efficiency by plugging knowledge gaps.

Humanity as a perk.

Mental health awareness is shining a spotlight on the value of a healthy work/life balance in recent years, something which does not compute with the contents of a Perkbox (other rewards schemes are available). The only ‘perks’ people really need are a supportive workspace, a feeling of being valued and a manager who cares about them beyond a payroll number. Flexible working policies, trust and acknowledgement of achievements all add up to make for productive and healthy working environments which acknowledge employees as individuals with their own needs.

Helyx, one of our clients, recognise that in order to attract the best talent, they may not always be local and may have a long commute or overnight stay to be in the office. Their approach to onsite working is that you only need to be in the office if you actually need to be in the office. Rather than operating on the basis of Monday – Friday, 9 – 5, Helyx trust their employees and empower them to set their own working parameters, including where and (to an extent) when they achieve their weekly tasks, allowing people to live their lives as well as delivering for the business.

Lauren, our Operations Manager, has a background in HR and believes that one of the biggest issues employees face is where companies offer skiing trips and mega-bonuses but are less forthcoming with statutory requirements and acknowledgement of personal lives:

“People aren’t robots; a fickle approach to rewards is untenable. I know of companies where people are taken to incredible blow-out parties to celebrate exceeding quarterly targets, but the amount of (unpaid) overtime expected of them is unreasonable. Some places make it difficult to take annual leave or deny half an hour for medical appointments; even leaving the office for lunch is frowned upon! For me, nothing is as important as being treated like a person instead of a machine.

“A work funded dinner or free lunch do not make a working environment any more or less tolerable. Giving people things that they want is not the same as giving people what they need; popping to the doctor, running late or leaving early because of the school run (or just because), working from home without fear of retribution…these are things that really matter. The world we inhabit is near enough 24/7 and technology is advancing every day. The days of a 9-5, chained to your desk approach are (or should be) gone.

“Attracting talent may be aided by the promise of hospitality at the Gold Cup, but unless you give people the respect and trust to live their life, feel valued, learn, grow and remain healthy, you will not retain them. Throwing employee benefits at a toxic culture is the equivalent of sticking a band-aid on a bullet wound; there may be an instant effect, but it is not enough and it certainly won’t fix things!”


remote working lady in cafe

So, how can companies create genuinely great cultures?

Perks vs Culture

Perks should come as part of a great culture, not in place of it; Friday beers are a great idea if you use them to debrief and celebrate that week’s wins, rather than sat silently finishing your emails for the week. A pool table can be a welcome addition to an office too, but make sure people feel free to use it for informal catch-ups and collaborations, rather than exclusively during their free time.

If you really want to create a good working environment, address your management styles; lose the micro-management, avoid negativity or squash one-upmanship. Trust your team to do their jobs, to ask for help when they need it and to offer help when they can add value to colleagues.

Importantly, allow them to be human.

It really is that simple.

Ditch the pretence

Not every company is the same; for some industries core hours and presence onsite are necessary. If this is the case, don’t claim that you offer flexible working in your recruitment process. You don’t need to allow people to dictate their own hours or work from home to create a healthy culture, but always tell candidates exactly what your culture looks like honestly, as this is the only way to guarantee a good fit all round. Promising something you can’t (or won’t) deliver is a sure-fire way to create a toxic environment of disheartened employees.

Consider including a ‘culture panel’ with the team as part of your interview process to ensure that everybody you take on is a good fit. If you do, ensure that you listen to the feedback and only make hires that people are happy with; doing this as lip-service will only make your team feel disenfranchised.

Add value with your Values

If you can’t establish a stable and progressive culture, people will leave. Company culture is rooted in your values, so candidates who want to be truly happy in their jobs should work for a business whose values align with their own. At InfoSec People we have three values:

company values image

Sound simplistic? They are, but because every single person we work with believes in these values and lives them every day, they’re not just gimmicky words on a wall. Authentic values make for the kind of culture people want to be a part of. When staff are all on the same page, there’s no ego, just a team. Businesses need to recognise that the ‘best talent’ is not necessarily good for business; if somebody is there for perks and pay-rises, but doesn’t add value to the team dynamic, consider if they are damaging your culture and preventing you from retaining great team members.

How can candidates avoid perk pretenders?

  • Ask about company culture at interview. If the responses from hiring managers/HR focus primarily on freebies and events rather than teamwork, training or inclusivity, this is a sign that the culture is either toxic, or not even on their radar.
  • Speak to members of the team about company culture. If hiring managers are reluctant to let you meet your future colleagues, that should be a red flag in itself!
  • Do some research. Do you know anybody who has worked in that company? If so, ask the question! Sites like Glassdoor are worth checking out too. They may be problematic (as are all review sites) with people more inclined to leave negative feedback, but if there is an overwhelming and consistent response regarding the culture, it is probably accurate.
  • Trust your gut. If you don’t think a role is right for you, don’t take it! You know you better than anybody else. If you’re stalling over accepting an offer, you already know it’s not right for you.

Not every company with a pool table has a bad culture: the majority are great places to work and they may well be the best fit for you. The point is not to avoid a company where there are elaborate perks, but rather to ensure that you prioritise understanding the entire culture and values. If you find a company where you align with their values and culture and you get incredible perks, go for it!