Beyond the Ping-Pong Table: Workplace Culture and Perks in a Remote Work World
I think a lot about workplace culture in remote work. Before it was cool and before it became a pandemic-inspired norm, I thought about how I could better work with my team from a distance. It’s what happens when you’ve been working remotely for more than a decade.
Perks and benefits certainly play a role in an organization's culture. But when you get beyond healthcare benefits, paid time off and a great 401(k), you start getting into perks that seem more about keeping people entertained rather than productive or well compensated. They also indicated a certain type of workplace culture. Stocked fridges full of LaCroix, beer kegs, soft furniture scattered across an open workspace and yes, ping-pong tables, became a norm in certain sectors.
Since the pandemic pushed most workers home, those perks used as cultural touchstones became far less important. That’s where the problem became clear.
In Defense of the Ping-Pong Table
Like many of you, I’ve worked in different places over my career. One memorable workplace didn’t have a ping-pong table. Instead, the walls, furniture and carpet hadn’t been replaced since smoking fell out of fashion in the workplace. The amount of money spent on the office was next to nothing for decades. The lighting was like the beginning of a post-apocalyptic thriller, including a telltale fluorescent light ominously blinking. It was so devoid of natural light you never knew what you might be going out to when you left work.
Yes, ping-pong tables aren’t helping people out as they work from home in the pandemic. And, yes, the overcorrection from the dingy office I worked at to spending millions on brightly colored but uncomfortable furniture and other office perks got ridiculous.
But there was also some good that came out of it all. An arms race to make work less dystopian and more human was great. The connection between office perks and workplace culture is tenuous but real. They show employees that companies care and want to be competitive to attract talent.
Does simply having a ping-pong table mean you have a good culture? No, but combined with other benefits and the working environment, it helps an employee, or a job candidate, pick up that it’s a place they could see themselves working.
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Time Off Together and Practical Resources are the Ping-Pong Tables of Tomorrow
If employees aren't going to the office anytime soon and office managers got rid of all the soft furniture and replaced it with surfaces that are easier to clean, what then indicates a good company culture to both candidates and employees? Here are two that are impactful in a hybrid and remote work environment:
1. Collective Time Off
Organizations with an unlimited paid time off policy have sometimes struggled to encourage people to actually take time off, especially during the pandemic when vacations and travel weren't possible for many.
As anyone who has taken time off knows, it can be tough to make arrangements to cover your work. Asking coworkers to pick up the slack becomes a sort of quid pro quo. At some point, you’ll need to pick up extra work.
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The dating app Bumble chose to solve both of these challenges by instituting two weeks of collective time off every year. That creates a different kind of challenge, but it also ensures that people don’t feel the need to check in with coworkers. We’ll likely see more organizations have full week-long shutdowns over the winter holiday season and sometime during the summer.
2. Practical Work/Life Resources
Working from home in the middle of a pandemic is different than just working from home. More employers have made investments in technology for home offices to make work better. At this point, we shouldn’t see people working on a laptop supported by a tower of books on their kitchen counter. From arranging co-working space for those living in tight quarters to helping employees with more than the basics — such as lighting, art and decorations that make an office feel like a comfortable place — employers are stepping up to assist.
Beyond expanded resources for home life, there are also some more unique offerings that ooze practicality. For example, the company I work for will reimburse employees $50 per week for meal kit boxes from companies like HelloFresh or Home Chef. It’s a small benefit, but it’s great to not think have to think about meals for our family and just have takeout when I feel burned out for the week.
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Workplace Culture Is Your People
Culture isn’t the benefits or perks you offer, but the people you have and the unique formula created from all those people working together. But it’s also naive to think that those perks and benefits don’t mean anything and don’t play a role in who is at the organization.
Yes, you can minimize the investment in your people whether it’s at the office or in a remote work environment. It will ultimately show in the people who choose to leave.
On one level, a ping-pong table, collective time off or a free meal kit are just perks. But they also reflect an attitude — that these small investments are worth it to have the right people working together. As companies look at ways to keep the people they have but also add new people to their team, they should be looking at the way those decisions reflect what matters to a remote or hybrid workforce.
About the Author
Lance Haun lives life at the intersection of people, work and technology. He's currently a practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy and a contributor for Reworked and ERE.net.