Forget About Perks and Focus on Culture

Back Commentary Apr 3, 2017 By Tyler Smith

Most employers offer standard benefits like medical, dental, PTO and retirement, but the more glamorous perks like unlimited vacation, in-house massages and kegerators full of beer have become a growing trend. They seem to make a company a more attractive place to work, offer employees additional incentives and encourage a relaxing working environment.

My company, SkySlope, offers some of the best perks in Sacramento. We’re always paying attention to what other local companies are doing to see how we measure up. From a pet-friendly office to catered lunches, we spare no expense. We often tout our wellness reimbursement, our matching 401k and our personal development initiative.

You can’t determine the worth of a company by its perks — those are just the bells and whistles. What defines a good company? Its character, otherwise known as company culture.

The beauty of these unique benefits is that they afford employees the opportunity to live happier, healthier lives. Wouldn’t it be nice to not have to worry about packing a lunch? Or get reimbursed for getting a massage? Imagine you wanted to hike Half Dome or learn to code; subsidizing personal development opportunities provides huge value to employees. The most obvious value in non-traditional employee benefits is standing out from the competition when trying to attract high-quality talent.

But of all the things that matter in growing a successful company, employee perks fall to the bottom of the list. Arguably, the most valuable investment I’ve made is in company culture.

I hate to tell you this, but ping-pong tables and unlimited energy drinks don’t make a good company. You can’t determine the worth of a company by its perks — those are just the bells and whistles. What defines a good company? Its character, otherwise known as company culture. Do employees enjoy coming to work? Do they take pride in the work they do? Do they look forward to challenges? Are they productive? The answers to these questions will give you a better understanding of whether a company has a healthy culture.

Unlike benefits, culture isn’t something tangible. It’s not an employee incentive that is given as a reward. Culture is the sum of what CEOs and founders value — execution, humility, awareness, urgency and ownership. It’s the job of an organization to invest in individuals who believe in and exemplify the values. Owners, founders or CEOs bring their values. They are embodied by leaders and put into practice by employees. Products and services may evolve but values will remain constant; they are unwavering despite obstacles, challenges and change.

Success stems from who you hire and how those people fit into your culture. When you hire talented people who will fit in with the culture, you’re hiring someone who will become obsessed with your cause. Any employee who applies because of trendy workplace benefits will not make it very far. If they’re coming for the pet insurance, then they’re coming for the wrong reason.

When you have great culture, you have loyal employees who continue to work hard because they feel cared about as individuals. They stay because they are challenged. They stay because they want to make an impact.

Our lead recruiter at SkySlope, Darren Mullen, says: “All the extras are nice but employees seem to get the most out of our personal development initiative, SkyRise. If we want to attract candidates that are high value, that’s the benefit they should be most attracted to. The rest is just fluff.”

That said, there is some benefit … to benefits. They can help supplement and support company culture. Steve Jobs specifically designed the Pixar building to encourage more organic interactions. In Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs, Jobs is quoted as saying, “If a building doesn’t encourage [collaboration], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity. So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.”

SkySlope’s culture revolves around innovation. It’s at the core of everything we do. And when our employees are comfortable and feel taken care of, they can focus on being truly innovative. We want to create an environment where our teams are empowered to create groundbreaking solutions and provide unmatched service. If you want to do the unthinkable, then you have to set your employees up for success.

Culture needs to be a constant priority. You can’t expect a bunch of perks to define your company. Instead, spend some time defining your values — afterall, you already know them. Then make sure everyone on your team has buy-in. Everyone has to be constantly checking in and keeping a company’s values on the forefront. There will be days when you have to focus on hitting a sales quota, handling a server issue or shipping a product in development. When your values are strong and clear, you will do each of these things within the context of your culture. You will execute with urgency. You will be aware of the details. You will take ownership of a situation. By living the values, you establish and strengthen the culture. This is how good organizations become unstoppable.