What would you rather have as an employee benefit: on-site daycare, or on-site shiatsu massages? According to most U.S. companies, that answer is obvious, because while workplaces that offer ample parental support, health care or just the promise they won't crunch their workers into an early grave are few and far between you can't throw a molotov cocktail without hitting some start-up luring in naive talent with glamorous perks like inter-office Segways or monthly yoga retreats. But some of these trendy benefits aren't just flashy distractions to keep workers from realizing their dental plan is just a coupon for a tube of Colgate, they're late-capitalist cons that wind up costing employees more than they benefit from them. For example...
Unlimited Vacation Time Tricks Employees Into Taking Less Time Off
While unlimited paid time off is still a novelty, ever since places like Netflix and LinkedIn started offering the perk more and more Silicon Valley and startup firms are telling their young employees not to worry and take all the time off they want. But in reality, unlimited vacation time is like the gym subscription of employee benefits in that your taskmasters are counting on the fact you won't use it nearly enough for it to pay off.
When these companies loudly declare that they offer unlimited time off, what they're really whispering in their employees' ears is: How many days do you think you're worth? And, surprise, it turns out that the same work environment that fosters the kind of hustle culture in employees to push 60-hour weeks and still find the time to pick up their CFO's drycleaning, those same go-getters don't want to risk finding out which number of days puts them in their 'lazy' pile in their boss' fickle brain. As a result, early research is already showing that employees with unlimited paid time off request even fewer vacation days than the traditional PTO pittance U.S. employees receive.
But not only does the unlimited vacations cost employees time off, the system also devalues the very concept of it. After all, unlimited is the opposite of precious, right? So perked up employees have admitted that their generous masters tend to expect they keep answering calls and responding to work emails even when they're enjoying their decadent day two out of two of their so-called bottomless vacation high.
Most insidious of all, it makes it mathematically and legally impossible for employees to cash out unspent vacation days when switching jobs (in the states where that's possible), which just happens to have become a real money drain for the kind of start-ups that stock their office pool with nothing but burnt-out Millennials. From that perspective, unlimited PTO might just be the most disruptive thing those exploitative paradigm-shifters have ever done since they're trying to prove infinity and zero can be the same thing.
Free Food Is A Red Herring To Get Employees To Work Longer
Like workers' collective blood sugar, U.S companies offering free meals are spiking. In 2018, 32% of all U.S. companies offered some form of free food, ranging from coffee and donuts to late-night deliveries to restaurant-quality cafeterias. Free food has gotten so popular in Silicon Valley, several cities have passed laws banning on-site cafeterias because they're stealing too much commerce from local eateries. But what these companies spend on slinging dough, which for a place like Yahoo can easily be over $150 million a year, they more than make up for by keeping our doughy bodies in our office chairs.
There's no cheaper way to raise job satisfaction than offering free refreshments. According to a survey from the corporate food delivery company Seamless, 60% of employees feel more valued if their corporate masters offer them a treat now and then, while 45% of employees admitted that free lunches would "strongly influence" whether they'd take a job or not. And a survey from online grocer Peapod claimed that the percentage of "very" to "extremely" happy employees rises by 11% by the apparition of a popcorn machine in the breakroom.
But that bump in job satisfaction is not the only way companies use their free food to increase productivity. Free food is a very cheap way for, as business analyst Daniel Gross puts it, "controlling young employees." Since most perk-happy companies pay fixed salaries and no overtime, it quickly becomes very profitable to throw some cheap snacks and lunches at their employees if it means keeping them at their desk and not out for a coffee run.
Dinner privileges also tend to kick in only after business hours to incentivize workers to stay late. And the higher the pay, the greater the yogurt yield. There's a reason why every movie about lawyers has a scene of them putting tons of Chinese food on the corporate account while they're burning the midnight oil trying to get Al Pacino his dog park. But they're paying for those 14 bucks worth of moo shu pork with about $1,400 worth of unpaid overtime while the company pockets the leftovers.
Then there's the stress eating. Encouraging longer hours and keeping their employees locked inside inevitably creates a more demoralizing environment. But thanks to the constant presence of tasty free food, employees can then just eat their feelings instead of becoming disgruntled. But all that scarfing down processed food creates a very unhealthy eating habit. Data from a US Department of Agriculture Food Acquisition and Purchasing Survey showed that employees unwittingly scarf down almost 1,300 of mostly empty calories per week courtesy of their corporate chef and/or vending machine.
Flex Hours Are A Tool For Workplace Discrimination
Since most modern jobs are a combination of working on a laptop and staring at social media on the toilet for too long, it no longer makes sense for white-collar workers to keep strict hours as if they're punching the clock on a shift at the steel mill. As a result, companies are increasingly offering flexible work hours -- which are mutually beneficial. For employees, it allows them to skip the morning rush, pick up their kids from school or sleep off a hangover. And for their bosses, it allows them to push ever more pigheaded discrimination onto their workforce.
Managers love flex hours -- as long as you still show up at 8 AM sharp. Despite the system becoming more and more popular with upper management, a study from The Journal of Applied Psychology showed that a majority of supervisors still show a blatant "morning bias." When asked to review two identical employees, save for the fact that one worked 7 to 3 and the other 11 to 7, bosses immediately preferred the early bird, deeming them more "conscientious" as if having a late circadian rhythm is a sign of lacking a moral backbone.
But if night owls have it bad, that's once again nothing compared to the discrimination women and low-income workers feel at the hand of the flex hour trap. A 2014 study by the American Sociological Association showed that their random participants were willing to grant flex-time to dads wanting to take care of their kids 69.7% of the time and that making that request made these dads more likable in the eyes of their fake bosses. But working moms were not only less likely to have their flex time approved, just asking for it quickly got them branded as disloyal baby machines.
And for minimum wage workers, flex hours can also be a slippery slope allowing their bosses to cut overtime and even treat them like zero-hour contract slaves. With no agreed-upon shifts, low-income flex hour workers have to worry about being summoned to work at a moment's notice or even sent back home without pay when there's not enough work to go around. No wonder then, that flex hours tend to hurt employee morale, as the only reason they're kept flexible is so that they're easier to bend over.
Nap Rooms Do Not Solve The Chronic Overwork Issue
Overwork and burnout in the US have become an epidemic -- a very expensive one. According to a study by the Rand Corporation, the US loses an equivalent of roughly $441 billion and 1.23 million working days due to employees being exhausted all the time. As one Rand executive put it: "Millennials are spending much more time than our parents did at work. They also work crazy hours, different hours, and we want to adjust the work style and the balance to their needs." But, y'know, with perks that in no way involve cutting back on these insane hours or stop working their employees like Medieval oxen.
So what is their solution to this snooze situation? Well, there are these promising studies out of Scandinavia about 6-hour workdays actually increasing productiv-- just kidding! That would involve US companies trusting their employees. Instead, they prefer to treat them like a literal bunch of fussy kindergartners too soft-headed to keep their eyes open all day. By 2016, 6% of US companies were already offering employees the pillowy perk of a nap room, a special chamber replete with blackout curtains, an aquarium for some reason and, of course, smart nap pods, corporate semi-coffins that can cost between $8,000 and $12,000.
But the trend of nap rooms might be as short-lived as the siestas employees are allowed to take. Not because it's barely a band-aid on the gaping wound that is burnout but because it's having the opposite of the desired effect. Several companies report abandoning their nap rooms because employees often awaken more groggy and unfocused, almost as if shuffling past rows of judgy co-workers, strapping yourself into a dentist's chair and then laying still in your work clothes doesn't promote healthy sleep. And their sensitive CEOs also got annoyed that many overworked workers would oversleep well past their implicitly allotted 15 minutes of corporate unconsciousness -- a stark reminder that companies count on these vapid perks to remain underutilized.
Work Fun Is An Unwelcome Drain On Your Free Time And Money
No one grows up wanting to be an office drone, some nameless face behind a computer screen who just puts in the time and slinks back to their empty studio apartment to await being eaten by their cat. And in our digital age of remote work and Slack meetings, job loneliness has never been more serious. That's why many "cool" companies entice employees with the promise of a fun, social workplace, the kind with a ping pong table and plans for a yearly paintball tournament. But it turns out that every time an office promises you work fun, the emphasis is on work, not fun.
Consider the dreaded office Christmas party and its even more unpopular hanger-on, office Secret Santa. Consider how weird it is that your corporate and financial superiors suggest you spend your money to buy a gift for someone with whom the most intimate interaction you've ever had was replying to their Friends meme with a complimentary Friends meme in a work email chain. According to one Jobsite survey, 58% of workers and 73% of young professionals claim they've spent more than they could afford on a company whip-round. And since most work presents either wind up in the trash or on as evidence in an H.R. complaint, truly the only ones benefiting from these events are the bosses who use them as loyalty tests. A practice that, according to Philip Hancock, professor of work and organization at the University of Essex, has been used as far back as the Middle Ages when kings and lords gauged the status of underlings by who put in the proper effort for gifts and who just phoned it in and got everyone a novelty chalice.
The same feelings of awkwardness and competitiveness accompany most other types of "mandatory fun" -- and if you ever want another raise or promotion, they are indeed mandatory. While managers tend to paint these as ways of turning their workforce into one big happy family (not realizing that makes them the shitbag cousin who guilts you into helping them move cross country on your day off) what company-mandated work socialization tends to produce is just more competitiveness and isolation. Employees often wind up regarding work parties, work retreats and work search-and-rescue missions, as just that, work stuff -- something they either have to endure or, worse, see as an opportunity to network and show off their social and/or snowboarding skills in front of the boss.
The reason for this doubling down is deeply psychological. While perk-happy companies are all about blurring the lines between your work and personal life, when it comes to socializing that actually backfires. Unless you're the kind of corporate bootlicker who spends their downtime liking all of Elon Musk's tweets, psychological studies have shown that people are innately resistant of turning what psychologists Margaret Clark and Judson Mills called business-like "exchange" relationships (co-workers, doctors, your grocery store's bag boy) into intimate "communal" relationships (friends, family, your bag boy's mom). That doesn't mean you shouldn't try to make friends with your colleagues, it's just a bad idea to take a job based on the promise that your boss will set up the playdate.
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