No free lunch: The hidden costs of perks for tech workers Melanie Baker October 1, 2015 Columns, M-Theory In tech, there’s a hierarchy of perks considered a necessary part of culture and retention strategy. At the top of the heap, nearly everything except breathing is taken care of, so you can spend maximum hours cranking out code. At the basic level, there are catered lunches; maybe once a week, maybe more. It’s a convenience for employees. And a good way for teams to have bonding time in a way that’s less structured and more fun than an all-hands meeting. If guests or interviewees are present, it can be a nice way for them to interact with everyone and get a more casual and holistic view of the company. But this can easily escalate. Meals catered every day. A games room. Massages to help mitigate those long desk-bound hours. And so it goes. Having your every need catered to might seem ideal at first glance… but. What about those folks who are coming into the workforce now? Starting their careers with all these perks, and, quite possibly, continuing to work indefinitely for companies where they’re the norm? (And who will companies that can’t afford that attract?) I see professional and personal development issues here. It blatantly encourages people not to go home. Work, eat, keep working. Free food and foosball may make it seem like people are taking time to play and refuel, but not really. People take less time away from their desks if the food is right there in the office, and I’d argue that you’re not really unplugging if you’re within the same walls. Younger workers might have more stamina but less experience in the importance of taking care of themselves. Burnout will still happen; it just may take longer. Small startups, particularly, cannot afford to lose these employees, especially with short notice. It’s also been well documented that long hours don’t make you more productive. There’s a sharp drop-off in productivity after a certain point, and then you’re just hanging out with the same people in the same space. Again. This means getting increasingly disconnected from the world, family, friends, communities, hobbies. Having friends other than your co-workers is good for you. Looking at, reading, doing and experiencing things other than office stuff is good for you. It will refresh your brain, charge your creativity and improve focus and productivity when it’s time to buckle down. It’ll also be better for company culture and operations, because different environments and perspectives help stave off groupthink. Never in the history of humanity has social and cultural isolation led to good things. Warped, insulated, inflexible thinking, poorly informed decisions – these can come to seem normal. A startup version of North Korea isn’t good for anyone. Even going out for lunch with different people is very different from spending it in the office with the whole team. Since we’re creatures of habit, if we’re in the same full group every day, we’re going to default to always talking to the same people with the same dynamic. Intentionally changing up with whom you spend time helps you get to know both your co-workers and the company better. It will strengthen culture and make you professionally smarter. You’ll learn a lot about what’s going on around the company, and in your broader industry. When you do go home, taking care of yourself at least some of the time is good for you as a person. You don’t want to become a grownup version of that kid. You know, the one who got everything he wanted, was never disciplined, and never had any chores. Yeah, that kid. Learn to do laundry, keep your place cleaned up, cook a decent meal, budget your finances. It’ll make you way more attractive to prospective partners, too. (And your parents will be so pleased!) It will also encourage you to take up non-work-related projects. People who never have to do for themselves come to expect others to do for them, anywhere, any time. This isn’t going to get you very far, especially in tech. Sure, not everyone will become an entrepreneur, but if you graduate, take a cushy job and stay in one place with everything handed to you, you won’t actually grow much as an employee. You won’t learn about much beyond your tiny corporate microcosm. Your team, your project, your feature. What else? People who learn zero about design, business plans, finance, customers and a million other things are never going to become the next generation of leaders and innovators. In tech in general, doing the same thing too long raises red flags. Do you have goals and ambitions? What have you been learning? How flexible and agile are you? Swaddling doesn’t make you very sexy either (professionally speaking). And yes, companies do take an interest in people whose lives seem well rounded. Interesting and engaging people tend to be interesting and engaging employees (and engaged, professionally). I know, this started with catered lunches, but the slope is slippery. For now, company finances may limit the lunches, which is fine. But beyond that we do still glorify the 24/7 grind of startup culture, thinking it means dedication, passion, etc. If you’ve moved to a new city, co-workers may be your only local friends at first. Company or industry events might be your only social outings. Catered meals are likely a lot easier than finding a grocery store, etc. But the important learnings, serendipitous moments and awesome adventures require risk and effort. (And sometimes washing dishes.) Think of it as investing in yourself. In 10 years you’ll thank me. Photo: Pascal/Public domain M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or firstname.lastname@example.org.