On-site benefits: How far is too far?

Many are introducing on-site perks that mean employees almost never need to leave. Are these well-meant attempts to engage staff or do they create a dangerous pressure?

In the shiny bubble of the San Francisco Bay Area there’s a place where your every whim is catered for without any need to step into the outside world. Come inside and start your day with a nutritious breakfast from the plethora of free restaurants; or with a workout in the gym. Feeling under the weather? You can visit the doctor or take a nap in a sleep pod. Fancy a massage? Got laundry to do? Drinks after work? No problem.

It sounds like the kind of futuristic, self-sufficient, micro-cosmic community that would be featured in the latest sci-fi film. But it’s an entirely accurate description of how many Silicon Valley firms are set up today.

Such perks have been around in Silicon Valley and in City law firms for some time now, with the ante being upped in 2018 by Amazon and Apple’s forays into on-site health clinics in the US. And where they go the rest will follow, with aspiring Zuckerbergs and tech start-ups putting their own spins on such perks.

But is catering to the every want and need of the modern worker actually the pinnacle of employee benefits? Or do on-site perks create an unhealthy Stockholm Syndrome, and risk staff feeling they never need to leave the office and so unknowingly surrendering their work/life balance?

On-site benefits sprang from “work campuses [in Silicon Valley being] literally in the middle of nowhere so if they weren’t on site people would have to drive a while to find somewhere for lunch”, says Kim Wylie, global director of people development at Farfetch, and former Google employee (a firm that provides on-site gym; breakfast, lunch and dinner; sleep pods; meditation rooms and massages in the UK; as well as dry cleaning and childcare services in the US).

It’s a similar story at remote trading parks, adds Maria Mander, founder of Mander Wellbeing: “For companies out in the suburbs and trading parks where there’s usually just a chip or pie van outside, to offer on-site meals or gyms helps improve employee health and wellbeing.”

So for Wylie on-site benefits are a good way of bringing a greater level of convenience to employees. “[Google] does free breakfast, lunch and dinner because of the international time zones people work with – it just means everyone can have a free meal that fits with whatever their schedule is,” she explains.

Then there’s the sleep pods that give workers a quiet space to nap, meditate or just enjoy a bit of downtime: “The science behind it is that going in and out of sleep helps you form creative ideas. They’re not for sleeping overnight or for long periods of time,” Wylie reassures.

Law firm Allen & Overy is another that takes on-site benefits seriously. Its London office is home to a health and wellbeing centre including free gym and fitness studios and an on-site GP and physiotherapist, a subsidised staff restaurant, dry cleaning services, massage and beauty treatments, and sleep pods for staff working late on deals. Toni Graves, head of reward and benefits, explains that these are all part of a strategy to engage the workforce.

“We recognise that our people work hard so it makes sense that we should look after them and give them every opportunity to look after their own wellbeing,” she says. Having these opportunities on site makes wellbeing a more accessible part of life, Graves adds: “For example, I’m much more likely to go and get my flu jab if I can just pop downstairs during work for it than if I have to make an appointment at my GP and take the morning off or leave early.”

This convenience element perhaps reflects a changing workforce. “There’s a demand for perks like these from Millennials and Gen Z who aren’t just looking for pay packets but want all of this on their doorsteps,” says Mander. “Talent is scarce so these generations are cherry-picking employers who offer these things.”

But too much focus on this generation is part of the problem, according to Anna Meller, director of Sustainable Working and member of The British Psychological Society’s Work-Life Balance Working Group.

“These services appeal only to a particular demographic – if you look at Silicon Valley... this meets their demographic of young geeky men who are happy to spend all their time at work – they almost move out of a university campus and straight into this work campus,” she says.

“Which goes some way to explaining why Silicon Valley has such a problem with women – especially women doing the double shift – because there’s nothing to support working flexibly at home. Instead it’s ‘come work for us and be part of our community 24/7’.”

This creates an environment where employees feel they should never leave the office, says Meller. “It sends a subtle signal of ‘why do you have to leave?’ and encourages a long-hours culture,” she warns. “This not only has a negative impact on wellbeing but sends a message to people that work is the most important thing and that ‘we the employer can fix everything else around that, you don’t need to worry about anything else, just focus on your work’.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire: “The risk is people get tied in but don’t realise it because these initiatives are presented as benefits.

“This creates increased dependence on the organisation to fulfil every need and it’s then harder to go home on time because the usual reasons to leave to go to the gym or do the shopping or washing aren’t there anymore.”

Which all presents a worrying picture of an institutionalised workforce, whose office doors are physically wide open but psychologically cemented shut.

A central question hanging over this debate concerns how involved employers should be just generally in employees’ lives. “It’s a very paternalistic approach that says we the employer know what’s best for you,” says Meller, adding that this runs in opposition to the image such firms often like to portray.

“Silicon Valley [firms] say they’re not command and control but in a sense they are as they’re controlling all aspects of someone’s life and taking away their personal responsibilities and choice,” she says. “It’s a bit Big Brother,” agrees Kinman. “You’re treating employees like toddlers: ‘have a nap in the sleep pod and there’s your sandpit to play in after’.”

Employers having access to sensitive medical records courtesy of on-site health clinics also needs careful consideration. “People worry about confidentiality because it’s a private thing. Even if people are sitting in the doctor’s waiting room with colleagues walking past they can feel uncomfortable,” says Kinman. “And when people are sick, having an on-site clinic encourages them to come in to work to see the work doctor, rather than take time off.”

But this is a highly-divisive debate. According to Graves these fears aren’t grounded in reality. “There’s no mandate whatsoever that says employees must use the GP in the office rather than their own,” she argues. “I don’t think it’s invasive at all – it’s about choice so it’s absolutely up to the individual whether or not they use the services on offer.”

“It’s personal choice,” agrees Wylie. “Lots of people in the London Google office used the on-site gym but a lot of people also didn’t want to gym at work so they went elsewhere.”

But even if something is optional on paper is it possible the culture can subtly compel people to behave a certain way? Stephen Bevan, director of employer research and consultancy at the Institute for Employment Studies, thinks so. “If there’s even an implicit goal of keeping people at work longer then that could be the thin end of the wedge,” he says.

He points to free food potentially encouraging employees to not take a break and have lunch at their desks. “Sitting is seen as the new smoking and sometimes lunch is the only time people get out and get some exercise; even to just pop and get a sandwich from somewhere,” he says. “When people feel figuratively manacled to their desks it increases work intensity.”

From a social psychology perspective it can alter the psychological contract between employer and employee, Kinman asserts: “There’s a strong phenomenon that if someone gives you something you feel you need to return the favour. So because the organisation has gone above and beyond, employees feel indebted to it and also go above and beyond.”

Some would argue such commitment is no bad thing. But many believe that having too little separation between work and personal life can have negative consequences for both employer and employee. “All the evidence on creativity shows that the old sayings of taking your thoughts for a walk are true – you need to get out of the workplace to think about things differently,” explains Almuth McDowall, professor of organisational psychology at Birkbeck University of London.

Creativity aside, perhaps more pressing is the potential impact on wellbeing. Meller cites the work/life balance concept of ‘recovery’ that she says is critical to employee health. “We all need to recover from work and ideally you need to do something completely different and do it in a separate environment. So for example if you go to the on-site gym you’re still linked to the workplace and you’re surrounded by colleagues, which means you’re not allowing the brain to recover. And this can have a negative impact on health and productivity in the long run.”

“It’s like keeping people in a little hot house breeding an unhealthy culture,” agrees Kinman. “People need to have contact with the outside world.”

At the more extreme end sit shocking stories such as that of Miwa Sado, a 31-year-old journalist who died in October 2017 from heart failure after working 159 hours of overtime in one month. Such is the regularity of these deaths in Japan there’s even a name for it: karoshi, meaning ‘death from overwork’.

And Western firms aren’t immune. Anecdotes abound of Elon Musk sleeping on the floor of Tesla’s production plant and of Netflix’s controversial unlimited holiday allowance (“the reality is that people take less holiday, as the emphasis is on ‘taking as little as you need’,” muses Twitter’s VP EMEA Bruce Daisley).

This always-on culture is glorified, even celebrated, at many organisations – a culture that Meller believes goes “hand in hand” with on-site benefits.

“In the past there’s been a degree of separation between work and personal life but – with these perks and with technology – people are now increasingly expected to integrate with what they call the always-on culture. This integration comes at the expense of personal or family time, and will eventually lead to burnout,” she says.

“It’s facilitating a bad work/life balance if you’re thinking that when you come to work you’ll get some sleep [in a sleep pod],” says Daisley. “Anything that tries to blur the boundaries between home and work is a bad thing – we should have clear separation.”

That said, with or without these perks, do employees have a clear distinction anymore between work and personal life anyway?

“In most jobs it’s becoming harder to say when work stops and life starts,” muses McDowall. “But the blurring of boundaries isn’t necessarily bad for everybody; some people prefer to work with a more integrated perspective.”

Mander says some employees expect their work environment to be “a home away from home”.

The way Graves sees it, work and life are already integrated, so by firms offering on-site benefits they can make this integration smoother. “Work and life is blurred today and [at Allen & Overy] people know there will be times they’ll be required to work longer hours,” she explains. “So we have these things in place to make sure – if people do have to work long hours – then they’re looked after.”

If anything, Wylie adds, these perks can improve work/life balance by freeing up personal time for other activities. “When you’ve got a big list of personal admin to do you can get some of it done during the week rather than in your personal time.”

Additionally, her experience of free food provision is that it encourages time out: “The canteens are set up in a way so that you get away from your desk and have spontaneous conversations with people you don’t work with every day. Now I haven’t got the perk of free food I tend to eat at my desk.”

So HR needs to think about how and why it introduces such benefits. The key is ensuring they’re rolled out in the right way. McDowall calls on HR to ask itself some pertinent questions: “What data is there that shows these initiatives make a difference? What are you trying to achieve? And how are you going to benchmark this?”

It’s a sentiment shared by Graves. She cites the example of employee feedback leading to the introduction of Allen & Overy’s emergency childcare provision where employees have the choice of accessing childcare near their home or by the office should arrangements fall through. “It’s about listening to what employees want and thinking about the demographics of your employee population and what’s appropriate to them,” she says.

On-site perks should be backed up by work/life balance policies, adds Matt Creagh, employment rights policy officer at the TUC: “On their own they don’t really address the issue, but if you have a range of packages and options then these benefits could really help people.”

Then there’s the importance of culture. “It needs to be driven by the culture so you don’t end up with Stockholm Syndrome,” asserts Mander. “I’ve seen a tech company in Manchester that offers all these things and it works really well because it’s part of their culture.”

Beyond culture though, Daisley is quick to point out that such perks alone will do little to retain talent. He refers to the ‘smoothie delusion’ where some employers think giving employees free smoothies will somehow change their experiences at work. “These benefits often act as mirrors to people outside to want to work there. But it’s far more important to ensure that the job design is good and people have a good day at work.”

While on-site benefits can’t be blamed for poor job design, McDowall warns that they’re potentially being used to solve the wrong issue. “If your employees are crying out for sleep facilities you need to ask why. Do they not get enough respite from work? Would it not be better if they clocked off and went home to bed?

“So rather than treating symptoms you need to turn things on their head and look for the root cause. Otherwise these initiatives will just be seen as window-dressing the fact jobs are poorly designed and too much is being asked of people,” she says. “The question has to be asked as to why employees are in the situation in the first place where they need these things.”

This piece appeared in the March 2018 issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk