How to Give Your Employees Real Benefits, Not Just Cheap Perks

Fancy perks don’t solve the work-life balance problem.

 

As any entrepreneur will attest, perhaps the most difficult tasks in running a business are attracting, retaining and supporting a strong workforce.

Common solutions to this problem come in the form of sweet perks, designed to showcase a company’s commitment to work-life balance. But, does providing unlimited vacation time, free meals and remote work options truly address your employees’ needs?

Point blank: No, perks alone do not do the job. Furthermore, balance is just a fairy tale. Work-life balance is an illusion and practically impossible to reach. Whatever work-life balance may be is subjective to individuals, making it virtually impossible to pin down universal perks, which can make work-life balance a reality for every employee. Consider how long the issue of work-life balance has been around, despite thousands of articles circulated around the topic.

Clearly, perks matter, but it doesn’t solve the issue of work-life balance.

Employers should aim for personalized fulfillment, based on the flexibility of giving each employee the work environment he or she needs. It’s about providing a challenging and engaging environment in which employees are empowered to take matters into their own hands. The feeling of balance, if reachable, is about granting employees control over how they work.

The faults of startup perks

Although perks are abundant in startups – especially in Silicon Valley — perks’ underlying nature is what actually keeps workers from being fulfilled and comfortable at work.

For one, the perks are presented as extras and not as normal aspects of a person’s job, erring on the side of work and not life. For example, free, daily lunch actually prevents people from leaving the office, getting fresh air and supporting local businesses.

Unlimited vacation time or work-from-home days have long been favored by many as an opportunity to achieve work-life balance, but often its subjection to manager discretion makes employees hesitant to take full advantage of this perk.

Ask anyone who has had the perk of unlimited time off, and they will tell you they actually take less time off and have no pay-out if they leave the company. Furthermore, don’t forget about the employee guilt involved in flexibility.

Working from home, in fact, leads to longer hours for most employees, when compared to those who don’t – usually because they feel like they could work more or that they slacked off.

Yes, it can be a great option for workers, who need to be at home more often, such as parents or people with long commutes. But just as many employees likely prefer to come into the office everyday due to roommate situations, lack of infrastructure or just a desire to be with the team.

Additionally, perks – like sleeping pods, on-premise dry cleaning and massages — are a guise for keeping employees at work longer. It undermines the feeling of fulfillment and the very idea of work-life balance because it all becomes part of the job.

Putting the power in their hands

Since the founding of Highwire Public Relations, I have placed a premium on making it a place in which all of our employees feel happy and fulfilled.

While balance is a goal for some people, I’ve personally felt most fulfilled at points when I’ve been extremely unbalanced.

While that pace may not be sustainable or desirable, the revelation is that balance is not something that can be scripted by day or week, team or office. Balance is highly personal and changes with tenure, life stage and opportunity.

We began by offering perks, like work-from-home days, summer Fridays, catered food and offsite events. But as I described above, universally applied perks alone couldn’t provide what we needed. So we pivoted and started asking our employees what they wanted – individually, not by office or department.

Unsurprisingly, it ranged from happy hours to more paid time off (PTO) days. And that’s when it clicked. Everyone has their own idea of work-life balance, and management would never be able to guess or fulfill them all. So instead, we focus on empowerment, and now, we ask employees to take happiness into their own hands. Ask for what you need; open your minds and hearts to new possibilities; support your colleagues; and trust them to do the same for you.

It’s worked. But don’t take my word for it, a recent paper published in American Sociological Review had a similar conclusion after examining the effect of Situation, Task, Actions, and Results (STAR), an organizational intervention designed to promote greater employee control over work time and greater supervisor support for workers’ personal lives.

According to the American Sociological Review, STAR reduced burnout, perceived stress and psychological distress, and increased job satisfaction.

The key is in allowing employees to work how they work best and the results speak for themselves. This isn’t a laissez-faire scenario, but employees should feel empowered to ask for what they want when they want it. Moreover, asking about employees’ lives outside of work provides a comfort and sense of belonging that sterile company perks, designed to keep you at the office, cannot.

In all, work-life balance is unachievable in the way most businesses approach it today. No matter how convenient or fun you make work, it’s still work. Organizations should instead opt to provide the agency for employees to work comfortably, and recognize that needs and desires change over time. It’s about giving up just the right amount of control because long hours do not equal better work. Happy employees do.

 

This article originally appeared on Entrepreneur on May 28, 2017.

New England Growth Areas in Technology

Each year, The Mass Technology Leadership Council (MassTLC) assesses the technology market’s impact on the New England economy. Based on the findings and the group’s ongoing work in support of the region’s tech industry, MassTLC is uniquely qualified to speak to the vibrancy of the innovation economy.

We asked Tom Hopcroft, MassTLC’s president and CEO, about the Massachusetts tech economy, how it compares to Silicon Valley and the contributions the technology industry makes to the New England region.

 1) Highwire PR has been talking about the infamous west-coast vs. east-coast debate. What’s your assessment of the differences and similarities in the start-up environment when you look at New England and Silicon Valley?

The tech hubs in Silicon Valley and New England each have unique identities, but, as head of the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, I can best speak to our local tech economy.

The first point I’d make is that Massachusetts is experiencing a tech renaissance. In the four years following the 2008-09 recession, we saw about 5,000 tech jobs added each year. Two years ago we added 8,000 and last year it was up to 9,000. Job growth is perhaps the most tangible indicator of a vibrant and growing economy but there are others.

Over this same period, for instance, a revitalized start-up ecosystem came together with the creation of the Boston Innovation District and others across the state; the creation of many start-up accelerators — most notably MassChallenge and Greentown Labs; and the growth of corporate research centers, university labs and public-private partnerships.

The makeup of our tech economy is another key attribute and differentiator for our region. We have a very healthy and diverse mix of consumer, industrial, digital and physical (e.g., IoT, robotics) technologies being developed for many verticals including health, finance, education, and government. Their close proximity to each other and to the academic and traditional industries creates a strong “bump factor” that leads to innovations at the boundaries between disciplines.

As such, Massachusetts has a unique strength and leadership opportunity in what is often called the Fourth Industrial Era, or Third Wave, depending on whom you ask. It is characterized by the instrumentation and automation of the physical world — bringing the offline world online, creating an Internet of Things and then overlaying digital information back into the physical world with augmented reality, 3-D printing and other new technologies.

Our leadership here is built upon our four decades of “data DNA” — from the structured mainframe and minicomputer days to the unstructured big data of recent years and today’s artificial intelligence and machine learning. Not to mention “things,” where our leadership is evidenced by the fact that the very terms “robot” and the “Internet of Things” were coined here.

In fact, companies like Amazon Robotics (formerly Kiva Systems), Venca Technologies, and GE moved to Massachusetts from California, D.C. and Connecticut, respectively, specifically for the innovation capacity and talent — a blend of software and hardware engineering — that our region has to offer.

 

2) In reading the recent reports MassTLC has issued, it seems as though the tech industries do not get as much credit as they deserve for their contributions to the New England economy. What are your thoughts on what the reports tell us?

The tech sector in Massachusetts directly employs 300,000 people and there are another 100,000 tech jobs outside the sector in healthcare, finance, retail, bio, etc. Add in the jobs servicing the companies (e.g., PR, accounting, legal, etc.) and those that service the employees (e.g., dry cleaners, coffee shops, restaurants, etc.) and you add close to 800,000 more jobs. In total, tech is responsible for about 34 percent of the job base in Massachusetts. And because they pay better than average, tech underpins about 44 percent of payroll in the state and 34 percent of gross state product.

While we are not as visible in the media, company leaders recognize the strength of what’s going on here. It’s why so many are moving or opening offices here. In fact, Eric Schmidt, speaking at MIT in the beginning of May 2017, remarked that “Silicon Valley needs a competitor” and that “the obvious competitor is the Boston-Cambridge area.” With GE’s recent relocation of their corporate headquarters, and many others, we see validation.

 

3) Having mapped the current New England technology markets for some time, what areas do you see as being the most promising? 

The big opportunity is around the digital-physical convergence I mentioned earlier.

Other areas of strength and opportunity that come to mind include cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and consumer tech. People don’t think of us as a consumer-tech town, but we have quite the cluster with leading brands like TripAdvisor, Wayfair, Care.com, iRobot, Draft Kings, Rue La La and more. So, if you’re looking to work at or with a consumer tech company, there are some great opportunities to check out locally before you venture to other regions.

 

4) If you had advice for a young or growing technology company in New England, what would it be?

Get plugged into the local tech economy. Join groups like MassTLC and get involved. I like to say that membership is like a health club; you get out of it what you put in. And, it’s really true. By plugging into the tech ecosystem through us or otherwise, you will extend your ability to network and get wherever it is you are going a whole lot faster.

Top Of Their Game: Entrepreneurs And Their Startup Stories” Reminds Us that Inside Every ‘Impossible’ is ‘I’m Possible’

IMG_1246IMG_1225IMG_1229                   This month, Chicago Ideas hosted their fifth annual Chicago Ideas Week. From flying lessons to a behind-the-scenes look at Chipotle , the event pulled out all the stops to cultivate innovation in the Windy City. Our Chicago team attended “Top Of Their Game: Entrepreneurs And Their Startup Stories,” which featured conversations with some of the most successful women in the country.First up was designer Cynthia Rowley who, like a true Chicago-native, arrived on stage in a custom Cubs jersey. Rowley is a great storyteller who, frankly, doesn’t give a crap about what other people think. For example, when someone told her she couldn’t design wetsuits, Rowley immediately decided she “was definitely gonna do it.” Rowley embodies her message for budding entrepreneurs: fearless optimism.To foster that sense of fearless optimism in her company, Rowley started an internal incubator fund for employees to start their own ventures. Rowley is so dedicated to entrepreneurship that she’s willing to risk her own talented workers to nurture innovation in the fashion world.


Next up was Martine Rothblatt, the creator of Sirius XM Radio and the founder and CEO of United Therapeutics. She is also transgender and the highest-paid female executive in the United States. She lives by four commandments: be curious, question authority, act lovingly and practice practicality. It was these commandments that guided Rothblatt when her daughter Jenesis was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension at only seven years old. Rothblatt dived into the life science sector with no prior experience, founded a biotech firm, United Therapeutics, and discovered a cure that saved her daughter and countless others. Martine Rothblatt is the type of person who makes impossible things seem possible (she emphasized that the word ‘impossible’ includes the phrase ‘I’m Possible’). Currently, Rothblatt has her sights set on manufactured organs and uploading human minds to computers. If anyone can pull that off, it’s going to be Martine Rothblatt.

Last but not least was domestic goddess Martha Stewart. Before Stewart flew to Chicago to speak at Chicago Ideas Week, she picked fresh apples out of her garden and made the “most lovely” pink applesauce (naturally). The epitome of practice what you preach, Stewart became her own most loyal customer in her quest to make beautiful things accessible to everyone. By learning and teaching each day, Stewart built a domestic empire and an extremely successful career.Though Stewart’s brand is based on the simple things in life, she’s embracing technology in work and life. Obsessed with Twitter, Stewart joked that her number of followers could “rival that of Jesus.”

The key takeaways from “Top Of Their Game: Entrepreneurs And Their Startup Stories” are quite simple: be fearlessly optimistic, act lovingly and make the world more beautiful. These principles may seem elementary, but living by them led the above visionaries to huge success. The future entrepreneurs in the audience, our Chicago team members included, couldn’t help but be inspired.When it comes to producing startups, Chicago is somewhat of an underdog. Events like Chicago Ideas Week bring together the city’s brightest and most ambitious young people to work towards a common goal: enrich the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.Don’t forget to connect with us on social @HighwirePR and catch up with @chicagoideas speakers @Cynthia_Rowley, @KayKoplovitz, @marthastewart, @LBDesmond, @shr4dha and @bradkeywell for even more inspiration.

 

Written by Brenna Hogan, an intern in Highwire PR’s Chicago office.

Gender and Entrepreneurship at SXSW

Among thousands of people, marketing activations, BBQs and cocktail hours, SXSW 2015 helped promote key discussions on the future of work dynamics and the issue of gender in entrepreneurship. These topics were the subject of thought-provoking conversations throughout sessions and keynotes, one of which – UpGlobal’s panel on Women in Entrepreneurship at Old School on 6th Street – I had the honor of being a part of.

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Joined by my fellow panelists Anjali Kundra (VP and co-founder of Partender), Amy Millman (President, Springboard Enterprises), Kate Shillo (Director, Galvanize Ventures), and moderated by Lisa Brooks (Turnstone), our group had a dynamic discussion in front of an audience of male and female entrepreneurs alike about how to scale a venture while taking gender into consideration. The group was composed of investors, an entrepreneur and marketers. A few key themes emerged:

Mentors
From keynotes by Jack Welch and Gary Vaynerchuk to our Startup Oasis panel, the questions of who serves as professional mentors and why continued to come up. For Jack Welch, he finds mentors from every part of his business life. He mentioned Jeff Bezos, Gary Vaynerchuk and others as people to whom he looks for advice. RZA, of the Wu-Tang Clan, counts Jim Jaramusch and Quentin Tarantino as mentors who taught him about becoming a filmmaker. For many of the women on our UpGlobal panel ¬– including myself – mentors of both genders were found through previous job experiences. Though our backgrounds and mentors differed, one thing on which we all agreed was that it’s the responsibility of the mentee to make mentorship happen. If we want to learn from someone, it’s up to us to ask for advice and forge the relationship.

Is HR The Answer To Address Gender Imbalance At Startups?
HR was a hot-button issue that came up in many sessions and conversations. It was clear that enacting company policies and taking over the duty to ensure a workplace that’s equal for both men and women falls upon an HR person. But when and how this hire is made is subject to broadly differing views. For some, HR should be one of the first hires at a startup, while others think HR is an expensive, non-revenue driving investment. This is particularly true for companies at a critical stage where every contributor makes or breaks the growth trajectory of a company. It’s unclear if there’s a “right” answer to this conundrum, as I’ve seen companies try both ways with success. What is clear is that there is no foolproof way to solve for gender imbalance.

Advice For Female Startup Entrepreneurs
During our panel, Lisa asked each of us the one piece of advice we’d give to other female entrepreneurs. We all noted that conviction and confidence are imperative when we’re presenting our ideas and trying to sell a vision to investors, clients or internal staff. Whether male or female, conviction and confidence are ways to keep ahead in the ultra-competitive startup environment in which we work.

Lastly, kudos to UpGlobal for hosting a rich conversation and event at the Startup Oasis; it helped to bring together entrepreneurs from around the world to have an important discussion on the future of gender in the workplace. Now it will be interesting to see if progress happens, or if we’ll still be having the same conversation on this topic at SXSW 2016.