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.