Transfixed by Perks

Fortune magazine came out with its annual list of The 100 Best Companies to Work For recently, and North Carolina tech company SAS topped the list.

I’m sure that SAS is great, but what I find funny about these kinds of articles is that the reporters always get very excited about workplace perks, even when they’re not that exciting. According to the feature story in the print version of the list, at SAS you can get a massage… that costs $55. Yes, that’s pre-tax money (a fascinating article in its own right, of why such business expenses are deductible) but it’s not an order of magnitude cheaper than paying for a massage on your own.

Maybe the reporters get excited because journalism is not known for having many perks at all. I suspect many media organizations try to make money on their cafeterias, a la the company store, rather than subsidizing them. At the two companies I have done in-house work for, USA Today and Reader’s Digest, the salad bars dwindled during my tenure.

But this is because you can get away with it. So many people want to write and design and publish that many people would do it for free, and the interns often do. Fortune’s reporter got excited about SAS having two artists-in-residence, and I did too, until I recalled that Fortune has tons of writers and artists in residence… because they write and illustrate the magazine for a living.

Anyway, to my mind, the most important SAS perk is that the work week schedule is flexible. You are expected to work roughly 35 hours, and no one cares if you come in at 9 or 11. This is great for parents trying to optimize schedules around school or other commitments. But this gets less ink than the roughly $70,000 SAS spends on giving employees free M&Ms.

As everyone from Chris Anderson to Dan Ariely have pointed out, the human brain gets very excited about things that are free. What you have to remember is that there really isn’t such a thing as a free lunch. It’s nice that SAS wants to take care of its employees, but the perks are partly because SAS is private. No stock options mean little chance that you can become truly rich off your labors, so if you want to keep turnover low, you have to do something else.

Contrast this with life at Vanderkam, Inc. Being self-employed, I have no free perks. I pay for everything from my pens to (for a few years, before I got married) health insurance. On the other hand, I don’t view getting to work out in the middle of the day as a perk my benevolent employer gave me. It simply comes with the territory. So does getting to work when and where I want, wearing whatever happens to be relatively clean. My income is not subject to a wage freeze in hard times (as happened at SAS last year). If I can hustle more, it can grow.

Occasionally, I think about re-entering the regular W-2 workforce, but then I read about the absolute best companies to work for out there… and remember why I work the way I do. And then I go to my pantry and pull out a bag of M&Ms. Yep, it cost $2.99 at the grocery store, but it’s a small price to pay for working exactly the way I want.

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