Perks and progress

photo-46Whenever I write about lists of great places to work, I make a reference to “free M&Ms.” I always thought this was a great hypothetical example of the silliness of focusing on perks. M&Ms are cheap. You could supply yourself with all you should be eating for less than a dollar a day. Yet stories on awesome companies tend to focus on the free snacks, I guess because this is easily understood and, to be honest, human loyalty is often bought cheap. Just as doctors probably are influenced by the free pens from pharma companies, maybe M&Ms do buy loyalty.

But the “free M&Ms” was just my shorthand way of referring to perks. So imagine my surprise when Fortune’s annual 100 Best Companies to Work For issue actually had a bowl of M&Ms on the cover. To be fair, the Mars company made the list, and of course Mars gives free M&Ms, so that makes sense. Also, some of the thumbnail profiles of the best companies have far more important benefits than free M&Ms: an honor system sick day policy, middle-class pay for hourly employees, long paid parental leaves. Nonetheless, these little thumbnails do have a lot of other random perks listed: a black-tie holiday gala (that’s a perk?), Ping Pong tables, field days featuring trivia contests.

Anyway, the list got me thinking about what does bring happiness at work. Free M&Ms are nice, but would you sit in pointless meetings all day just for free M&Ms? I hope not. Would the free M&Ms bring you joy if your work was burned every night in front of you? Not so much.

One of the most interesting insights I’ve seen into this question lately comes from Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, authors of The Progress Principle. Amabile teaches at Harvard Business School (I also interviewed her for 168 Hours) and Kramer is a developmental psychologist. The two had hundreds of employees on teams at various companies keep work diaries over a long period of time, describing how the day went, and rating it on various dimensions (how productive they were, how they felt, etc.). This produced nearly 12,000 diary entries, which they then scored and analyzed.

They found that the 1000 best days — those with the highest scores — were overwhelmingly characterized by what they call “progress.” People met a goal. They achieved little wins. They got something to work right. They felt farther ahead at the end of the day than they were at the beginning. To be sure, some of the best days featured a boss providing things like free M&Ms (or pizza, or bottled water), but there wasn’t as clear a correlation. The inverse was also true. The worst days tended to feature setbacks, more so than more obvious toxins (like being yelled at by your boss).

This suggests why someplace like Google is a great place to work (for software engineers). The engineers are making steady progress toward programs that Google often tries out. It suggests why people find creative hobbies like gardening or crafting so satisfying: you see progress. But even seemingly not-so-fun work can be joy-inducing if it meets the right criteria. My favorite quotes from The Progress Principle are the near-ecstatic diary entries of a software team called in over a holiday weekend to produce the data necessary for their organization to settle a lawsuit. They worked together and they got it all done. And they were very, very happy while they were doing it.

The question for managers is then how do you help your people see steady progress? How do you structure work so some amount of progress is always possible? That question probably matters more than whether your employees would like free M&Ms.

In other news: Kimberly Wilson featured me in her Tranquility du Jour podcast.


13 thoughts on “Perks and progress

  1. There’s no “probably” about it. Free pens work, they influence prescribing, and they cost us billions in drug costs and drive inappropriate medical care.

    Sorry, I know it’s a side issue and a throwaway line, and I completely agree with your overall point, but drug company give-aways are a sore point with me precisely because people think they’re trivial, and they’re actually evil.

    1. @Jenni – Thanks for your comment. I’m sure companies use giveaways precisely because they work. Generally, most companies aren’t in the business of spending money on things that don’t work. What’s fascinating is that I’m guessing most doctors think that they personally aren’t influenced by such trivial things. And yet, as you point out, they are.

    2. I work at a clinic and you will be happy to hear that pharma is no longer allowed to give away things unless they are patient education materials. Congress outlawed it about 3 years ago. So no more free pens, note pads etc.

  2. As someone who worked at HP for over a decade during its decline, I would say the LOSS of “free things” is symbolic of other problems in the culture. You rarely have a company that offers free M&M’s WITHOUT offering decent sick leave. The end of free weekly snacks (which no one cared about) corresponded with the beginning of waves of layoffs. (HP has, in the past decade, laid off more people than it employs, I think.)

    Google offers onsite childcare with decently paid caregivers in small groups (3 caregivers with 9 same-age children) Because the caregivers are well-treated, your child may have at least some of the same caregivers from infancy until kindergarten.

    For parents of young children, consistent, quality childcare and the ability to see your kids during down periods (’cause they’re not a commute away) is a huge perk.

    1. @TG – curiously, some of the companies on the best places list are in the midst of layoffs/closures. So while it definitely makes sense that the loss of M&Ms would be a harbinger of bad things to come (people first cut things that don’t matter — then realize that’s not enough and cut head count) some of these places do seem to be going for a keep-the-perks strategy for the people they keep around.

      1. Certainly, for large companies, the local office matters far more than what the national human resources department claims for these sorts of surveys. I never was able to take advantage of some of the policies my former employer claimed to have, nor could most other people.

        1. @TG – ah yes, the theoretical perk phenomenon. I’m familiar with a few companies that make lists like these, and upon talking to people in them we start scratching our heads wondering where, exactly, that perk exists, and who has actually used it. A back-up childcare option at one place in particular comes to mind. Maybe it was a closet you were allowed to stick your kid in for the day.

    2. If we’re talking about the same daycare – the Google daycare is very small and has a waiting list a mile long, not to mention is CRAZY expensive. (Even more than the $2500/mo Bright Horizons costs for infant care where I live.)

      It’s nice to mention it as a perk, but as a reality, most employees can’t use it. Especially if you work for Google in a location other than Mountain View.

  3. Structuring work so that you can always see progress to the overall goal is one of the bonus things you get from doing a good job of managing your projects! And yes, I love seeing progress on the projects I manage, and that is definitely a motivator for me.

  4. Forgive the language, but my hubby articulated that he expects his manager to be a “shit umbrella” so that he can focus on getting his work done (software dev).

    I think the manager’s job is to deal with all the political crap and process stuff that gets in the way of getting actual work done.

  5. “The 1000 best days — those with the highest scores — were overwhelmingly characterized by what they call ‘progress.’ People met a goal. They achieved little wins.”
    I’ve worked at companies where the coffee drinkers pitched in for the coffee and supplies, and I’ve worked at companies that supplied everything. While it was nice to not have to pay for coffee, it was never a big enough perk to overlook bad management, lack of respect for employees, and lack of advancement and raises. In fact, I’ve sometimes wondered what the coffee budget was and what else they were wasting money on while employees got no raises for several years. Superficial perks like free coffee or monthly employee birthday parties are nice when all else is going well, but are viewed suspiciously otherwise.

    1. @Gary- Thanks for your comment. I, too, like (good) free coffee, and I’ve always thought it’s a bit short-sighted not to provide it. You risk your employees leaving for long breaks to go to Starbucks. That can be nice sometimes, but it’s a much quicker break to go down the hall and make yourself a free cup. What I find most interesting about those ‘best places to work’ type lists is that sometimes companies on them are in the midst of massive layoffs. That especially happened during the 2009/2010 lists. Is a company a great place to work if it’s showing 10% of its workforce the door? I’m not so sure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *