Perk Up

Do Startups Get Run Down by Passive-Aggressive Perks? The Downsides of Unlimited Everything

Snacks on snacks on snacks
 Do Startups Get Run Down by Passive Aggressive Perks? The Downsides of Unlimited Everything

The Tipping Point Partners office. (Photo: Tipping Point)

Like cushy sign-on bonuses or drool-worthy stock options, perks are a potent recruiting tool for startups, dangled before potential hires like a treat before a ravenous animal. Expensive, Steve Jobs-approved gear and kitchens overflowing with every snack imaginable are treated like they’re the equivalent of platinum health insurance.

We get it–having a thriving, enjoyable work culture is integral to fostering a healthy work/life balance and not becoming consumed with resentment every time your shitty desk chair breaks. But is it possible that some of these perks aren’t all they’re cracked up to be?

Unlimited Vacation Days

One of the most frequently touted startup perks is the unlimited vacation day policy, under which, instead of receiving a finite amount of vacation days, employees are allowed to take however much vacation they want … as long as they work super hard the rest of the year. It seems too good to be true: having the option to take three weeks off at a time to jet around Europe? Fabulous. And all sizes of company offer this perk: Adobe, Gilt Groupe and Tumblr are just a few that come to mind.

But some reports have shown that when people have unlimited vacation days, they actually end up taking less time off. Without a finite amount of days to use–think “Oh, it’s December, better use my extra vacay days!”–employees are often unsure of what’s the appropriate amount of time to take off.

As The Wall Street Journal wrote last year:

Some employers promote this as liberating, saying their workplaces are so flexible that old-fashioned constraints such as assigned time off aren’t needed. But others say the lack of guidelines fuels a tendency to work all the time … Americans have trouble taking time off even when they are assigned a specific number of days. Only 38% of U.S. employees use all their allotted vacation time, says a 2010 survey of 9,000 people by travel-booking company Expedia.com; the average worker took only 14 of 18 days permitted.

In 2011, Evernote–a startup based in San Francisco–began literally paying its employees to go on vacation. As soon as the company switched to an unlimited vacation day policy, “The first thing we noticed when we did it was that some people started taking less vacation,” chief executive Phil Libin told Businessweek last year. In order to correct this, Evernote began giving employees $1,000 every time they took a weeklong vacation.

For many startups, encouraging employees to take the vacation they deserve often starts at the top. “It’s all about creating a culture of flexibility so people feel O.K. taking advantage of it,” said Kara Rota, director of editorial and partnerships at Cookstr, which boasts Tipping Point Partners as an institutional cofounder. “I think it’s the responsibility of people in executive and management positions to role model it and be very vocal about the things they have going on outside of work.”

Unlimited Snacks

On a recent trip to the Vimeo offices in the soaring IAC building, Betabeat was asked upon arrival whether we’d like to indulge in some delicious snacks. The kitchen, situated right where you get off the elevator, was stocked with every kind of treat you could imagine: candy, cookies and other sweet things were tucked into one side of the island, while chips, crackers and salty items invaded the other side. It was a snacker’s delight.

But there are downsides to all this food: for one, it can keep you from ever having to leave your desk for a lunch break. Even big corporations like Bloomberg LLP employ this strategy. As a Vanity Fair profile of Bloomberg pointed out, staffers there were “taken care of,” but, as one employee put it, “The free junk food was great but it was there to keep us from going out for coffee.”

There’s also an important health aspect. Even if your startup stocks healthier snacks like fresh fruit and unsalted nuts, there’s a chance that you’ll eat more than you want to just because food is around.

“Your proximity to food has a huge impact on whether or not you’re thinking about food,” said Richard Talens, the cofounder of Fitocracy, a fitness social network. “This in turn impacts your desire to eat. Unfortunately, most entrepreneurs have a scarcity mentality when it comes to food, especially free food. If they see that there’s free calories lying around, they will likely prefer to go for that rather than paying for a lunch.”

Mr. Talens said that in order to eradicate mindless snacking, the Fitocracy office doesn’t stock snacks.

“There are no snacks per se at Fitocracy,” he told Betabeat by email. “As a company, we’re not big snackers, to be honest … quite the opposite. Most people at Fitocracy try to remain within a caloric range on most days and we have the same philosophy: we’d much rather eat a few larger meals than snack constantly throughout the day.”

If you can’t convince your company to get rid of the M&Ms, Mr. Talens also advised how to hit the gym on the cheap. “Try to bargain with your local fitness club to see if you can get an employee discount for everyone,” he suggested.

Food can be an important way to bring people together, though. “We provide a breakfast spread every Monday,” Ms. Rota said. “It’s a good opportunity for people to check in at the beginning of the week and to have a good boost socially. It’s important culturally and has an opportunity to let people sort of connect with each other in another way.”

Working From Home

Allowing employees to work from home is a common perk, but frequently–if the office culture doesn’t encourage it–it’s one that can easily fall by the wayside.

“People used to do it, but then at some point it just became standard to work from the office, and now you can’t really work from home unless you really need to (cable guy, doctor’s appointment, whatever),” said one person employed at a well-known New York startup, who asked not to be named.

Different people work in different ways, whether it be collaborative–through activities like pair programming–or solitary. Different tasks also require various work methods. At the Cookstr offices, Ms. Rota said that there are couches and conference rooms set up for group work, while other employees prefer to work from their own private desks. She also argues that removing the emphasis from hours spent working at your desk can help employees flourish.

“A culture that is focused with how many hours you’re sitting at your desk puts the focus on the wrong place,” she added. “It’s an artificial definition of what work looks like.”

In the end, fostering a culture where employees feel comfortable to take advantage of the perks so many recruiters promote is key to maintaining a happy and productive office environment.

“It really is about setting a precedent to make people feel comfortable with alternative work styles,” she advised. “If you’re an intern, or new, or if you’re not an executive leader, you’re not going to feel comfortable being the one person taking advantage of the work from home policy. But if there’s a real culture of that, and you trust in your coworkers that they’re doing the things that they need to be doing, then there’s really no concern about it.”

Follow Jessica Roy on Twitter or via RSS. jroy@observer.com