There’s no such thing as a free breakfast – why employee perks don’t always feed engagement

I worked with a client some years ago, who was going through the process of moving around 2000 employees from a rather outdated office into a lovely, shiny new office. They came up with what they thought was a brilliant idea – to give all employees a free breakfast.  They argued a free breakfast was good way to engage their workforce and help create a great place to work – and despite my best efforts I couldn’t convince them otherwise.

So what happened? Initially the free breakfast went down a treat, lots of smiley faces in the morning, queuing up for free toast or cereals…But pretty soon there were rumblings.

Some people didn’t like cereals or toast and wanted porridge or a pastry, but these items weren’t on the free breakfast list. Other people started to abuse the company’s generosity, taking three or four boxes of the free cereal, to see them through to lunchtime and beyond! The rumblings grew into discontent and the company actually had to publish and enforce a ‘free breakfast policy’ and it wasn’t long before they were wishing they had listened to my advice and not gone down the free breakfast route to start with!

This reminded of the story of a Google employee who managed to live in his car for 60 weeks living off the perks Google provided – in fact the only item they didn’t cover was shampoo!

Seriously though there is an important point here. We have collected 100’s of stories and data over the years, about what really engages people: never once has anyone said it was the free coffee, the jellybean station or the free lunches. These types of perks very quickly morph into hygiene factors – stuff that’s just expected from our employer and workplace.

Hygiene factors such as free food, pay and benefits and the office environment are important to help ensure we avoid dis-satisfaction at work, rather than being useful for developing engagement. So initially, whilst we might be engaged by a better salary, a fancy office, or a free croissant at breakfast, all too soon this stuff becomes the norm – we expect it, and if you then take it away, we’ll be even less than happy than before!

This idea was first developed by Hertzberg in his hygiene-motivation model. I think it’s time we revisited this and evolved it into the ‘hygiene-engagement’ model. When it comes to engagement factors, people talk about how their work makes them feel: themes such as autonomy, mastery and purpose are prevalent, in bringing out positive emotions such as pride, joy and triumph, although of course there are always individual differences.

So, take a look at your engagement plan – are you focusing on hygiene factors or engagement factors?

If you’d like to talk to us about your engagement plan and see how we can help you, then get in touch and we can arrange a free, no obligation chat.


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