Conventional wisdom: You can buy employee loyalty with flashy perks like ball pits and chair massages.

On the contrary: Employee perks should actually improve their everyday work

Done wrong, employee perks are a slap in the face. Like a questionable ad campaign--think McDonald's recent "Pay with Lovin'"--anything staged to elicit on-the-spot smiles from customers or employees can leave everyone rolling their eyes the moment management leaves the room.

Perks, real perks, the kind that build a culture and a company, grow organically from interactions between owners, managers and employees, and they make everyone's lives better in the process.

Here's what the Big Ass Fans fruit fridge looks like just after filling it and again two days later. You can see why we go through 700 pounds a week!
Here's what the Big Ass Fans fruit fridge looks like just after filling it and again two days later. You can see why we go through 700 pounds a week!

Why Buy a Vending Machine When You Could Have a Fruit Fridge?

Perks are about what employees want, and they're about what makes sense for their well-being. At Big Ass Fans, one of our daily perks is free fresh fruit, stored in mini-fridges placed strategically throughout our buildings. A recent count showed that we go through nearly 700 pounds of fruit a week, from bananas to apples to clementines.

In our early days, we brought in a produce service to deliver it. But that fruit was terrible--the apples were mealy and the bananas were green. Now a fruit run for the freshest, most seasonal fruit is part of the weekly routine for our events specialist (she also plans our monthly outings, birthday celebrations, and other company-wide get-togethers). The fruit is equally awesome at all our facilities--from headquarters to production--because I would never expect employees to eat anything I wouldn't (and I have pretty high standards).

Do Sweat the Small Stuff

When I talked to a few female employees recently about what company perks they appreciated most, I was surprised that free, name-brand tampons in the bathrooms jumped to the top of the list. Why were they impressed? Because most employers skimp on what they don't personally see or use.

Now, I didn't personally know we gave out the good tampons, for obvious reasons, but thankfully our company culture had evolved to the point that the people who order supplies feel empowered to spend a little extra on something that matters to employees--instead of trying to cut corners when the boss wasn't looking.

The Office Shouldn't Be a Second Home

A lot of Silicon Valley types offer around-the-clock cafeterias or allow pets in the office to keep people working late and boost morale. Sure, happy employees are good, but ultimately good pay, comprehensive benefits and generally treating people like humans is the key to retention and productivity.

Like any gesture of good will, perks have to be genuine. The ideas that get me excited are the ones such as the fruit cart, our free company bicycle rental or free swim lessons at a local Y (instituted after I overheard some employees joking around about not being able to swim). All those ideas grew out of employee recommendations, creative problem solving or product swaps with like-minded local companies.

Perks that you give your employees to improve their lives, and not just your company image, do so much more good than a ball pit because, at the end of the day, that ball pit isn't going to make your employees feel better or work harder. But a banana (and the thought behind it) just might.