Startups are known for their lavish perks, from gourmet snacks to unlimited vacation. The rationale behind these goodies is no secret. A well-stocked cafeteria and generous paid leave attract better talent and keep it around longer, and as an added bonus, employees just might come up with a business's next great moneymaking idea while palling around the foosball table.
In short, perks cost a lot up front, but done right they should pay for themselves in terms of improved culture and creativity.
But if that's your company's aim, designer and author Erika Hall recently suggested on Twitter, then not all benefits are created equal (hat tip to Austin Kleon). There's nothing wrong with onsite haircuts or a quinoa bar, but what companies should worry about first isn't empty stomachs, but rather well-nourished minds. And that means giving employees easy access to books.
Any tech company that cares about their employees' bodies enough to have a chef and a gym, should also offer something for the mind.-- Erika Hall (@mulegirl) May 29, 2018
Imagine how it changes the recruiting conversation to say "we have an onsite independent bookstore" as one of the amenities.
The benefits of more books at work
Hall's series of tweets kicked off a lively discussion of the benefits of bringing book culture into the office. Hall, for example, noted that startup culture has often been accused of ageism and sexism. A bookstore might be a subtle way to push back against bias.
We've been talking a lot about the need to infuse more humanities and greater diversity of perspectives and inclusion of underrepresented groups in techbusiness before we build SuperBiased Skynet.-- Erika Hall (@mulegirl) May 29, 2018
In addition to changing hiring practices, we need more bookshops.
A well curated bookstore or library is a fantastic way to begin to improve representation of underrepresented perspectives and ideas without putting all of the weight on a few token staff members.-- Erika Hall (@mulegirl) May 29, 2018
A bookstore would also provide a place to host non-boozy social events suitable for employees with kids. But there are other benefits to onsite books too. A bookstore could spark new and unexpected ideas, kick off conversations between colleagues, and offer a place to escape to where employees could truly reset their minds.
Also, how great would it be to take a break from a standing desk in an open plan office and plop down in a reading chair in a quiet space for a few minutes, knowing your employer supported that?#books2tech-- Erika Hall (@mulegirl) May 29, 2018
Finally, if it were possible for that bookstore to be open to the public, it might even better knit together the company and its surrounding neighborhood.
A book-related perk for every type of company
The discussion also pulled in a great many startup veterans, who chimed in with a variety of alternate suggestions on how companies might bring books into the office.
For example, some suggested a library might be a better bet (though Hall pointed out giving employees credit to the in-house bookstore would feel like a sweet perk and push them toward reading). Others suggested even just an office bookshelf, featuring anything other than training manuals and how-to titles, would be a good place to start.
Dave Hoffer, executive design director at McKinsey, suggested it might be engaging to have employees donate or recommend books for each other. "You could solicit book donations from coworkers who could mark the books as theirs," he tweeted. "Then you would be browsing and you'd read a cool book from Linda in Accounting and you could drop her a line to say you liked it." Soliciting book recommendations from employees and putting up their suggestions in your shop/library might be another approach.
And what if you have no office at all? That doesn't need to stop you from pushing your people toward reading, as user experience designer Ryan Bruner makes clear.
My company is remote, so we set up book club every other Friday. Having everyone read the same text helps build shared references. We're actually reading Conversational Design right now ;)-- Ryan Bruner (@ryanbruner) May 30, 2018
The bottom line is that books are one of humanity's oldest and most effective technologies for expanding minds, sparking creativity, and exercising empathy (that's why basically all the business titans you admire spend a ridiculous amount of time reading). If you want your employees to enjoy those benefits, then worry less about lunch and more about getting more books into their hands.