Twitter’s EMEA vice president Bruce Daisley has taken up arms against workplace perks, saying that they contribute nothing to employees’ overall levels of happiness

In a keynote speech to Management Today’s Inspiring Women in Business conference, Daisley asserted that it was far more important for leaders to make incremental improvements to the wellbeing of their staff through a host of practical measures, than to splash out on perks such as “happiness weeks” or “smoothies and donuts” splurges which – in his view – will never produce lasting productivity or goodwill. “Employees who receive rewards for boring work,” he argued, “are making themselves sick.”

Daisley also noted that employees can do their bit on this front, too, by applying a touch of common sense to areas such as their mobile connectivity. “Half of people who check their email outside of work,” he pointed out, “are stressed. So why not turn off the number on your email app? It seems trivial – but the way we improve work will be through doing lots of little things.”

Daisley insisted that the true route to workplace happiness lay in such steps as preserving the 40-hour limit on the working week; reclaiming the lunch break as an immovable chance for workers to freshen up; presuming permission for flexible work and encouraging talking and laughter in the office on the grounds that “The more conversations people are having, the more creative they are.”

So, are perks really empty gestures, or do they still have a part to play in supporting the practical approaches that Daisley would prefer to see?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's CEO Phil James says: “While I’m loath to hark back to theories of the 1950s, this immediately puts me in mind of Frederick W Herzberg, who identified factors at work that contribute to – as he termed it – intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. In his view, conditions of service – such as perks, salary and who you actually work for – are sources of extrinsic motivation, and if you get them wrong, the employee is left dissatisfied. If you get them right, however, it means that people are not dissatisfied – which is not quite the same as saying that they are satisfied!”

James notes: “The factors that provide genuine job satisfaction are the things that intrinsically motivate you: a job well done; recognition; opportunities for advancement; widening your areas of responsibility – or the feeling that you’re doing work that matters.

“Now, even as I talk about those factors, I can feel that they are the more difficult ones to go into, and are certainly weightier. It’s so much easier to complain about lunch hours, cold offices, or mean Christmas parties, because it’s kind of safe to approach those things. It’s much harder to say, ‘I don’t feel recognised for the work that I do.’ Millennials may find it a lot easier to tackle those ‘higher-purpose’ factors in conversations with their leaders, but their directness on such matters is a relatively new phenomenon.”

In sum, James says, “Daisley is absolutely right. The types of perks he criticises are not going to help, or even make, people enjoy their work. We can gauge whether we are being appropriately rewarded for what we do by comparing ourselves to our co-workers. So if we feel that we work harder than they do, then we’ll also feel that we should be rewarded in a proportional fashion. The problem with perks or benefits packages is that they’re not a recognition, or a reward for effort or achievement. The message, ‘If you work for us, then you’ll get this, may well work if you’re in a sector where everyone gets, for example, private medical cover. But that will simply lead to an absence of dissatisfaction, rather than genuine satisfaction.”

He adds: “How can a donut make your job inherently more satisfying? It can’t! Rather than spending time and resources on such superficial gestures, let’s concentrate on making jobs more interesting. Let’s ensure that leaders and managers better motivate their staff – and better understand how they must do so. Let’s focus on improvements in coaching, development, rewards, recognition and handing out more responsibility. There are so many things that we can do. They are hard things, and they’re not quick fixes, but in the long run, they are far more effective. Go Bruce!”

For further thoughts on developing your people, check out these learning resources from the Institute