Collin Kaas handed out mugs of frothy beer to employees at his architecture firm last Monday afternoon, then loaded up the Nerf guns for war.
Foam bullets whizzed through the air, hitting computer screens, landing on tables covered in design plans. Ruby the office dog — one of many — took cover under a desk.
It’s all in a day’s work at Kaas Wilson Architects in Bloomington, where beer and office games are just a few of the seductive workplace perks. The firm is among a growing number of companies offering access to unlimited free food, gourmet kitchens, laundry services, ice cold beer on tap, top-end ergonomic furniture, entertainment and personal concierges — all intended to boost engagement and entice employees to come into the office instead of the increasingly popular option of telecommuting.
“There’s camaraderie that happens when a few people at the end of the day want to blow off steam together over a beer or a game,” said Kaas, one of the firm’s partners. “The benefit for us is that people are here working.”
Perhaps that’s what Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer had in mind when she abolished working from home in 2013, a time when other companies were touting flexibility. “People are more productive when they’re alone,” she said at a human resources conference, “but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together.”
While telecommuting is on the rise, more than half of U.S. employees said they’re not enthusiastic about their jobs or committed to their workplace, according to a recent Gallup poll. Hoping to change that, companies are borrowing a page from the Google handbook.
The modern office is more open, collaborative, flexible — and fun.
“Those things make this new generation of employees happy,” said Kathy Jalivay, senior vice president of the online marketing agency aim Clear. “We’re trying to mirror places like Google and make it a desirable place to work for everyone.”
But don’t assume a livelier workplace is the result of companies pandering to millennials looking for an easy ride.
While sipping a Summit Saga IPA at Kaas Wilson, Peter Costanzo looked over a 3-D rendering he had just completed. At other offices, workers his age might be rushing out the door at 4 p.m. for happy hour, but the 28-year-old architect planned to enjoy a beer at his desk and then put in a few more hours of work.
“It makes for a good day,” he said. “This is the best place I’ve ever worked.”
The war for talent
While pingpong, beer and concerts might seem frivolous, experts say such perks aid in the creativity that happens when people come together.
“Creativity doesn’t usually happen sitting at home at the kitchen island,” said Larry Schoenecker, president of BI Worldwide, an Edina-based engagement agency.
Schoenecker said creating an environment that employees want to be in is one way to win the war for talent.
“A lot of companies are trying to create a better environment for their people,” he said. “That’s a great thing because the bar was low in a lot of ways. Workplaces were pretty dull for a long time.”
Employees at BI Worldwide have treadmill desks, food trucks over the lunch hour, onsite concerts, plenty of parties and a no-dress-code policy during the summer. “If you can’t get arrested in it,” Schoenecker said, “then we don’t mind if you wear it.”
Even at Buzzfeed’s development office in northeast Minneapolis, where employees have easy access to the technology to work from anywhere, coming into the office is encouraged. From bringing in free lunch twice a week to planning workday outings, Buzzfeed’s general manager, Phil Wilson, tries to provide a collaborative work environment.
“My main job is making this a great place to work,” he said. “Rather than necessarily saying, ‘Here are the hours you’re required to be here,’ let’s figure out how to make it so you want to spend time at the office.”
At Mirum ad agency in Minneapolis, employees can request to work from home one day a week, but most come into the office five days a week.
“The nature of the work doesn’t lend itself to telecommuting,” said managing director Joyce Zincke, “so the best [we] can do is make it a culture that’s a wonderful place to be.”
Employees there have access to a masseuse every other week, farmers market fruit, fresh cookies, beer on tap, pingpong and shufflepuck.
“Six years ago we didn’t have these fun things,” Zincke said. “We struggled finding talent.”
There might be a downside to all the bliss, however. Some experts believe these perks could contribute to a culture of overwork.
In 2014, Gerald Ledford, a senior research scientist at the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, told the New York Times it’s important to remember that such perks aren’t being offered “out of largesse.”
“It’s done because organizations want employees to work 24/7,” he said. “If you never have to leave to get your dry cleaning, to go to the gym, to eat or even go to bed, you can work all the time. They’re golden handcuffs.”
Patrick Fuentes, a software engineer for the Nerdery tech firm in Minneapolis, had planned to work from home one day recently when he realized he had scheduled an onsite massage. So he went into the office.
But Fuentes, 33, isn’t complaining.
“I get recruited all the time but I choose to work here,” he said. “I wouldn’t stay if it weren’t super-awesome.”
Petting pooches and playing games have been proven to lower blood pressure, but do such office perks actually make better employees?
“There’s a relationship between engaged employees and performance,” said Colleen Manchester, an assistant professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. “Companies that offer perks are more likely to cultivate a sense of engagement that will affect retention down the road.”
While tech firms and ad agencies are known for having generous perks, the practice is being implemented in other industries, too. At Davis Companies, a Massachusetts staffing and recruitment firm with a location in Minneapolis, employees have access to a free lunch every Friday, pingpong tables that double as conference tables, beer and wine, an onsite gym and dry cleaning services.
“I’ve never worked for a company that takes care of its employees this way,” said Matthew Fowler, business development manager in Minneapolis. “The ‘work hard, play hard’ mantra of the company creates a culture that makes you never want to leave.”