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Why Perks Don't Make a Company Culture

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Until about six months ago, I thought I knew exactly what went into creating a positive company culture.

The components included Google-style perks like a hip office design, regular happy hours and, most of all, free food. But what I've come to understand is that a truly inclusive and positive culture, one that inspires employees to want to come to work everyday, goes deeper than anything that can be purchased.

The free food was my tip-off.

Related: 6 Rules for Effective Peer-to-Peer Communication

Snack curse

It was a little more than six years ago when our company, Nextiva, opened its doors. A handful of us worked in a shoebox-sized office from early in the morning to late into the evening, hardly ever stopping for breaks. To sustain us through those long hours, food was always in the office.

This worked while our company consisted of five 10, even 50 people. Snacks were our thing. We also had a game room with a ping-pong table, and we thought these made the staffers joining our budding business excited to come to work.

Employees regularly commented on how much they appreciated the perks, so as we expanded our headcount into the hundreds, we also added to our snack offering. Before long, we were spending well into the tens of thousands of dollars on food alone. This dedication required that a number of employees spend extra time keeping the kitchen clean and stocked.

But as we grew larger, the sheen of the free food perk faded considerably. Staffers began expecting specific foods and sometimes became disgruntled when requests went unfilled.

The minute this came to the attention of our management team, we knew we had to change. The discontent with our snack program made us realize that perks weren't as important to creating a positive company culture as we'd originally thought. So we axed the snack program and decided to go in another direction entirely.

Related: Getting the Best From Every Employee: Communication Techniques That Work

Culture pivot

Our focus shifted quickly -- within days -- to our people and how we could help each one of them build a career path at Nextiva with improved training and increased communication.

A company culture team was brought in to look at improving the atmosphere from a holistic standpoint. Then, we instituted a one-on-one meeting program. Starting in July, I sat down with one of our culture team members and facilitated 20-minute interviews with several employees to get feedback on what they liked, what they wanted to see improve and where they saw their careers heading.

A summarization of the data followed, and from there a plan was drawn up. Most everyone said they wished for improved training and new-hire education programs. We changed those programs immediately. Others expressed the need for more mentoring, and programs were swiftly and thoughtfully launched.

Our biggest takeaway?

Employees want to be heard. We now plan to do these sit-downs at least twice a year. The result of our first series of meetings was that in just a few months, communication around the office became more positive and open. People now address issues face-to-face rather than gossip behind closed doors.

And, yes, these days we do offer free food from time to time. But I can see that our employees would take the authentic, open and receptive atmosphere over regular yogurt and snack bars any day.

Related: 4 Ways to Talk to Employees So They Listen

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