It has become one of the most perplexing workplace questions of the century for businesses worldwide: How do you keep employees engaged and emotionally invested in their jobs?
Some employers have taken the free lunch approach.
At her workplace, Deborah Beetson can count on catered lunch once a month and regular bagel breakfasts. She also can invite clients to the wine bar at her West Palm Beach office. Those are just some of the perks that have landed her employer, DPR Construction, on Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work.
But, says Beetson, it is not the wine bar, free meals or even the bring-your-dog-to-work days that keep her engaged. "The perks are there to make it a fun place to be, but if you don't believe leadership cares about you and values your opinion, then perks lose their meaning."
Offer employees free lunch and you will see a stampede into the lunchroom. But ask those same workers if they feel engaged and you will discover perks are not enough to keep them loyal or inspire them to put in extra effort on the job.
"Perks can attract people and make them feel content, but they won't get employees to a high level of engagement," says Jim Harter, Gallup's chief scientist of workplace management and well-being.
Some consider the lack of employee engagement an epidemic. Despite more awareness, the low rate of engagement hasn't budged in more than a decade. According to the Gallup Organisation, the number of "actively disengaged workers" continues to be twice the number of engaged employees, defined as emotionally invested in their organisations.
Those engaged employees are the ones that work hardest, stay longest and perform best. Up to an alarming 70 per cent likely are either not engaged at work or actively "checked out," Gallup found.
Harter believes employers need to shift their focus from pampering, which can create a sense of entitlement, to making employees feel like partners. A good manager drives that connection, he says.
"If you're offering perks and not putting energy toward hiring and developing excellent managers, you're going about it the wrong way." If a bad manager creates a disengaging environment, you can't free lunch your way to engagement. "You can't cover that up."
To get the most from a worker, scrap the jeans day, forgo the latte machines and think about what workers truly want to feel connected to their work and their company. In studying Great Places to Work, researchers found employees want to feel the work they are doing is important and to trust their managers care about them as individuals.
"Managers can't forget that these are people who have a life outside of work they are actively trying to manage," said Jessica Rohman, program director at Great Place to Work Institute. Even employees at companies considered great places to work report disengagement when bosses don't understand how accommodating unplanned life needs affects work commitment. "It's that understanding that fosters a sense of trust," Rohman says.
Increasingly, employers are realising that what attracts talent differs from what keeps strong performers engaged.
Working at a nuclear plant is more intense than a 9-to-5 job, but Florida Power & Light's Turkey Point nuclear power plant has lured 700 full-time employees through benefits like on-site daycare, a fitness centre, softball league, boat ramp and picnic area and a work schedule that provides every other Friday off.
FPL vice president Michael Kiley knows the benefits are just one component. An ongoing interest in employees' career path and a sense of team work are what inspire discretionary effort from employees, he says. "They don't want to let down their peers."
Even financial incentives such as bonuses don't have a long-term effect on engagement, he has discovered.
"Engagement is really about what you do every day to make employees feel part of a team. They need to know how they make that team better every day."
Engaged workers are clear on expectations, feel accountable but also receive the freedom - possibly even flexibility - to get their work done, says Gallup's Harter.