The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

Royal Park gardeners had a walkout this week over the withdrawal of their Christmas hampers. But this isn't the end of perk culture, as Caroline Corcoran discovers
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The Independent Online

We should blame it on Google. Before we heard tales of joyful staff playing ping-pong between meetings, we were happily oblivious to any office perk more extreme than the free tea bag. In 2015 though, things have changed. Commuters cycle to the office on half-price bikes thanks to their company discount scheme and the arrival of the office fruit bowl is now as common a sight on desks as a half-eaten Pret sandwich.

This week, Royal Park gardeners downed tools after bosses took away their right to a Christmas hamper worth £100. It comes soon after Tube drivers threatened to go on strike at the prospect of their partners not getting an Oyster card for free, too. So, post-recession, are companies starting to get miserly with the feel-good gestures? A survey in 2009 found that almost one in four bosses would cut all perks if they could.

But perhaps creative perks are actually a cunning way for firms to save money. After all, that ping-pong table is considerably cheaper than a company-wide bonus. Perk culture is so ubiquitous in the US that it's a business in its own right. San Francisco-based AnyPerk (whose own perks include having yourself immortalised in a painting as a dragon slayer) helps companies cost up various benefit options and offers assistance to smaller start-ups who want to embrace the culture.

Some benefits, of course, are based around the company's own products – staff discounts on British Gas boilers, Marks and Spencer food (applies to live-in partners, too), Virgin's seven stand-by flights a year and cheap electricity bills if you work for a major energy supplier are all well-documented. Many companies now reward in time, too, with more home-working, flexible hours or days donated to volunteering at a charity of the employee's choice.


Seeing inside companies such as Apple, Google and Facebook means that many people look for offices which have features far beyond fancy boardrooms. At Spotify, staff are regularly treated to lunchtime gigs (and not by Dave in accounts – by artists including Lady Gaga and Muse). In Manchester, at the web-hosting company UKFast, staff can take a break from a stressful day with a session in the office steam room. If you happen to work at address-software firm Postcode Anywhere, based in Worcester, you're probably spending your lunch breaks on the company barge and kayaks.

The boundaries between work and home are becoming increasingly blurred, which is why office pets are no longer unusual. The Edinburgh-based start-up, Intelligent Point of Sale, has two office dogs and at the analytics firm GoSquared a golden retriever is on the payroll: it appointed Harvey the dog to lend a paw as chief happiness officer.

If all you slave away for is a measly pension scheme, some perks are enough to make you question your choices in life. Meet your targets three months in a row at the energy company Spencer Ogden and you're sent to work at the company's "beach office" in Ibiza. But that's nothing compared to the search-engine specialist Propellernet. It encourages employees to write down their "ultimate dream" on a ball and put it in a sweet dispenser – when the company hits its targets, they release a ball and "make a dream come true". Instead of "training days", the brand communications agency Thirdperson has "trainer days" where all the staff head to Covent Garden and are bought some new footwear.

The ethos behind this is that by making the day job more enjoyable, the company will benefit in staff loyalty, productivity and less sick leave. If it sounds light-hearted, it's not always: some US companies are offering staff financial help towards IVF treatment, while Facebook and Google will pay for female employees to freeze their eggs. A cynic might suggest that it's to ensure they don't opt for the "mummy track" too soon.

Let's just hope that whoever gets appointed the next Poet Laureate claims the traditional perk of their post – a butt of "sack" or "canary wine", which would be the equivalent today of 720 bottles of sherry. Now that's some Christmas hamper.