Among the many brilliant touches in the dystopian workplace thriller “Severance,” on Apple TV+, are the perks offered by Lumon Industries, the cultlike, fluorescent-lit corporation where the series takes place: company-branded Chinese finger trap gag toys; cheery if mediocre caricature portraits; a baffling “waffle party”; the much-discussed “music dance experience”; and, more than once, a melon-ball buffet served on a rolling bar.
It’s hard not to see real-world analogues — in the table tennis and kombucha taps of Silicon Valley, and especially in the post-pandemic flurry of office happy hours and gift card giveaways, as companies try to lure white-collar workers back to offices. At the high end, a real estate data company offered employees who returned to the office a daily chance to win $10,000, a trip to Barbados or a new Tesla; more common incentives are company swag, pop-up snack stands, Covid personal protection gift bags and stress balls.
Companies aren’t wrong to perceive a reluctance to return to offices among some workers. Even if bosses see the return as simply a resumption of the terms employees had agreed to, workers are increasingly aware of the ways that those terms have shortchanged them. After two years, those who were able to work from home have seen real benefits — reclaiming time from commutes, flexibility for family responsibilities, freedom from perpetual distractions and restrictive dress codes — and now they can’t unsee them. Surveys taken last year indicated that two-thirds of workers would prefer to have continued remote work options and would sacrifice $30,000 in raises to keep them. Somewhat higher percentages of women and Black knowledge workers say they are reluctant to return to offices.
But among executives and managers, there’s still a strong perception that in-person work is the only real work. So as younger workers in particular resist company mandates to return to their desks in the overly air-conditioned offices where many had never felt comfortable, companies are trying to sweeten the deal.
There are, of course, good reasons some workers may prefer to return to in-person work: more visibility into what’s happening in the workplace; opportunities to socialize with co-workers and find mentorship; a desire to separate work from home — a place where many have already been logging long and grueling days of work. And not all companies are in denial about what they need to do to get workers back on board with coming into the office; many are offering permanent flexibility for remote work and hybrid schedules, and finally addressing workplace discrimination issues that have become more apparent in recent years. Others have added management training and worked to improve work cultures, or instituted mental health programs and coaching services as new or expanded benefits. It’s doubtful, however, that a new pair of company-branded office slippers will be a real draw.
I’ve come to think of these corporate toys and rewards as the work equivalent of the cheap prizes you win at a carnival after emptying your wallet to play the games. The difference is that the point of the carnival is to have fun, and the prizes are incidental. In the workplace, this is just a laughably terrible trade-off. Who wants to give up the two hours a day they gain by not commuting for a coffee mug?
Perks in exchange for more time at the office and in work-related activities are not new to American work culture, of course. In prior eras, this sort of light corporate bribery might have manifested in golf outings and in-office bar carts, but the end goal is the same. Putting in long hours at the office is often conflated with a strong work ethic and more productivity, though it may not be indicative of either. To make employees feel this approach is reasonable, many employers blur the line between work and the rest of life, while offering little diversions here and there to approximate fun.
What will work and life look like after the pandemic?
The early 2000s saw a boom in perks at tech start-ups’ offices and campuses; companies stuffed their offices with games, scooters and various playthings that wouldn’t be out of place at an arcade or a summer camp. Round-the-clock meals, snacks and craft beer on tap ensure that anything you’d physically leave the office for can be obtained on-site. In the name of wellness and morale, some companies offer trivia nights, yoga classes and office sleep pods.
The pandemic has reminded employees that novelties in the office are also perfectly accessible at home. If you’re really missing unlimited bags of SkinnyPop White Cheddar and a short PlayStation break, you can experience the joy of both without leaving your home. Suddenly things that seem kind of nice because they are little dashes of pleasantry in what may be an otherwise sterile work environment are relatively banal in the context of working from home.
The larger context is important, too. We’re still experiencing a pandemic; the war in Ukraine has heightened everyone’s sense of how fragile global stability is; we’re facing a potential recession. Most workers don’t have the option of quitting their jobs, but when the stakes are this high on every meaningful front, they may be less likely to trade off their health, family time and autonomy for superficial or fleeting rewards.
Workers also are demanding more of their employers and other institutions. They want workplaces that are inclusive and welcoming to all races and genders. The pandemic has forced many of us to become caretakers, and school and day care closures have burdened families with untenable situations that have thrown into relief the problems with low pay, paltry leave policies, a failure to support working parents and inadequate health care options. The immunocompromised and people with disabilities are speaking up about what they need to thrive in a pandemic-era office. Employees are tired of being offered small perks to compensate for major failings when it comes to their well-being.
And that’s really the point of these superficial and sometimes infantilizing inducements: They are shiny things designed to draw your attention away from the ways in which a focus on productivity and profits can be damaging to workers. So when the company pats you on the head and offers you a tote bag or an occasional employee happy hour, it begins to feel like a bit of an insult.
The Chinese finger traps in “Severance” are an apt metaphor for corporate perk culture. If you’re unaware of what those children’s toys are by name, you’ve probably seen them: They’re woven tubes, usually made of bamboo, and when you insert a finger into both ends and pull, the tube tightens, trapping your fingers. When you stop pulling, the hold loosens and you can remove your fingers. These traps are used as a metaphor in a certain type of acceptance therapy, conveying the idea that when you stop trying to fight a problem and simply accept it, its hold on you loosens. In “Severance,” where the finger traps are given out as rewards for the mysterious work of the Macrodata Refinement team, the meaning is clear: If you just stop questioning the corporation and struggling with your existential doubts, you will be free. In this sense, the finger traps are not just a toy; they’re a kind of corporate indoctrination.
In the real world, the pandemic has deprogrammed employees of some of this indoctrination. They are starting to realize that toys are no longer an acceptable substitute for meaningful work, fair pay and adequate benefits.
Elizabeth Spiers (@espiers) is a writer and digital media strategist. She was the editor in chief of The New York Observer and the founding editor of Gawker.
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