Ping pong tables, free food, slides, sleeping pods, pet-friendly offices and on-site gyms are just a few of the perks tech companies like to boast they offer to employees.

Some of the benefits on offer sound amazing. Who wouldn't want desk massages? But these attention-grabbing schemes can come at a price for employees: high stress and long hours.

© Dice Insights
© Dice Insights

"Don't confuse perks with a positive workplace culture," Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester, tells Techworld.

"For most, perks are about attracting and retaining talent, while providing an environment that can help them to do their best work…Every company has their reasons. I think these are often sound and sometimes misguided," says Rob O'Donovan, cofounder of human resources startup CharlieHR.

However "perks are not the thing that makes a person's job satisfying," Cooper says. "What causes people satisfaction at work? Number one is to be valued and trusted. Most important is good relationships with work colleagues," he adds.

At best, perks can be the icing on the cake of a healthy, happy work environment. But at worst, they can be infantilising (bales of hay to sit on in meetings, anyone?) and trapping (who needs to leave the office if there's a gym, napping areas and free food?!).

Perks can be "tactical interventions that seek to address cultural malaise at a reactionary level…sadly many people think that by only treating surface symptoms, cultural magic will happen", says Esko Reinikainen, 'culture hacker' and cofounder of Satori Lab.

O'Donovan agrees: "Where it goes wrong is when perks are considered a silver bullet to problems and there isn't a clearly defined or well thought through strategy. There's the idea that if you stick a ping pong table in the office and fill the fridge with free beer everyone will be happy, but it's far more nuanced than that."

"These perks can even begin to make people develop lopsided relationships. If you look at the people in these tech companies they work long hours and sit in front of screens. As many diversions as there are in the office, they don't have the time to make the most of it," Cooper adds.

How to build a healthy work culture

So what should firms focus on instead? More face-to-face contact, reasonable working hours, ensuring manageable workloads and good quality managers for starters, says Cooper.

"In the end it's about relationships. We've got to change the nature of the work environment. We need more face-to-face contact, no sending of emails in the same building, and we need people to switch off after work," he says.

One of the leading indicators of happiness at work is your relationship with your line manager, says Cooper.

"If they are bad and inefficient, or socially insensitive, that will damage people's health," he explains.

Some firms have taken the idea of trust and transparency to another level: trivago allows staff to determine their own working hours and they have unlimited holidays, according to organisational development lead Anitta Krishan.

"We believe that the measure of an employee’s performance is not time but the value they add to our business," she says.

Companies should encourage people to interact and form good relationships with work colleagues if they want staff to be happy at work, according to Cooper. He also recommends restricting email access out-of-hours (as per Daimler and the French government).

"I'm not negative about these perks and creating that kind of environment. But it isn't the answer to the productivity puzzle. The leading cause of absence from work is stress, so we have to think about that carefully," he adds.

The main priority should be identifying which patterns of behaviour contribute to or detract from a healthy culture, says Reinikainen.

"From that awareness, organisations are in the position to develop strategies that amplify or dampen the issues that incentivise or disincentivise staff from behaving in the ways that contribute to the desired healthy culture," he says.

Ultimately, the things that make people happy are having good relationships at work, being paid properly, feeling trusted and valued by your line manager and feeling you have control and autonomy in your job, according to Cooper.

Perhaps it is that, and not perks, that tech companies should pay a bit more attention to if they truly value the happiness of their staff.