The competition to offer the best Google-style perks has turned into a futile arm’s race: If your company decides to give employees a gym membership, your competitor will inevitably do so, as well. If they in turn provide one month paid vacation, you will up the ante to unlimited paid vacation, just like Netflix and other Silicon Valley companies do. If your competitor hosts free breakfasts in the morning, you will do the same — with the addition of lunch and dinner.

On and on this one-upmanship will go until all employers in the space now have expensive perks that add no value to the company other than put them on par with their peers. You’ll be the kid at the carnival with an armful of stuffed animals that you have no idea what to do with.

Companies in the Philippines need to avoid the trap of falling into this zero-sum game. If ever your senior leadership or your HR team is tempted to do so, you need to remember a few simple facts: Your company is not Google, Facebook, or Airbnb. Unless you are printing money, you need to distinguish your company not through perks, but through your culture. Your culture is the one place where you can always best other companies: It’s free, and very hard to replicate.

Through this perspective, your goal no longer becomes amassing random perks, but on building your culture. Though some view culture-building as a difficult, ambiguous activity, defining what you stand for can be as easy as a walk in the park. At Sprout, the company I founded in 2015, I had a meeting with a potential client during our first year of operations.

Also read: Philippines’ AI-powered HR-tech startup Sprout Solutions raises US$1.6M led by Kickstart Ventures

In this digital, interruption-driven, screen-oriented age, I’ve observed a real dearth of direct, honest, personal [live!] communication. The simple communication that says “I care about you and what you think/feel/do. Let’s talk about it.”

Realising the value of casual, catch-up conversation, I began to walk employees out at the end of the day, and everyone followed suit. If a person happened to be near the door as someone was packing their things, you would walk that person out. Employees would use these opportunities to get to know someone they didn’t directly work with, or deepen their friendship with someone they did. Around 5:30, the phrase “I’ll walk you out” would start to be overhead in our hallways, and continue well into the evening.

To outsiders, the sight might be strange — professionals walking in a buddy system to the elevator doors not farther away than 60 meters from anyone’s desk — but that’s a telltale sign you’ve built a unique, thriving culture. This simple ritual helped us build trust, share vision, and incover issues in those critical early days of the company.

I share our success with the “I’ll walk you out” tradition as a testament to the power of cultural rituals over flashy perks.

Whenever one of our employees tries to recruit a friend or former colleague, you see, the first things they’ll always mention are not any of our benefits, which we do of course have as a matter of practice, but our quirky, one-of-a-kind traditions. That employees themselves see these rituals as a selling point just goes to show their value: When it comes to work, where we derive much of the meaning in our lives, we would rather spend our time with like-minded people accomplishing great things rather than chase after shiny, but ultimately empty perks.

The distinction between these two is a classic case of substance versus style. Perks may sound great when you’re boasting to your parents or friends, but at the end of the day, you will be fulfilled by your sense of belonging: When you look around your office, do you see your tribe?

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Photo by Zac Ong on Unsplash