Reviews | What ‘compensation’ on Apple TV+ gets right on desktop perks


Among the many brilliant touches of the dystopian workplace thriller “Severance,” on Apple TV+, are perks from Lumon Industries, the fluorescent-lit cult company where the series is set: finger trap gag toys Chinese brand; cheerful if mediocre caricatural portraits; a disconcerting “waffle party”; the much-discussed “musical 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 wave of office happy hours and card giveaways— giveaways, as companies try to attract white-collar workers to offices. At the high end, a real estate data company offered returning employees a daily chance to win $10,000, a trip to Barbados or a new Tesla; the most common incentives are corporate giveaways, pop-up snack stands, Covid personal protection gift bags and stress balls.

Companies are not wrong to perceive a reluctance to return to the office among some workers. Even though bosses see the return as simply a rehash of terms agreed to by employees, workers are increasingly aware of how those terms have harmed them. After two years, those who have been able to work from home have seen real benefits – saving time on commutes, flexibility for family responsibilities, freedom from perpetual distractions and restrictive dress codes – and now they can’t ignore them. Surveys carried out last year indicated that two-thirds of workers would prefer to have ongoing remote work options and would sacrifice $30,000 in raises to keep them. A bit higher percentages of women and black knowledge workers say they are reluctant to return to offices.

But among executives and managers, there are still a strong perception that in-person work is the only real work. Then as young workers in particular resist corporate mandates To get back to their offices 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 why some workers may prefer to return to work in person: more visibility into what’s going on in the workplace; opportunities to socialize with colleagues and find mentorship; a desire to separate work from home – a place where many have already connected long and trying days of work. And not all companies are in denial about what they need to do to get workers to come into the office; many offer permanent flexibility for remote work and hybrid schedules, and finally tackling the issues of workplace discrimination that have become more apparent in recent years. Others added management training and worked to improve working cultures, or instituted mental health programs and coaching services as new or expanded benefits. It’s unlikely, 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 working equivalent of the cheap prizes you win at a carnival after emptying your wallet to play the games. The difference is that the purpose of the carnival is to have fun and the prizes are incidental. In the workplace, it’s just a ridiculously terrible compromise. Who wants to give up the two hours a day they earn by not commuting for a cup of coffee?

Benefits in exchange for more time in the office and in work-related activities are nothing new to American work culture, of course. In earlier eras, this type of light corporate corruption could manifest itself in golf outings and bar carts in the office, but the end goal is the same. Spending long hours at the office is often mistaken for a strong work ethic and greater productivity, although this may not be indicative of either. To make employees feel that this approach is reasonable, many employers blur the line between work and the rest of life, while providing small distractions here and there to get closer to the fun.

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What will work and life look like after the pandemic?

The early 2000s saw a perks boom in tech start-up offices and campuses; companies filled their offices with games, scooters and various toys that wouldn’t be out of place in a playroom or summer camp. Round-the-clock meals, snacks, and craft beer on tap ensure that anything you physically leave the office for can be had on the spot. In the name of well-being and morale, some companies offer quiz nights, yoga classes, and sleep pods in the office.

The pandemic has reminded employees that new things 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’re little jokes in what can be an otherwise sterile work environment are relatively mundane in the context of working from home.

The broader context is also important. We are still living in a pandemic; the war in Ukraine has reinforced everyone’s sense of the fragility of global stability; we face a potential recession. Most workers don’t have the ability to quit their jobs, but when the stakes are this high on all significant fronts, they may be less likely to sacrifice their health, family time, and self-reliance for superficial rewards or fleeting.

Workers are also demanding more of their employers and other institutions. They want inclusive and welcoming workplaces for all races and genders. The pandemic has forced many of us to become caretakers, and school and daycare closures have burdened families with untenable situations that have highlighted issues of low pay, paltry leave policies, a lack of support for working parents and inadequate healthcare options. Immunocompromised and disabled people speak out about what they need to thrive in an office in the age of the pandemic. Employees are tired of being offered small perks to make up for major wellness shortcomings.

And that’s really the point of these superficial and sometimes infantilizing incentives: they’re brilliant things designed to divert your attention from the ways in which a focus on productivity and profits can be detrimental to workers. So when the company pats you on the head and gives you a tote bag or the occasional employee happy hour, it starts to sound a bit like an insult.

The Chinese finger traps in “Severance” are an apt metaphor for corporate perk culture. If you don’t know the name of these children’s toys, you’ve probably seen them before: 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 grip 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 just accept it, its hold on you loosens. In “Severance,” where finger traps are handed out as a reward for the mysterious work of the Macrodata Refinement team, the meaning is clear: if you simply stop questioning the business and wrestling with your existential doubts, you will be free. In this sense, finger traps are not just a toy; they are a kind of corporate indoctrination.

In the real world, the pandemic has deprogrammed employees from some of this indoctrination. They are beginning to realize that toys are no longer an acceptable substitute for meaningful work, fair pay, and adequate benefits.

Elisabeth Spiers (@espiers) is a writer and digital media strategist. She was editor of the New York Observer and founding editor of Gawker.

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