WHEN I GOT my first professional job out of college, I was impressed with the array of employee benefits that companies would provide. Time off. Savings programs. Paid travel.

As I moved into management, and saw what it was like to work in a different country, I realized that a lot of these were supported or mandated by government programs and tax code.

Which is totally fine, even necessary. But those programs aren’t as compelling as we’d like to think, because they’re pretty much standard everywhere.

The same may hold true to things which are specific to your industry.

Reflecting back on that time, there were a couple of unique benefits that were far more compelling to me as an employee. The first was free food and coffee every day, which then became weekly, then became a sad coffee machine sitting in the corner. When this was downscaled (due to a budget crunch of course), I was shocked to see how many people attached this to the core values of the company.

The second was our end-of-project celebration dinners. After working our tails off for a year or more, it was amazing to get together socially, with spouses, to recognize and celebrate this major achievement.

When budget controls attempted to kill these events in the 1990s, I was a manager and I fought back hard, scraping up a little money because I saw the deep value they brought to the company. When you’re dealing with a $5 million project, spending a few thousand on something that improves motivation and productivity is a simple decision.

Here’s what I’ve learned from these experiences:

  • Government- and industry-led employee benefits are fine, but by nature they’re the same as everybody else.
  • The benefits that matter the most are driven by the unique character and values of your company.
  • When they become a part of your culture, they’re powerful and hard for competitors to duplicate.

We’ve heard those stories about Silicon Valley companies with ping-pong tables and free lunches. When others try to duplicate it, they often fail to realize this:

It’s not about ping-pong tables. It’s about the culture of the company, and that’s just the physical manifestation. It’s about a culture of creativity, freedom, and fun.