Drum kits and kombucha: how some Australian firms are enticing Gen Z back into the office

<span>Melbourne creative agency Thinkerbell features a drum kit in its Melbourne office – one enticement to reduce staff working from home.</span><span>Photograph: Steve Scalone/Supplied</span>
Melbourne creative agency Thinkerbell features a drum kit in its Melbourne office – one enticement to reduce staff working from home.Photograph: Steve Scalone/Supplied

A drum kit in the corner. A giant pigeon statue. Slides, kombucha on tap and a bright green fluffy library. A dartboard on which employees can win a Cartier watch – or a single jelly bean.

Not since the dotcom bubble have Australian offices been this wacky, but employers insist they have to go there – or risk Gen Z staying home.

From the quotidian – gym membership and a coffee cart – to the esoteric – biophilic rooms and putting greens – employers hope a new breed of workplace perks will lure pandemic-weary staff out of their home offices and back to face-to-face work.

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At Melbourne creative agency Thinkerbell, the company’s national chief thinker, Adam Ferrier, won a fish tank the last time he played a game of darts, as is tradition on staff work anniversaries.

“I felt disappointed I didn’t get something better but it’s not [part of] my remuneration, it’s a chance to get something extra – it’s a spin of the wheel,” he says.

“People watch and these kinds of things create a bit of jeopardy and a bit of fun. If you’re not in the office you’re missing out.”

They’d also be missing out on the mismatched colour scheme, well-stocked bar and befuddling entrance to the office, where, upon arrival, visitors are deliberately left wondering where reception is.

The area – complete with aeroplane seats and dangling oxygen masks – is deliberately located at the back of the office.

“[Visitors] always feel intimidated. You can almost count, three, two, one and somebody from Thinkerbell jumps up, helps them out … It’s wonderful to orchestrate that little moment,” he says.

IAS is a digital marketing company based in Sydney. At their Eveleigh offices, staff can play PlayStation, practise their golf and drink cold-brew coffee and kombucha on tap.

Kaimera, a digital media firm in Surry Hills, seats staff among banks of pot plants in its biophilic designed office.

At advertising and communications firm Havas’s office in the Rocks, sits a giant sculpture of a pigeon on which a man squats, pants down – reminding employees to think differently and not take things too seriously, says chief executive, Virginia Hyland. On “broke-arse Thursday” free lunches are hosted the day before payday.

Its offices are in the historic Bushells tea building where the industrial slides once used for boxes of tea are still in place. They’ve been barricaded after enthusiastic attempts by Havas employees to use them as slides. (Office slides are not uncommon – Google, YouTube, Lego and Red Bull sites all feature the playground fixture.)

Today’s funky office phenomenon has its roots in Silicon Valley, where free gourmet meals prepared by chefs, table football and ping-pong first became popular, associate professor of work and organisational studies at the University of Sydney, Sunghoon Kim, says. Employee benefits now extend to fertility and gender transitioning support.

Covid, though, has upped the ante on incentivising office time.

“Coming to the office doesn’t mean switching on your laptop, it’s about sharing information and knowledge transfer,” IAS country manager, Jessica Miles, says. “We really missed that during the pandemic – that face time, that collaboration and most importantly, that trust building.”

That includes free all-staff lunches or monthly sporting events – Havas is staging a mock-Olympic Games and Thinkerbell’s dart throw with destiny.

“In general, innovative creative and special perks are a good idea as long as employees can see the value to them,” Kim says. Perks need to be more special than a worker can get by switching jobs.

And, communication from the company can make the difference between what is seen as genuine goodwill and something more cynical, Kim says.

“If, hypothetically, employers believe we are given this benefit because employers want to exploit us, then it will not be considered a benefit.”

A survey of 3,000 Gen Z workers – which by next year will make up 27% of the global workforce – found their biggest workplace red flag was “bad vibes”.

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When asked about what they cared about most in a job, learning and progression ranked in top place, above salary packages and work-life balance, the Hatch Hotlist 2024 found. Employer-supported benefits – free lunch and half-price gym membership – ranked lowest.

More than 75% wanted to be in the office on a flexible basis, which begs the question: how necessary are the gimmicks?

In fact, since Covid, workers are increasingly seeking employers that offer squarely sensible extras, like mental health support, says Kim. Which brings us back to the wackiness of Thinkerbell.

“Loneliness is endemic at the moment. It’s fucked. People can do everything online, from dating to ordering their food,” says Ferrier. “We think it’s a good thing to encourage people to get on the train [and] come into the office … and then we make sure we reward them by creating a really psychologically safe, fun, cool place to work.

“We need to be doing this for work but also for the sake of humanity. Dealing with people in real life is all part of the solution.”