Nontraditional Benefits, Unusual Perks Growing In Popularity

by Luke Jones  on Monday, Apr. 7, 2014 12:00 am  

Southwest Power Pool built a cafe at its new headquarters as a way of enticing employees to stay on campus during leisure hours.

Nationally, about 30 percent of a company’s compensation expenses per employee go toward benefits. These include all the typical perks: health insurance packages, sick days, vacation days, 401(k), etc.

But increasingly, companies are looking to offer benefits that fall outside the normal range: flexible hours, paid lunches, ice cream on Fridays. These perks might not be mentioned in the company handbook, but they’re becoming more important in attracting a new generation of employees and keeping the old ones.

The big name in this area is, of course, Google, with its on-staff masseuses, travel insurance and free corporate cafeterias. But Google doesn’t have a corner on the market. Many smaller companies, including some in Arkansas, are trying to make work feel more like home.

“People are really starting to move toward the flex time, working from home, bringing their dogs to work. It’s becoming really common,” said Kelly DeStafano, state director of the Arkansas Society for Human Resource Management.

She said a major driving force behind this trend is younger generations becoming more comfortable with flexible hours.

“It’s pretty interesting to see the marked differentiation in the workplace,” she said. “It surprises them that we expect you to be even on time. If office hours are 8 to 5, then 8:15 is the same as 8.”

She said that workplaces are realizing that this mindset doesn’t necessarily mean a decrease in work ethic.

“The same person might check their email 10 times on their cell phone when they’re at home,” she said. “I know it’s caused a lot of conflict in workplaces, but it’s just a different way of doing the same thing.”

One example of the shift in attitude in this area is the 40-employee law firm of Cross Gunter Witherspoon & Galchus in Little Rock. Managing Director Rick Roderick said the firm spends about 35 percent of its per-employee costs on benefits and turnover is very low.

“We rarely lose anybody,” he said. Business Manager Julia Strickland said the firm has kept about 50 percent of the employees who joined the firm when it started 17 years ago.

“When you look at the people that do leave, a lot of it is retirement,” she said.

For three consecutive years, CGWG earned gold-level distinction at the Governor’s Work-Life Balance Awards. Roderick said the company’s recognition was due especially to the firm making a concentrated effort to allow flexibility.

“It seems odd for us since we’re a law firm,” he said. “Sometimes we’re thought of in certain ways: Attorneys bury themselves in hours of work, and so forth, but we’ve approached this from the standpoint that we want to balance employees with their work and family lives.”

He said flexible work hours are offered to all of the firm’s employees, from secretaries to paralegals to lawyers. This practice works, he said, because the firm is not what he called an “eat-what-you-kill” firm.

He said there are many firms where “attorneys don’t necessarily share work. It’s all about billable hours and production, things like that. We’re not that way. We’re a team-oriented law firm. We pass work around. We work in teams.”

It all ties together, he said: If employees didn’t work as a team, the flexible hours wouldn’t work, and vice versa. And those practices in turn reduce stress and aid in both retaining and recruiting employees.

“Employees that have less stress generally have more of a positive attitude,” Strickland said.

Community-Building

Nontraditional benefits beyond flexible hours take many forms. Even the idea of a relaxed dress code can be presented as a benefit.

“Overall, the dress code is much more casual than it was,” DeStafano said. “It seems silly, but that’s a big deal.”

Some other nontraditional benefits are geared toward building a community within the workplace. Younger workers, especially, DeStafano said, “are looking for more fun in the workplace. I hear that a lot.”

She said the Central Arkansas HR Association has several groups that meet up for exercise like walking and cycling.

“One of the groups I work with … has a ‘biggest loser’ competition every year,” DeStafano said. “It’s a fun deal. It’s goofy stuff and it doesn’t cost a thing.”

When Southwest Power Pool of Little Rock, for example, constructed its new campus in 2012, it built a cafe space that hosts local food vendors, with the idea that more employees eating on campus would build relationships. It also installed showers and a locker room to encourage employees to exercise together during work hours.

CGWG pays for membership in a local fitness center and holds a health screening day each year. It pays for 15-minute neck and upper back massages once a month.

Many companies can’t afford services like that, or the time to provide them. DeStafano works for Youth Home Inc., a nonprofit that helps teens with psychiatric issues. In that hospital-like environment, she said, it’s not as easy to introduce flexible hours and other, similar benefits.

Similarly, Southwest Power Pool has had to work around its budget constraints to offer nontraditional benefits.

“We’re a not-for-profit, so we have members who pay a portion of our budget,” said Malinda See, the company’s director of corporate services. “We need to make sure we’re good stewards of our members’ money, so we look for creative ideas to help the employees and also help the manager’s budget.”

One of those ideas was a wellness program that it started this year. SPP spends $5 million to $6 million annually on its medical plan for employees, See said. The wellness program will cost it $50,000 annually. Employees were offered Fitbit trackers, which measure various physical activities, at half retail cost. Employees can use them with a special “health kiosk” installed at SPP.

The kiosk measures blood pressure and weight and sends employees health tips via email on nutrition and health. If they are able to maintain the program’s recommendations, they receive $15 bonuses each quarter.

“But it’s not really about the incentives,” See said. “It’s about feeling better. If you feel better, you’re more productive. If you’re more productive, you’re more engaged in retention.”

The idea is also that healthier employees will use fewer sick days.

She said 315 of the company’s nearly 600 employees have signed up for the program since Jan. 15 and have lost a total of 830 pounds.

“Employees are getting really competitive about it. They’re forming teams and challenging each other, engaging on social media,” she said.

DeStefano said it will be increasingly important for companies to come up with creative ways to augment benefit packages, even if it’s something as seemingly insignificant as a candy bar with an inspirational message.

“A lot of the fun stuff I do here at my work is very low- or no-cost,” she said. “It might be just buying candy bars and stapling on them, ‘You’re worth one-in-a-million,’ little goofy things like that; people seem to like them. Anymore in the workplace, medical insurance, dental insurance — those are just standards. Everybody has that. So you’re not standing out if you just do those things.”

 

 

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