Wednesday, October 1, 2014
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Unique Job Benefits Help Employees, Employers



It's 9:45 a.m. on a Monday, and single parent Susan Rosenberg, Duluth, Minn., is on her way to work after getting her three kids off to school and taking her dog for a long walk. Susan is a social worker at a nonprofit organization. It can't afford to pay big salaries or all of her health-care premiums, but it does offer flexible schedules. At this point in her busy life, that help in juggling family and work keeps Susan from seeking a higher-paying, but possibly less-flexible job.

Susan's employer is part of a growing trend. Organizations are getting creative with the benefits they offer employees, in an effort to keep the good workers they have and attract new ones. It's not such a problem during tough economic times, but as the economy recovers and unemployment drops—and more baby boomers retire—companies will compete for a diminishing pool of qualified employees.

Letting employees know they're valued

"Employees are a company's most important asset, and businesses can't afford to lose their best people," comments Ron Ameln, president of the St. Louis Small Business Monthly. "Retaining employees is such a major issue for companies of all sizes, and if they offer benefits that let employees know they're valued, they'll succeed."

He cites his own example. Before buying his company, he worked there as a journalist for a number of years. "When I got married in 1994, my boss did some bartering with a vacation resort and handed me a honeymoon. When a company does something like that for you, you're not going anywhere."

Organizations generally offer benefits that make it easier for employees to do their jobs, balance their work and family lives, and reduce stress. "We're seeing a lot of onsite services—oil changes in the parking lot, laundry pick-up, free meals, child care, concierge services—that let employees take care of family business during the workday without leaving the office," says Kate Lorenz, advice editor at CareerBuilder.com, Chicago. "Companies are also offering physical and mental health benefits: onsite gyms and wellness classes, napping rooms, massages, manicures ... things that help with stress management."

Organizations are getting creative with the benefits they offer, to keep good workers and attract new ones.

MetLife's latest annual Study of Employee Benefit Trends finds that employees also are seeking advice and education that will help improve their financial security, such as workplace financial-planning services. Some employers offer those services, along with seminars on budgeting, home buying, or other financial education topics. Others offer partial tuition reimbursement for college courses.

Best of the best

Of course, companies with deep pockets find it easier to offer lavish benefits. Google, Mountain View, Calif., rates No. 1 in Fortune magazine's 2008 annual Top 100 Employers to Work For report. Google provides 11 free gourmet cafeterias, free Wi-Fi enabled buses for commuting employees, $5,000 toward hybrid car purchases, free haircuts, $500 in takeout food delivered to new parents, a fitness center complete with a climbing wall, and a host of other amenities. The company is considering offering paid sabbaticals, to re-energize employees when they need it.

"Employees are a company's most important asset, and businesses can't afford to lose their best people."

Other top-rated companies have unique offerings as well, Fortune reports.

  • In 2006, Methodist Hospital System gave each employee a $250 gas card.
  • Quicken Loans buses employees to NBA basketball games.
  • Microsoft provides free grocery delivery, valet parking, and a dollar-for-dollar match of employee charitable contributions up to $12,000.
  • At AstraZeneca, all prescription drugs the company makes are free to employees.

It doesn't have to cost a lot

But even small companies can give employees benefits that make their lives easier—and it doesn't have to cost a fortune. When gas prices were so high, many allowed employees to telecommute. Others offered compressed schedules, such as working four days a week, 10 hours each, to reduce commuting expenses.

To many employees, flex time is an important benefit. "We have six employees, and to accommodate everyone, we try to be really flexible with hours," says Ameln. "People can come in early or late, as long as they get the job done. One employee who relocated to be with her boyfriend is now telecommuting. It's been about six months, and it's worked out quite well."

He says another area employer allows new mothers to bring their babies to work for six months after maternity leave. "Then women don't have the difficult decision about leaving their babies so soon to come back to work. It doesn't cost the company a penny and it's tremendously motivating for the employees."

Employees are seeking advice and education that will help improve their financial security.

Involving employees in company decision-making, even sharing profits with employees, can be real motivators as well, as Ameln illustrates. "Jack Stack bought Springfield [Mo.] Remanufacturing Corporation when it was about to go under. He worked with the employees to set a goal for income and said, any amount over that, I'll keep half for the company and you keep half.

"It turned the employees into mini business owners; they had a stake in the game," Ameln continues. "Little things turned into big things. They screw $2 bolts into truck engines, and if some fell on the floor, before they didn't care—janitors were sweeping $30 an hour into the trash. With their own incomes at stake, they were diving under chairs to find the bolts."

Part ownership in your company would be a huge benefit, but even little things can make your workday more pleasant. Some companies offer:

  • Free coffee
  • Subsidized vending machines or cafeterias
  • Interest-free computer loans
  • Free movie or sports event tickets
  • Free vacation day on employees' birthdays
  • Work-from-home days
  • Company discounts
  • Time off for community service

For many employees, company sponsorship of a credit union is an important perk that provides access to better loan and savings rates, as well as to personal finance tools such as this and other online articles.

What does your company offer?

Even small companies can give employees benefits that make their lives easier—and they don't have to cost a fortune.

More organizations are realizing nontraditional benefits like these can boost employee loyalty and productivity. If yours isn't one of them, but you're otherwise happy at your job, why not suggest adding unique, low-cost benefits? Maybe your bosses just haven't thought of it. "Make a case to Human Resources that certain benefits might be logical to implement," Lorenz suggests.

And if you're looking for a new job, be sure to ask about the perks and evaluate them in terms of your situation. "Look for benefits that will improve your lifestyle," says Lorenz. "If you're a new mom, ask about lactation rooms, or onsite child care—something that fits you and will benefit you."

You may be able to negotiate a little. "The best time to do that is during hiring," Ameln advises. "Put it on the table. Say, 'I'd really like another $5,000 in salary, but if you can't give me that, I'll take this.' Maybe the company can help you out by letting you leave early certain days to pick up your kids. Or you can work four, 10-hour days a week and save a day of gas and daycare. It might add up to nearly $5,000."

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