Perks at Work: Little Things Have Big Impact

By Michelle Rafter

Employees at Camden Property Trust get lots of perks, including discounted rent on apartments owned by the real estate company and furnished vacation suites at its properties in popular U.S. vacation destinations for a mere $20 a night. Also, a Camden scholarship program for children of employees attending two- or four-year colleges has paid out $1 million during the past seven years.

Of everything the company offers though, a favorite of employees at Camden’s Houston headquarters costs absolutely nothing: wearing jeans on Fridays.

“We have special jeans-theme days,” said Margaret Plummer, vice president of employee development for the company that reported $800 million in revenue in 2013. “Before July 4, it was red, white and blue. This Friday is a sports theme where you wear something from your favorite team.”

In highly competitive fields like technology and finance, employees are treated to expensive perks such as free meals, private commuter buses and team-building trips to exotic locales.

But perks don’t have to cost a lot to make employees happy.

In fact, human resources and employee development directors from a wide range of industries say they get by just fine offering perks that cost little or nothing — if the extras are things employees value or help reinforce the company’s mission or corporate culture.

“We’re not all Googles. We don’t need to be Google,” Plummer said.

What Makes a Perk a Perk?

Companies offer perks — short for perquisites — to reinforce their workplace culture, but also to attract and retain workers. Perks are defined as goods, services or opportunities that aren’t part of salary or wages but have value. Some perks are taxable — tickets to a ballgame for example — while other less-tangible extras are not.

Perks play a key role in helping Genentech Inc. attract talent, said Lisa Slater, a spokeswoman for the 12,300-person South San Francisco, California-based company and Roche Group subsidiary. Recruiters play up Genentech’s child-care centers, on-site concierge and commuter shuttle service. “Our aim is to help every employee do their best work,” Slater said. “We feel this differentiates us from our competitors.”

More than a quarter of employees in a 2013 CareerBuilder survey agreed that some perks are an effective way of getting them to stay in a job. Asked what one perk would make their workplace better, 18 percent picked the same freebie Camden employees like — “ability to wear jeans” — third only to half-day Fridays (40 percent) and on-site fitness centers (20 percent), according to the survey.

Lenny Sanicola, a senior practice leader at WorldatWork who tracks compensation and benefits trends, said perks such as free concierge services that disappeared during the recession are back. They’re rejoining perks like financial wellness seminars and health and wellness programs that never left. He also sees more companies offering perks of paid and unpaid sabbaticals, and paid time off for community service. “It’s not new. It’s been out there, but we’re seeing more organizations offering it,” he said.

Companies generally distinguish perks from benefits such as health care coverage, but some straddle the line. Companies may identify yoga classes at an on-site workout facility, offer flu shots at a company-run medical clinic or pass out free Fitbits as part of a wellness program, even though those offerings veer into benefits territory. Perks are also different from structured rewards and recognition programs that compensate employees for hiring anniversaries, reaching specific goals or other job-related accomplishments.

Because some perks fall into a gray area and others might not cost anything, companies don’t always track what they spend as rigorously as they do budgets for benefits, rewards and recognition and other forms of compensation.

SmartPak Equine, a Plymouth, Massachusetts, online retailer of nutritional supplements for horses and other equestrian gear, doesn’t track what it spends on perks, though the company surveys employees for feedback and asks for suggestions. “We accept it as an expense, and it’s the right thing to do for employees,” said Jennifer Burt, the company’s human resources director.

Gone to the Dogs

Small perks can have a big impact.

SmartPak spends nothing to let its 350 employees bring their dogs to work. An average day can see upward of 30 hounds lounging behind doggy gates inside their owners’ office pods. “We’re in an industrial park; there’s a dead-end street, so there’s an opportunity for employees to walk their dogs during the day. We’re lucky enough that the property also has a field,” Burt said.

The specialty retailer is a magnet for horse lovers, and supports employees who own, train or show horses by giving them use of free samples, as well as discounts on its merchandise, plus other goodies. “They’re coming to us to combine their lifestyle passion with work, so it’s what we can do to make them feel engaged in their passion,” she said.

Companies in ultracompetitive industries pour on the perks to find and retain people with sought-after skills. Google employees don’t just get a free cup of coffee, a barista makes it for them, along with free breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Employees at some locations can sign up to get produce boxes delivered to them at the office. Employees in the company’s headquarters can recognize each other for doing well on a project with credits that can be exchanged for a one-hour massage (on campus, of course).

Some perks are so generous they’ve become barriers between employees and the communities they work and live in. Nowhere has that been more apparent than in the San Francisco Bay Area where, during the past year, protesters have physically stopped or damaged the air-conditioned private buses that shuttle employees of Apple Inc., Google Inc. and Genentech and other tech companies throughout San Francisco and Silicon Valley an hour to the south. Protesters argue that the buses are contributing to rent increases, evictions, air pollution and other problems that decrease quality of life for the area’s nontech residents.

Genentech responded in part by adding signs to its commuter shuttles that explain how many cars they displace from streets every day. To show it’s a good neighbor, Genentech also offers opportunities for employees to volunteer. One is the 3-year-old Genentech Gives Back Week, which in 2013 raised $215,000 for 129 nonprofits. “Employees view the ability to give back as a perk since they are proud to be associated with a company that does so much for the community,” said Genentech’s Slater.

Real Perks at Virtual Companies

Virtual companies, with no physical office for a pingpong table or Friday happy hours, must take a different approach to perks.

Buffer, a San Francisco-based social media startup with several dozen employees around the world and no headquarters, gives every new hire Jawbone’s UP electronic fitness wristband monitor to track daily activities and how much they sleep. Employees also get a Kindle Paperwhite e-reader and three e-books of their choice. To encourage conversation, employees share their UP results with each other through iPhone and Android apps, and their reading on the company’s Facebook page and on a Buffer book board on Pinterest. Three times a year, Buffer takes everyone but new hires still in training on an all-expenses-paid retreat somewhere exotic, such as South Africa or Thailand.

Part of the company’s mission is promoting self-improvement, and fitness monitors and book discussions help with that, said Buffer co-founder Leo Widrich in a video on the company’s blog. Trips let employees who don’t see each other in the office bond. “Once you return home … the conversations you have with team members are enhanced,” writes Buffer chief executive Joel Gascoigne in a blog post about the all-hands trips. “You know the tone of somebody’s voice and the way they approach problems and discussions. You read their emails differently.”

Pet products-maker Nestle Purina PetCare Co. extends its business of supporting pet owners to the perks it offers employees. They can bring pets to work if the animals meet certain criteria. Workers also get up to $200 toward buying or adopting a pet, as well as discounts on pet food at company stores at its St. Louis headquarters and 19 other U.S. offices and factories.

Nestle Purina offers other perks as well. On-site company stores sell a variety of Nestle and non-Nestle products, including frozen food and other staples so employees can grab something on the way out of work and not have to stop at the grocery store before heading home. “I wish they would have bread, and then I wouldn’t have to go to the store at all,” said Wendy Henke, the company’s HR manager.

Giving Employees VIP Treatment

When Camden Property Trust’s co-founders started the business, they vowed to treat their employees better than they had been treated at the previous real estate company they worked for, starting with perks, Plummer said.

To that end, Camden offers 20 percent rent discounts to full-time employees (and 10 percent to part-timers), and extends the same offer to employees’ children or parents — a perk that, at any given time, 600 to 800 Camden workers or their family members are using, Plummer said.

The company reserves several furnished apartments in complexes in 16 major metro areas, including a unit in Orlando, Florida, a mile from Disney World. The $20 nightly fee, access to a kitchen, laundry facilities and pool make a vacation more affordable even for low-wage employees in maintenance or landscaping, she said. “Our philosophy is we want you to use your vacation,” Plummer said. “You work hard serving people; you need the time to relax and spend time with the family, and we’ll give you space to do it.”

Inexpensive vacation rentals, jeans days, e-books, shuttle buses and other perks — free or otherwise — are great as far as they go, said WorldatWork’s Sanicola. But ultimately, they won’t keep employees happy if a company is deficient in other areas.

If employees don’t have the tools to do their job properly, don’t understand what’s expected of them or don’t understand what the company’s all about, “all the free meals in the world won’t help,” he said.

About the Author:

Michelle V. Rafter is a Workforce contributing editor. Reprinted from

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