Making Perks Work for Your Employees

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Mark Valenti wants to work where he works. Or, more specifically: as an employer, he wants to create an environment in which he would like to work.

How does this, well, work? “I sit here and think, ‘You know, wouldn’t it be nice to have every other Friday off in the summertime?’” he revealed, admitting that most of the perks he dreams up stem from selfish reasons. And, according to the president and CEO of The Sextant Group, an audiovisual consulting firm headquartered in Pittsburgh, PA, this perk works: from Memorial Day Weekend to Labor Day Weekend, employees get every other Friday off. It’s called ‘Summer Hours.’

Here is how it really works: The entire organization is divided into two groups, Group One and Group A (Valenti didn’t want anyone feeling inferior to anyone else). This is done according to both physical location and discipline, so that the company is always staffed appropriately on any given Friday. On Memorial Day Weekend, Group One enjoys a four-day weekend, with Group A receiving a three-day weekend the following weekend. When Summer Hours concludes on Labor Day, Group A gets their four-day weekend.

There are two minor stipulations to this perk: One, employees are not allowed to trade weekends with each other. “When you get put into a group and you see the schedule for the summer, it is what it is,” Valenti explained. The second is that if a client requires an employee to be on site, or to deliver a drawing package on that employee’s day off, then they must show up at work. “If it’s your legitimate vacation, the answer is, ‘I’m on vacation. Can we meet the following week?’ But if you need to be somewhere on a Thursday and it forces you to travel on a Friday, then so be it.”

Valenti doesn’t recall anyone having to sacrifice their Summer Hours, however. “What you will see is on Thursday, people will stick around until six-thirty, seven o’clock, seven-thirty to get that package done and out the door a day early so that they can have a long weekend,” he said. “Guess what? That’s perfectly acceptable to me.”

We’ve all heard about the perks that companies—especially those in high-tech—use to attract and retain top talent. While the Googles of the world can still afford to give their employees anything from drycleaning services to massages and free haircuts, the reality is that in this economy, many of those perks have disappeared. This has changed the definition of what a “perk” actually is, and, for many employees— like those at The Sextant Group—it’s time.

“With the drop in discretionary spending, these little perks are still great ways to encourage employee engagement on a shoestring budget, and the number one, most effective that I have seen is time off,” said Kevin Sheridan, author of Building a Magnetic Culture: How to Attract and Retain Top Talent to Create an Engaged, Productive Workforce (McGraw-Hill, 2012); and senior vice president of HR optimization at Avatar HR Solutions, a research and consulting firm in Chicago, IL. Citing his firm’s research, he relayed that three of the main reasons employees leave their jobs is due to a lack of work/life balance, stress, and their perception of workload versus staffing levels. “When you look at all three of those, they are really one in the same, and what a great way to address all three by giving people time off to let off some steam.”

So what does all of this time cost? “Nothing,” Valenti said. “The truth of the matter is, my business has grown every year since we have implemented Summer Hours.” Because employees are condensing their workloads into fewer hours so that they may benefit from their long weekends, billable hours remain consistent. As for the employees, Summer Hours doesn’t cost them; during these long weekends, they are both paid financially and in time.

Time as a perk, however, doesn’t just mean time off. Many employees consider flextime, or time allotted for working at home, perks as well. “ A lot of the perks that I have seen that work really well are focused on autonomy, and providing an employee the ability to feel in control of their day,” said Alex Freytag, partner and vice president at Ownership Thinking, a training and consulting firm headquartered in Columbus, OH. This often results in lower turnover, which translates into higher productivity. “And, there is an element that says, ‘We trust you to make the best use of your time.’”

Matthew Smith, vice president of global human resources at Verrex Corporation, a systems integration company headquartered in Mountainside, NJ, believes that perks are two-fold: they help to bolster morale, which in turn makes for a more loyal workforce; and they should be in alignment with the company’s culture. For Smith, one of the perks that Verrex offers could also be viewed as a benefit. “We have a very good corporate training department, and that includes career training,” he said. While training may include paying for employees to obtain their CTS, it goes beyond that to help employees map out their careers. “We have a very good mentoring program, and this mentoring program also has a lot of career development aspects to it.”

For James Beckham, president of A-V Corp, a systems contracting firm based in Amarillo, TX, the focus is more on benefits than perks. “In my mind, a perk is something that is a freebie, a gift, they can use or not,” he said. “A benefit is something that they really benefit from, that I know they are going to use.” Following this philosophy, Beckham’s company pays 100 percent of its employees’ healthcare costs. “As an employer, I want to create a good work atmosphere.”

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/ editor.

When Don’t Perks Work?

While it’s irritating when employees don’t take advantage of perks, it’s even more frustrating when they expect them. “I think they have lost their impact when they are perceived as an entitlement, as something that I should get, as an employee,” said Alex Freytag, partner and vice president at Ownership Thinking in Columbus, OH. “I’m owed this, not because of my hard work or my productivity, but because I’m just showing up.” The best companies have the mechanisms in place to acknowledge that employees want a good work/life balance, he said, but at the same time, they have high expectations for performance.

—C.H.

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