December 24, 2006
Special to The Seattle Times
GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
As crews mop up after company-hosted holiday office parties, a growing number of small- to midsized employers are setting aside their punchbowls in favor of more innovative ways to show staff appreciation year-round.
One national survey by an East Coast pollster shows that 47 percent of small businesses were planning holiday parties this year -- down by 8 percentage points from 2005.
While some are substituting end-of-year bonuses for the annual holiday soiree, growing numbers of smaller employers are adding year-round perks to their workplaces -- and many ideas for these extras come straight from staff.
From desk-side neck massages and lunchroom pingpong games to a company-paid 16-day trip through Italy, local employment perks are starting to pop like New Year's champagne corks.
"I think you're going to see more of that," says Sharon Gould Afforde, an insurance/finance recruiting specialist in Bellevue for the Chicago-based Jacobson Group.
More than half of companies that offer massages have added that perk in the past five years. Here are the most common perks:
For executives: company cellphone (84 percent)
For middle management: company cellphone (67 percent)
For nonmanagement: supplemental life insurance (58 percent)
Sources: Massage Therapy Journal, 2006 Benefit Survey Report from the Society for Human Resource Management
"This creates," she says, "employee empowerment. It's no longer just the holiday party, but it's summer picnics, monthly events that acknowledge good work, birthday celebrations, potlucks and more."
Whether workplace perks produce morale-boosting fizz or production that goes flat depends in large part on whether employers are offering the extras best suited to their staff members, Afforde says.
Perks contribute to loyalty and employee retention, she says, and "loyalty and retention have everything to do with meeting the employees' emotion needs.
"Business is personal and managers need to start recognizing that employees are emotionally driven," Afforde says.
"It doesn't matter," she adds, "how small or big a company is, successful perks have more to do with the true sincerity of the person at the top."
That's been part of Linda Houser's philosophy since starting Pat's Plumbing with a staff of two in Federal Way 18 years ago.
As business -- and stress levels -- increased, her team grew to 20 and she added monthly neck massages, free lattes twice weekly, and occasional gift-certificate surprises to recognize her workers.
It seems to pay off. Employees successfully nominated Pat's Plumbing for recognition in this year's NWJobs.com People's Picks honors.
"A lot of employers don't realize that there's more to keeping employees happy than just paying them," Houser says. "That's old school. You need to show a special interest in them. ... Learn what matters to them. If you get to know your employees, you'll see what they enjoy and you can use that to motivate them."
That's one of the reasons Diane Symms, owner of three Lombardi's restaurants in the region, hosted six of her top staffers for 16 days of culinary adventure in Italy this fall. She's done it twice before as a way to reward her team.
Symms started the company in 1987 and now has 110 employees.
Beyond the Tuscan castles and villas on the most recent itinerary, Symms made a point of including a stop in Santa Maria -- a small southern village that head chef Matthew Romeo's family has called home for 700 years.
"Going on this trip was more than being part of a work team -- it was like being part of a family," Romeo says. "And then it was so great when my work friends got to go to my aunt's house in Santa Maria for a meal. She cooked for days for us. The whole thing showed me how much Lombardi's feels about us."
Year-round perks, meanwhile, can offer much-needed relief from stress in high-pressure workplaces.
At Seattle-based Zillow, the online real-estate valuation service that has grown from 13 to 130 workers in less than two years, teams have been working overtime to add new features to the company's Web site.
A "culture committee" created when Zillow was launched has successfully lobbied for adding foosball, pingpong and air-hockey tables -- and free all-you-can-drink soda pop, juice and milk -- to the company's downtown offices overlooking Elliott Bay.
"We see it as a way our people can get their energy out," says Shannon Swift, vice president of Zillow's human resources and corporate services.
"Our people work in a high-stress environment with aggressive schedules. With a game table nearby, one of your co-workers pulls you away from your desk for a few minutes, you have some laughs and you definitely build camaraderie."
Some examples of other small and medium-sized Seattle-area companies that offer special perks include:
- Envision Telephony, a Seattle software company, offers a variety of health-oriented perks, including on-site massages and "Business Boxes" of fresh fruit and healthy snacks from Pioneer Organics.
- At Parker LePla, a marketing and branding company, the employees regularly get to go on afternoon field trips to play WhirlyBall or go lawn bowling or kayaking on Lake Union.
- ZAAZ, a Web-site consultant, provides free public transportation, health-club memberships, free juice, soda, milk, peanut butter, jelly, bread (workers have to make their own sandwiches) and "random acts of kindness" such as Lotto tickets and doughnuts.
- Parsons Public Relations gives out $50 spot awards for work that's above and beyond what's expected, and the company also has regular outings to go kayaking or ice skating and then to dinner.
With the new year just around the corner, Afforde predicts the biggest trend in perks will include a focus on health.
"It's likely we'll see more exercise programs available that emphasize workouts and healthy lifestyles," she says.
"It's a great way for the employer to reduce costs on their benefits and another way to boost employees' morale."
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