Not your father's benefit plan
Ever wish your company offered onsite daycare? Or that you could
rearrange your schedule to avoid rush hour? Welcome to the world
of nontraditional benefits.
Most companies offer medical, dental, savings and/or retirement
benefits, but some businesses are also including perks with a value
measured not in dollars but in common sense.
"Taken out of context, they don't always make sense to people,"
says Amy Jantz, senior compensation manager at WorldatWork, a global
nonprofit association for compensation and benefit professionals.
Jantz recalls one California software firm where management
had noticed workers setting their watch alarms several times a day.
It turned out that a large number of employees had dogs -- and those
puppies needed walks at regular intervals. So the company started
offering a dog-walking service.
"Dog-walking is not super-common," says Jantz. "But
if the employer has a talent shortage and the employee has a time
shortage, you're trying to compromise in the middle. And that's
where nontraditional benefits evolved from."
What's hot, what's not
One of the most popular perks, at least with
employees, is "some support of child care," says Jennifer
Schramm, manager of workplace trends and forecasting for the Society
of Human Resource Management, an association for human resource
managers. According to the Society for Human Resource Management
2003 Benefits Survey, 71 percent of companies offer flexible spending
accounts for dependent care. Three percent of companies provide
onsite child care, while 4 percent offer before- and after-school
Two years ago, Synovus Financial Corp. built an onsite daycare
center at its Columbus, Ga. Headquarters, "primarily because
there was a need for our team members to be close to their children,"
says Eric Bruner, spokesman for the company, which ranked ninth
on Fortune magazine's 2003 "100 Best Companies to Work For"
list. Largely as a result, Bruner says, "turnover is among
the lowest in the industry."
The company also provides a gym, cafeteria, paved riverfront walking
trail and company store. "The company has taken every small
detail into consideration to make sure the hours -- sometimes long
hours -- are as comfortable as possible," says Bruner.
Many nontraditional benefits focus on saving time
or making it easier to balance work and family life. One example:
SAS Institute Inc., a North Carolina-based software company, has
an onsite medical clinic for employees and their dependents. While
going to a doctor might take two hours, employees can see someone
at work "in 20 minutes," says Trent Smith, spokesman for
the company, which ranked 19th on the Fortune list. Between health-care
premiums and increased productivity, "it actually ends up saving
us money," he says.
The clinic and a host of other benefits, including subsidized child
care centers, fitness center, cafeteria and sports fields, have
helped keep turnover at 3 percent in an industry where 20 to 25
percent is the norm, Smith says.
"It's never been above 5 percent -- even during
the dot-com phase when people were jumping from job to job."
Benefits that save time or enhance family life "can sometimes
be more important than pay," says Bryan Zoran, research associate
with the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, an
educational association serving the benefits industry.
Many companies are also offering flexible spending accounts, flex
time, family leave beyond what the law requires, elder care referral
services and adoption assistance, says Zoran.
Free, subsidized or covered parking is "very big," says
Four-day work weeks have gone up in the last two years,
according to the benefits survey. So have the number of companies
offering domestic-partner benefits.
Companies are also encouraging employees to keep fit.
Thirty-one percent subsidize gym memberships. Twenty-four percent
offer weight-loss programs and 22 percent provide an onsite gym.
"Employers are moving toward, if not providing subsidy for,
fitness and educating employees about the importance of eating right,
exercising, [fighting] obesity and preventing chronic disease,"
And 11 percent of companies offer some type of onsite massage therapy.
At WorldatWork, employees pay $10 to $15 for a 15-minute upper-body
massage in the comfort of the office's privacy room.
Employees can also sign up to reserve the privacy room for nursing
babies or even napping. "You book time, just like you would
any other conference room," says Jantz.
Since 1999, the number of employers offering nursing areas or programs
has tripled to 18 percent. "As you see demographics in the
workplace shift, employers are trying to respond," Jantz says.
Fifty-eight percent of employers give employees the
option of casual attire at least one day a week. Employee-assistance
programs, which usually offer short-term counseling and network
with the health-care program for long-term help, are available in
two-thirds of companies.
Sometimes, the perk appeals not only to the watch
or the wallet but also to the conscience. At Austin-based Whole
Foods Market, which ranks 32nd on the Fortune list, the company
reimburses full-time employees for up to 20 hours a year in volunteer
work. "Everybody loves it," says spokesman Michael
While some companies in this tough economy have abandoned the quest
for innovative perks in favor of belt-tightening, others are using
less traditional benefits to offset cuts in other areas and remind
workers that they are valued.
"What we've noticed is employers focusing on key talent,"
says Jantz, "and what it takes to keep them."
"The last few years have not been great for anybody,"
says Milton Moskowitz, co-author of Fortune's annual list. "Not
too many companies expanded [benefits.] They held the line, more
than anything. And in holding the line on 401(k)s, some made employees
pay more for health."
For the most part, Schramm says, there are no revolutionary changes
to what most companies offer. "I would say, overall, it's staying
If I have it, can I use it?
And experts admit that, when it comes to nontraditional
benefits, some employees are getting more lip than service.
"Most [companies] have flexible work schedules, but when it
comes to implementing them, they're not doing too well," says
Moskowitz. "People expect you to work."
Jantz agrees. "That's where all nontraditional benefits run
into problems," she says. "If employers don't really buy
into it, programs are not going to be successful. Employees are
going to feel, 'You're offering me a benefit that's not really there.'"
If a particular benefit seems to make a lot of sense
or solve a problem common to many workers, it will get a lot of
ink for a while. But when you look at the number of employers who
actually implement the idea, you find out there's no real trend.
"Some areas are fun to talk about and think about, but in
reality there's not that much change," says Schramm. One good
example: elder care. Only a small number of companies offer elder
care, subsidies or time off beyond what's spelled out in the Family
and Medical Leave Act.
For better or worse
One benefit that's hard to quantify is a sense
of fair play.
Moskowitz has been compiling the "100 Best" list for
20 years and admits that troubled companies can still make the cut
if they put employees first.
"Companies on our list had layoffs because the business went
to hell," he says. "But they managed to stay on the list
because of the way they handled it. People at the top of the company
took the biggest cuts right away. That was the biggest indication
they weren't going to take it all out on employees."
And what separates the best from the rest, he says, is that "good
companies have a feeling of equity, a feeling of fairness."
The Container Store surveys employees on its slate of benefits.
Recently, Whole Foods tried a similar approach, letting employees
vote. "It gives us a chance to re-evaluate what people want
and listen to our team members," says Duffield.
But what employees elect and what they use are sometimes very different.
The Container Store started offering health benefits to domestic
partners last year. "It was a big thing on our benefits survey,"
says Rene Morris, benefits manager with the company. "Today
we have three people out of 2,500 taking advantage of it."
Nontraditional benefits are also a potent weapon in the war for
talent, which many employment experts predict will get even fiercer
as Baby Boomers retire.
"Employers that institute nontraditional benefits, they become
the employers of choice," Jantz says. "Word spreads."
Smith agrees. "There is a business reason behind all of this,"
he says. "You can do things that are good for your employees
and make good business sense."
Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.
-- Posted: May 20, 2004