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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."

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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 care.

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 Jantz.

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," Zoran says.

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 Duffield.

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 pretty steady."

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

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