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Creative Employee Perks

Creative Perks at Work - Competing for employees requires new alternatives to salary
Does your office have a "Surf's Up" perk?
Sue is a 49-year-old mother of three living in Vancouver who has decided to return to work as an experienced marketing coordinator after raising her children. While salary is an important consideration, she has another important thing to consider: time. She has many family obligations, and has spent the past three years caring for her mother who has Dementia. While she would prefer to work part-time, there are not many part-time jobs in her field.

When scanning the job ads, one job in particular stands out: one that promises “work-life balance”, a four-day work-week and no overtime in the evenings. She could make it to her children’s martial arts and swimming practices in the evenings during the week with no problem at all. Should she consider it?

Yes, says Dan Kelly, Senior Vice-President of Legislative Affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) in Ottawa, Ont., which represents more than 108,000 small-business owners in Canada.

More and more companies are competing for skilled employees by offering more work-life balance for those with heavy family responsibilities, along with other incentives, says Kelly. Businesses are becoming more creative in how they attract and recruit workers like Sue. Particularly small businesses that have small budgets to recruit, and cannot compete with wage packages, expensive benefits and/or retirement savings plans offered by larger companies, he says.

Work-life balance, employee ownership programs, job sharing and professional development are just some of the perks being offered now. At the Googleplex, Google’s corporate headquarters in Mountain View, California, employees have access to unlimited free meals, haircuts, dry cleaning, massages,and even onsite medical care. Can this rival Patagonia’s “Surf’s Up” perk? Daily surf reports are posted at the reception desk, and when the waves are good, employees can tackle a surf break.

These kind of creative employee perks will become more common as employees become more empowered than they have been in years due to the changing demographics (i.e. more and more Baby Boomers retiring), and a labour shortage. “There will be not only a variety of skills shortages, but shortages of workers generally, including in entry level positions,” says Kelly. “It’s no longer a case of candidates being grilled with tons of questions in an interview, and employers choosing from a large pool of candidates. Now it’s the candidate asking many questions, and deciding whether he or she wants to work at that particular organization. Interviews are no longer a one-way street. Businesses need to make sure they are well-prepared.”

Kelly has seen this emerging scenario before when he worked for the CFIB in Calgary leading up to 2007, during a labour shortage. The resource sector was booming, and members of the CFIB were doing everything to attract and retain workers. “Small firms began to appeal to those in northern Alberta on work-life balance,” says Kelly. “They acknowledged that wage levels were lower, but promoted themselves on the fact that employees would not have to work 90 hours a week, they could afford a home and they could be at a kid’s ball game in the evening.”

Employee perks

Small businesses are now appealing to employees by offering enriching, meaningful work, says Kelly. “They often appeal by allowing employees to do more things, have great access to decision makers, and offer different daily tasks or functions. In a larger firm where employees do one thing repeatedly, a small business can offer variety, which can enrich their working career.”

Another trend is for small businesses to offer an incentive pay structure, with employer ownership as a means to address the revolving door. “We’re starting to see more small businesses explore ownership plans,” he says. “The administration involved with doing this is not as complicated as people might think. Entrepreneurs are recognizing that with the growing shortage of labour, they may need to give up ownership of a small portion of their business.” Ownership often motivates employees to stay with a company for the long-term, as they have a stake in the business.

Other businesses are offering flexible work hours, time off or bumped up vacation time if they don’t have huge budgets for fitness programs or expensive benefits. Some offer time away from work for “educational leave”. Professional development and training, whether onsite, offsite or online, is becoming a common request from employees, says Kelly. “While 10 years ago no one would ask about training programs, now it’s one of the first things employees ask.”

Employers can tailor employee perks unique to their own workplace. Restaurants can offer meals, clothing stores can offer large discounts on clothes, or whatever product or service the company has. Relaxation areas, foosball tables, free lunches are other ideas that are gaining momentum.

Job sharing is another strategy employers can take, and is becoming increasingly popular and was quite common during the recession, says Kelly. “Many employees are looking for meaningful work with other responsibilities such as caring for the elderly or kids at home.” The job “share” can include arrangements such as two full-time employees who share working two or three days a week, or simple part-time work. “There’s a large chunk of the Canadian population that wants to work or needs to work part-time. So job sharing can be very valuable to the employer and the employee.”

Government buy-in?

While small businesses have always had the advantage of being able to be flexible, one of the challenges is that the government, specifically tax policy and labour and employment standards codes, are way behind the times in modern workplaces. They have not kept up with changes in workplace and reaching informal arrangement.

Kelly cited the example of a small aerospace firm in Winnipeg that offered its employees to work extra hours before Christmas so they could take more time off for their holiday. One employee quit and went to the labour board to complain that it did not comply with the overtime rules in Manitoba. Even though the employer went out and got a signed letter from every employee, the labour board said the company was not allowed to do it.

“Especially in an environment where employees are more empowered than they have been in years because of the demographics — we need to make sure employers and employees can make these kind of arrangements,” he says. “At the very least, they should be allowed to sign agreements with each other so the government doesn’t overrule it. It’s the changing nature of the employer-employee relationship.”

In addition, many do not consider themselves a “worker” for a specific company, but rather a group of independent employees who come together on a particular project. “Lots of workers want this, but tax rules and regulations don’t facilitate this,” he says. “What we consider work in Canada, we need to rethink. Other countries in Europe, and Australia are ahead in terms of ensuring government regulations are keeping up with the changing nature of work.”

Money talks, but so does employee recognition, professional development, flex hours and other creative employee perks. Who knows just what employers will come up with next!


Karen Richardson is a writer, editor and blogger on business, health and wellness for Canadian and U.S. publications. She can be found on Twitter @worklifewriter.

Originally published in volume 13 issue 6 of Your Workplace magazine.

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