Chair massages, free espresso drinks and billliard rooms in the workplace were perks of the dot-com era, but fringe benefits have been around a lot longer than that. The history of rewarding employees beyond their salary goes back to the days of World War II.
In an effort to prevent rampant wage inflation in the hiring of returning soldiers, the US government mandated a wage freeze and wouldn’t allow companies to artificially increase the salaries they paid their employees. That meant that companies had to get creative with how they enticed returning soldiers to choose their company over any number of competitors.
Enter programs such as paid sick leave, supplemental health insurance, and pension plans that were made available to more than just senior staff.
Over time these policies became the standard part of any compensation package, so employers have had to up the ante in terms of attracting and retaining staff. Innovation and creativity have finally found their way into employee manuals and Human Resource departments.
Of course any discussion of perks would not be complete without mentioning San Francisco’s very own Google. Recently named the best company to work for by Fortune Magazine, this place exceeds any expectations of employee benefits.
In addition to the standard rota of 401(k) plans and health insurance coverage, their offices have coin-free washers and dryers, an on-site doctor, and employees can partake in daily free lunch and dinner from any one of eleven cafeterias.
Keeping the workplace fun is a challenge. It is hard, after all, to get excited about yet another PowerPoint presentation and yet another staff meeting where the CEO drones on and on about the company mission statement.
Genomic Health, a pharmaceutical company spread across several office buildings, has made an effort to lighten up the workday by providing bikes for employees to use to get from one building to the other—or to take a quick spin around to get the creative juices flowing again. Even the chief research officer has been known to jump on one of these brightly colored bikes to travel between meetings.
Clif Bar, purveyor of healthy snack bars, encourages its employees to live healthier lifestyles by implementing a varied assortment of programs. They too have onsite bicycles for use to run errands or take a quick jaunt around town, an on site gym with personal trainers, and a credit program that allows employees who reduce their carbon footprint the opportunity to earn free massages.
There are also staff who have formed groups to receive weekly deliveries of vegetables from local farms. The company doesn’t offer much monetary reimbursement for the initiative, but allows for the logistics and planning of delivery to take up staff time.
Clif Bar is also leading the way in a growing movement to have companies give back to the community. They have a program, referred to as Project 2080, which tracks how many hours their staff devote to community volunteer time. Keeping track of the hours is important since they have to make sure it adds up to the equivalent of the total number of hours one full time staff person would work in a year. Interestingly, the name is derived from the fact that a full-time employee works two thousand and eighty hours in a year.
Kaiser Permanente, a non-profit, also devotes thousands of hours and financial support to lower-income communities throughout the San Francisco area. Volunteering isn’t the first thing someone thinks of when you mention perks, but these days employees want to receive more from work than just a salary. Knowing that you have put time into making the world a better place is often reason enough to keep up with the daily grind.
The most alluring perk of all will most likely always be the least tangible of all: time. Companies are realizing that what employees want most of all is the opportunity to maintain a healthy balance between work and life. As a result many employers are increasing the amount of vacation time their employees can accrue. Some companies go even further than that.
Genentech, a pharmaceutical company that manufactures cancer drugs such as Herceptin, has implemented a lucrative sabbatical policy. Employees receive six weeks of paid sabbatical which is available after every six years of service. Goldman Sachs provides its employees with an extra week of vacation the same year they get married or declare a domestic partnership, allowing couples the opportunity to have enough time to have a ceremony and a honeymoon in the same calendar year.
The history of making workplaces more bearable started long ago, but only recently have companies started coming up with creative ways to entice employees to keep coming to work. From catered lunches in the company cafeteria to free massages if you bike to work, this trend is showing up in every type of industry. Only one thing is for sure that it a trend that isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.