By Hadley Malcolm
Want to take six weeks off in a row for vacation? No problem. Head to the mountain instead of the office? It's considered employee bonding. Getting paid to go to the gym? Motivation that's hard to pass up.
Employee perks like these may seem like a stretch, but casual, flexible and fun workplace policies are becoming commonplace as companies compete to recruit top talent, technology breaks down the barriers between personal and professional lives, and as more focus is placed on innovation and creativity.
Yahoo and Best Buy made headlines in the great work-from-home debate recently when both companies announced they would rein in their policies and put more emphasis on employees being in the office. Yahoo banned the practice entirely, while Best Buy will now require manager approval to work from home. The moves, but especially Yahoo's, could be seen as backwards given the way workplace culture is trending.
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An annual report on employee benefits by the Society for Human Resource Management shows that 57% of employers offered workers the option of telecommuting last year, up from 53% in 2011 and a return to 2008 levels.
"People are working more hours of the day on the job," says Grant McCracken, an anthropologist who studies American culture and business. "One of the ways you make that tolerable is by saying to people, well you can work some of these hours at home."
Technology has also blurred the line between work and personal life by making it possible to access e-mails and other work whether you're in the office or not, no matter the time of day. Many companies are compensating for that by accommodating employees' personal lives during work time.
At Burton, a Burlington, Vt.-based snowboard company, employees can bring their dogs to work, and the company subsidizes day care for employees with young kids, including paying for a babysitter to accompany employees who bring their kids while traveling for work (or doing the same if the parent chooses to leave the kids at home while they're gone).
Throughout the recession and slow winters with barely any snow, maintaining employee benefits and a fun work environment became even more important, says Donna Carpenter, president of Burton and wife of Burton founder Jake Carpenter.
"It's been a difficult time," she says. "Our focus has really been on keeping those perks better and keeping people passionate about where they work."
Employees are encouraged to hit the mountain for a few runs before or after work, and schedule days to go snowboarding with co-workers. Employees are also eligible for a free season pass to a local mountain and free snowboarding lessons. And Mother Nature reigns: If it snows more than 2 feet in 24 hours, Burton closes its doors and everyone heads to the mountain.
"We're always trying to break down silos and have people work more collaboratively," Carpenter says. "If you have a shared purpose and passion it can make work more fun, and we are trying to sell fun."
Two years ago, human resources executives at GoHealthInsurance, a health insurance comparison website, looked at the company's workplace policies and decided some of them needed to be overhauled. GoHealth enacted unlimited vacation days, shorter hours on Fridays, and a gym membership subsidy. The company, based in Chicago, also has a very casual dress code - most employees wear jeans and a sweatshirt to work.
Since the changes were put in place, GoHealth has seen an increase in productivity, says Michael Mahoney, vice president of consumer marketing, adding that not tracking vacation days takes the pressure off employees from worrying about things like coming in sick because they're out of days or scrambling to take all their days in December because of a "use-it-or-lose-it" policy. And a lax dress code is part of the company's strategy not to impose unnecessary constraints on workers.
"If we were able to measure an increase in productivity for everyone who wears suits and a tie, then great," Mahoney says. "Our rationale isn't, 'You should be as comfortable as possible.' It's, 'You should be as productive as possible.' And we've found that when people are comfortable, they're more productive."
Companies that are big on perks stress that it doesn't mean employees are working any less. Many of them emphasize a work-hard, play-hard mentality. Financial data firm Morningstar, based in Chicago, has an unlimited vacation-time policy and offers paid sabbaticals to employees who have been working there four years, and for every subsequent four years after that.
"If anything, we have to encourage (employees) to take it," says CEO Joe Mansueto. "I think it's a reflection that people like what they do here, and we have a lot of overachievers."
Malinda Souders' four-year anniversary with Morningstar passed in September. Soon after she took a six-week vacation to Fiji and Australia.
"The gift of time is priceless," the 36-year-old says. "So the fact that this is a company that supports a flexible work schedule and unlimited vacation just really sat well with me."
With technology keeping us constantly connected though, being out of the office doesn't always necessarily mean avoiding work. Even Souders says she checked her e-mail a couple of times while on vacation.
"The assumption is those people are still working even when they're away," McCracken says of companies with less stringent rules around work hours. "To some extent that's what the corporation is trying to do, let people outside the box so they can think in new and creative ways."
The 21st-century workplace isn't just about better benefits and more flexible hours. Being creative and innovative enough to out-pace the competition is now top of mind for many companies, which are starting to break down hierarchies and literally take down office walls to encourage collaboration.
Morningstar has no private offices. Employees, no matter how high up, sit at open desks with small partitions. Conference rooms have floor-to-ceiling glass walls and doors, and there are areas with couches and large chairs for hanging out. The company calls it an "open plan work environment."
But while some policies, such as the option of telecommuting, have become almost standard, employee perks aren't one size fits all. For example, just 4% of employers offered a child care subsidy last year, according to the Society for Human Resource Management report; 36% allow casual dress, the same as in 2011 but more than in 2009 and 2010.
"There are so many generations in the workplace now, and different generations value (certain benefits) differently," says Robert Greene, CEO of Reward Systems, a company that consults on human resources strategies. With a benefit like child care, if your workforce is made up of mostly young, single employees, it wouldn't make much sense for a company to offer it, Greene says.
When it comes to offering benefits above and beyond the norm, companies have to weigh whether the perk will be "a good business decision that's highly valued by the employee," he says. "Just because somebody down the street is doing it doesn't mean I should be doing it."