Satisfied staff

Health plans and 401(k)s are fine, but some firms get creative in the perks they offer staffers.

Health plans and 401(k)s are fine, but some firms get creative in the perks they offer staffers.

Paychecks alone are simply not enough to keep employees motivated, never mind attract new talent.

"Today's generation expects more perks," says Laura Smith, EVP and HR director, US and Canada, at Edelman. "And [there] is a small number of firms competing for a small number of people."

Add to that a greater emphasis on achieving work-life balance, and agencies are truly challenged to find creative incentives to satisfy employees beyond the standard health coverage, 401(k), and vacation.

Such perks can be an opportunity to reward staff for performance and can foster development. New York-based Allison & Partners offers a new-business commission that lasts for the life of the account.

"If you introduced a new piece of business or a new client to the firm, we'd pay you a percentage of that in perpetuity for the life of the client," explains cofounder and COO Andy Hardie Brown. "We want to align the firm, the client, and the employee in the best possible way, and we're looking for long-term client engagements. So, obviously, we would want to reward anybody who made a contribution to that."

David Tractenberg, president of games-only agency Traction Public Relations in Santa Monica, CA, sets aside two hours every Friday afternoon for employees to play video games. And he supplies the games, from clients and competitors alike.

"It's gone a long way toward making sure we know our clients' products and what games we're up against," he explains. "Our people really get an idea of what's going on in the industry as a whole, and their morale has just really been boosted."

Traditional perks with a twist

Sometimes the trick is taking a standard benefit and adding value to it. Alan Taylor Communications, for example, has taken the concept of healthcare benefits a step further by offering 100% coverage, including medical, dental, and vision, to all employees and their families.

"It's definitely a selling point when we're recruiting," says Erin Weinberg, managing partner. "It's a significant cost savings to them. We see it as an investment."

At Denver-based Schenkein, a summer half-day Fridays program allows staffers to come in early throughout the week, so they could leave at noon on Fridays.

"Because of our clients' demands, we can't have staff always working from home," says co-owner and principal Christin Crampton Day. "This is a way we could work in flexibility and provide that opportunity."

When it comes to its offerings, Waggener Edstrom sees great value in responding to employee requests. "We want to hear what is most meaningful for them," explains Chris Brohoski, Wag Ed rewards and recognition program manager.

Under the firm's WE-VOICE program, employees with similar passions can form so-called dreaming teams, which come up with a new idea or program they'd like Wag Ed to pursue. One such program is WE-CONNECT, an annual connectivity allowance that covers expenses associated with things like at-home Internet access and Blackberries.

Getting away

Employers also see the benefits of time away from the office, and growing in popularity are sabbatical programs where employees with time under their belts apply for up to a month off, often to develop a performance-related skill. But Brighton, MA-based Newman Communications simplifies that process by offering anyone with five years at the agency an all-expenses-paid week's vacation to destinations that include Mexico, the Bahamas, and Aruba.

"They come back relaxed and happy, so it makes for really good morale," notes SAE Shirley Sandler.

Weber Shandwick's global exchange program lets employees at the SAE level or above with three years at the firm apply for an up to six-month assignment at one of the agency's other offices around the world.

"With many clients looking for global experience, it's important," notes Abby Gold, SVP of HR.

WS offers other incentives tailored to regional offices. "Each has the ability to create programs and initiatives that work for their culture and size," she adds.

Weber Shandwick Southwest, for example, employs the Body Mind Soul program, which offers reimbursements of up to $60 per month for expenses related to keeping physically fit; up to $60 per month for expenses related to expanding cultural awareness through the arts; and an annual $200 contribution to a recognized charity for which employees volunteer, or a $400 contribution to a charity in which an employee leads a staff team in a donation-raising event.

Salt Lake City-based The Intrepid Group periodically surprises staff with shopping sprees on its tab. Every employee gets $150 and the afternoon off. The catch: they must spend the entire amount on themselves by 5pm, notes owner/officer Chris Thomas.

At Victor, NY-based Dixon Schwabl Advertising (DSA), five different employees each month tap into the "fun budget" and plan an event that "engages us, allows for interaction, teaches folks something about our business that we don't know, or simply [allows us] to get to know each other outside of work," says CEO Lauren Dixon.

Activities have ranged from bocce ball to flying everyone to Las Vegas for a weekend.

When ClearBlue Communications moved into its current space in Birmingham, AL, it had to leave behind its "third conference room:" the Irish pub located below the office. "We wanted to re-create that ambience, that post-work social structure that everybody got together... so we installed a bar with a couple different types of beer, and it became sort of a hallmark for us," says president Mike Rosenau. The firm enlisted the help of a microbrewery, which now brews the office a different beer each month, dubbed the ClearBrew of the month.

The right environment

Sometimes incentives aren't enough; having a culture that supports them is what actually engages staffers.

"We've done a myriad of things to keep the culture going," notes Dixon. "But not only those fun events - you have to live it and breathe it 24/7."

When DSA began planning construction of a new headquarters, it gave the staff 72 hours to make suggestions. The result: fireplaces and a curly slide that connects the second floor to the lobby, as well as individual temperature controls in each office.

ClearBlue also sees the environment it offers, with a loft-like open floor plan, as a retention tool. "I think it's important that a perk is also defined [by] your professional development," says Rosenau. The idea is, by having the space as it is, no walls, no overt division among titles, everyone - from intern to CEO - feels like an active participant in advancing the company.

"Our people need to be motivated to deliver the best work possible for our clients and, ultimately, for ClearBlue," he continues. "And every one of these things is designed to create an environment that allows you to do your best."

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