10 low-cost benefits that small business owners can offer employees — beyond free coffee
By Melissa Walker
Everyone likes to feel a extra special, and employees are no different. If a company already offers a competitive wage and benefits package, it can go one step further to promote productivity and create a joyful work environment by offering perks. Or if high wages or generous benefits packages aren’t in the plan yet, some of these low-cost ideas might make a difference in your ability to attract or keep employees.
Perks can truly mean the difference between a happy, engaged employee and a disenchanted one who searches job sites on company time. They can also be a recruitment tool in a competitive job market.
A business owner can do many things that are relatively inexpensive yet effective when smartly used, and many can be done on site.
“It’s the culture we set up when the agency was built: Have a good time at work so that it doesn’t feel like work,” says Matt Glynn, a partner at Performance Marketing in West Des Moines.
The company employs 55 at its office, where Shift, the digital component of the business, is also located. The demands of marketing work can mean stressful days with late hours, deadlines and travel, but Glynn says founders set out to create a work environment where people have fun and want to come to work. This is shown in various ways that employees are rewarded or offered extra perks.
Some perks include free beverages and games. Others include random visits by an ice cream truck to celebrate employees’ birthdays. The company is constantly adding new ideas and creating ways to show employees its appreciation. There is a budget for some events, but mostly it’s done “because it’s the right thing,” Glynn says.
“We don’t measure, but we just try to decide ‘Today feels like a good day to do X, Y and Z,’ and we do it,” he says.
Glynn says that measurement comes in the form of employee satisfaction and retention. Performance Marketing started 16 years ago and has a pool of 10-year veterans considering the majority of its employees have been added within the past five years. The firm has drawn employees from other agencies but has never lost an employee to a competing agency in the Des Moines area.
“That’s pretty unusual being that we’ve all come from somewhere else,” he says. “The culture is a big part of why people hang around.”
The types of perks a business can offer vary depending upon the company’s workforce: Baby boomers enjoy freebies; working parents want to make their home life easier and strike a better balance between it and work life; and millennials enjoy benefits that allow them to give back to others, says Rae Shanahan, chief strategy officer for Businessolver in West Des Moines.
The most effective way is to ask employees what they want either face to face or through an online survey, but here’s a list to help business owners get started.
- Offer a flexible work schedule
The benefits of a flexible work schedule are two-fold: Employees are more satisfied with their work/home life balance, and therefore, less stressed, less burned out and more likely to stay at their job.
Employees are given core hours in which they must complete their work but choose their own hours as long as they continue to meet deadlines and produce a quality end product. Schedules such as this allow employees to attend their children’s functions as well as doctors’ and other appointments.
At Performance Marketing, employees are given the flexibility to leave work as needed, but most don’t ask for days off unless they have a volunteer activity or want to attend an event for their children, Glynn says.
“If you get your work done, enjoy your time away,” he says. “That’s our philosophy.”
Other options include allowing employees to work from home, and with summer less than a month away, letting employees leave early on Fridays for long weekends or other nice weather days. Business owners also can give employees the power to choose how to spend their personal allotment of vacation, sick days, holidays and other paid days off.
Letting employees decide how much vacation they take can actually motivate them to work harder, according to The Muse, an online career resource that gives advice, provides behind-the-scenes information about jobs, and helps job seekers in their search for employment. Companies such as Netflix, HubSpot and others have unlimited personal time off policies. Employees are provided with guidelines and examples of what other employees have done but are trusted to do what’s best for the company and themselves.
One of the easiest and cheapest things a business owner can do when it comes to an employee’s workday is to create an atmosphere where the employee can leave the office by a certain time each day to have his or her own time or spend time with family. Of course, these must be done in moderation and with careful consideration.
- Help subsidize employees’ transportation
Getting to work is another added expense to employees. Business owners can help pay for this expense through a monthly stipend, a commuter flexible-spending account, which is done pre-tax, or discounted public transportation passes.
Waukee and West Des Moines employers can utilize the Des Moines Area Rapid Transit’s (DART) employer program, which can save money for both the employee and the employer, and provide both parties with multiple benefits.
The program provides bus passes at a reduced cost to employees. Using public transit reduces the amount of wear and tear on the employee’s vehicle and maintenance; fuel, insurance and parking costs; and stress on the employee. The company benefits with a tax incentive because providing the passes can be a tax deduction, and the business can reduce the amount of parking it needs for employees, according to DART.
For businesses that cannot afford to cover the cost of public transportation or parking, DART suggests creating a pre-tax deduction program in which employees exchange part of their gross income for employer-provided transit. And free parking is always an appreciated benefit.
- Support a healthy office environment
Small business owners can do numerous things to help support the health of their employees.
An on-site fitness facility can range from something as simple as an extra room with a few exercise machines and weights to a larger-scale facility with group fitness classes and a wider selection of equipment. Business owners also need to keep in mind that employees will need to shower post workout.
Businessolver in West Des Moines started with free snacks for employees. It expanded to free breakfasts and lunches, and then happy hour. Employees enjoyed the food but didn’t like what it was doing to their waistlines.
Six years ago, Fitnessolver was added with cardio machines and other exercise equipment, as well as on-site fitness instructors who lead a variety of classes.
Submittal Exchange in West Des Moines has free weights, an elliptical machine, a treadmill and yoga mats in what is referred to as the “Sweat Shop.” Twice a year, the company has a 5-kilometer run where employees can enjoy the weather while they exercise.
Another option is to reimburse or contribute toward a membership or for employees who make a commitment to exercise. For those employees who ride their bicycles to work, offer a safe location for bicycles to be stored while the employee is at work.
At Performance Marketing, the company is in the process of buying bicycles employees can use to bike to nearby restaurants for lunch. The company also is planning an outdoor patio or picnic area for employees to enjoy the weather and eat their lunch.
“We’re trying to always pay attention to what they’re looking for,” Glynn says.
Nutrition workshops, a flu shot clinic, online health assessments and coaching also other low-cost things businesses owners can provide workers that not only shows they care but also can improve employee health, and lead to fewer sick days and lower insurance costs.
Another creative way to help employees get active is to create “fun days” tied to their interests such as a hiking day at a nearby recreational area or state park.
Creating an employee sports team is an inexpensive perk that creates teamwork, encourages friendship outside of the office, and helps promote a healthy lifestyle for employees, which is something employees value, according to Gusto, an international company that provides payroll, health benefits and compliance services.
- Negotiate discounts at area businesses
As companies grow, they can use their employee base as leverage to negotiate discounts at local businesses, according to The Muse.
These discounts can include dry cleaners, child care centers, car dealerships, office supply companies and other companies the business has a professional relationship with, according to Gusto. Some businesses may require a reciprocal agreement, but most time the benefits are worth it to the company and its employees. And it is good business practice to encourage your employees to do business with your customers, too.
AnyPerk.com is a low-cost, and in some cases free, service that employers can use to give their employees discounts at various local places. There are more than 850 pre-negotiated perks, many of which recur monthly and are available nationwide without any limits on how often they can be redeemed and have no expiration.
- Create a relaxed, stress-free workspace
The easiest, cheapest way to create a relaxed work environment is to eliminate dress codes, at least for those who do not work directly with customers.
To go one step further, create areas within the workspace where employees feel comfortable or can get away from their desks for a few moments of downtime, according to HR Benefits Alert, an online source that provides insight and tips for human resources and benefits executives of small to midsize businesses.
“It’s another reason you would want to work here,” says Sara Embrey, administration coordinator for Submittal Exchange. The company has about 75 employees in its West Des Moines office. “We are a fairly casual environment. We don’t want it to be really suit and tie. We want people to want to work here and having those extra little perks to make it more fun so it’s not just a job for you.”
A pool, foosball or air hockey table, dartboard and video games can be an inexpensive addition to a break room area or a “chill” area that has couches and chairs. On-site chair massages also can provide employees with stress relief and a quick break from the daily grind.
Employees love free stuff, and food is an easy way to an employee’s heart. An ice cream social to celebrate a milestone or employee’s birthday, free lunch once a month, free snacks and drinks, happy hour or meal off site can be small cost by pay back by strengthening employees’ morale and the company culture, according to Gusto.
Shanahan says Businessolver started offering food for employees in order to close the divide between work and home.
“Part of having food here is to make things easier for people,” she says. “When they’re here, we want to make it as easy as possible for them to get work done.”
The same is true at Submittal Exchange in West Des Moines. The company keeps frozen food, granola bars, chips and other snacks on hand, along with a new Starbucks coffee maker and soft drinks. Every Friday lunched is catered. There’s also a foosball table, shuffleboard, darts and bags game that are set up for celebrations or afternoon stress relief.
The company spends about $500 a month on snacks and $10 per employee for Friday lunches, Embrey says.
Each time a company acknowledges a birthday, employment anniversary, marriage, birthday, graduation or birth of a child, it makes employees feel valued and appreciated, according to HR World, an online networking site for human resources professionals.
Performance Marketing has a monthly celebration for employees’ birthdays, where favorite treats are supplied or the ice cream truck makes a surprise visit.
“It’s a mad rush downstairs,” Glynn says. “People just absolutely love it when they get that mid-day ice cream break with no announcement.”
Can’t afford to do things like bringing in an ice cream truck? That’s OK. Just stop by the supermarket and pick up a few packages or personally serve some root beer floats on a Friday afternoon. Employees will notice every little effort.
Performance Marketing also has a vending machine with free and reduce-priced soft drinks, energy drinks and beer, plus a bar area with keg beer and several lounge areas throughout the offices, where employees can take a quick break or play a video game or a game of pool to reboot.
Employees use their own judgment about when to plays games, take breaks or grab a beer, and there have been no issues, Glynn says.
Performance Marketing and Shift also provide lunch for employees. They organize events such as “PM in the a.m.” or “PM in the p.m.” and provide breakfast or afternoon snacks and drinks. On Cinco de Mayo, employees were served margaritas and chips and salsa. Sometimes gatherings take place at Centro on Mondays after work.
- Support employees’ outside work interests
Submittal Exchange gives employees eight hours of paid time to perform volunteer activities each year, as does The Aveda Institute in West Des Moines.
“We were looking to get our employees excited to give back,” Institute Director April King says. “This gives people an opportunity to work on their passion projects.”
About 75 percent of the institute’s employees take advantage of the volunteer day.
“There’s really no cost to the company outside of the hours we’re paying for,” King says.
Aveda also has an Earth and Community Cares team, which many belong to, that allows employees to participate in a community garden.
Companies also can provide charitable gift matching to organizations of their employee’s choosing.
Businessolver started a foundation through which employees participate in runs and other activities. The company provides employees with “swag points.” Employees accumulate points through participation and meeting goals. Points are then used toward a day off to volunteer or the dollar equivalent is donated to the organization or charity of the employee’s choice, Shanahan says.
- Show appreciation for workers’ families
Employees will likely spend more money with their co-workers than their families, but their family will rate No. 1. Business owners can go the extra mile by including a worker’s family member. This can include holiday parties, baseball games, summer picnics and other company-sponsored group outings.
Managers can easily promote the balance of an employee’s work life with home life by encouraging them to leave the office and be home by dinner. If there are times when an employee has to continually work late, employers can show appreciation to the family in the form of flowers or gift cards and a personal note.
Sometimes employees have family emergencies. Business owners can create a family friendly environment by allowing employees to bring their children to work from time to time and creating a designated area where children have age-appropriate activities and can be occupied while their parents complete their work.
Man’s best friend also needs to get involved in the mix, as well. HR Benefits Alerts suggests employers can create a dog day, where house-trained pets come to the office for a social event.
- Support employees’ desire to learn more
Business owners can become the biggest fan of their employees and push them to better themselves by providing ways in which they can continue their education and learn more.
This starts with providing employees with top-of-the-line equipment and the newest technology along with the resources they need to learn new skills. Younger employees will place more importance on the technology a company has when choosing whether to accept or stay at a job site, according to HR Benefits Alerts.
Free lunchtime seminars and workshops also give employees a way to learn more, but let the topic be driven by the employee. Another out-of-the-box idea is to set aside days where employees tackle projects away from their usual duties to learn how things can be done differently and to spark their own creativity.
Performance Marketing supports continuing education opportunities for employees and sends them to conferences and workshops, Glynn says.
- Recognize hard work and dedication
Business owners can show appreciation toward their workforce in numerous ways. One of the easiest is for employers to smile more and criticize less.
HR Benefits Alerts suggests organizing team-building events off site during work hours; giving employees concert or movie tickets or restaurant gift certificates for a job well done; and padding employees’ paychecks with a bonus for successful referrals.
The Iowa Cubs baseball team offers discounted tickets for businesses starting at $5 a ticket and $350 for skybox suites. Other options include season tickets and picnics.
“They can be used as incentives for employees, team-building events, a way to say ‘Thank you’ to customers, and most importantly, a great way to entertain clients and hopefully improve on the bottom line,” says Nate Teut, executive vice president and assistant general manager to the Iowa Cubs.
While employees appreciate salary increases and bonuses, they also feel gratification from kind works and a plaque, certificate or trophy as a public acknowledgment for their efforts, according to Gusto.
“Businesses that offer awards to employees for their achievements build a base of loyal employees who feel appreciated for their contributions of time, attention and talent,” according to Gusto.
- Make daily home-life responsibilities easier
Because an employee will spend the majority of his or her day at the office, it can become difficult to find time for other aspects of life.
Business owners can ease this by offering laundry and dry cleaning service pick-up and drop-off; and contracting with a car care shop to perform oil changes and detailing in the parking lot, according to HR Benefits Alerts.
Shanahan says Businessolver has an on-site concierge who can make appointments for employees. The company also provides transportation back to the office from repair shops and other places. Car detailers, oil changes and dry cleaning services have all been brought to the job site to help employees.
One of the biggest challenges employees face is when they become parents. Business owners can organize meal deliveries to the family or create a “meal train” with other employees to provide food and deliver it to the family.
Managers at Performance Marketing and Shift are evaluating what they can do to help employees eliminate their student debt. The company also is preparing to bring in a professional to offer estate-planning services at a discount to employees.