Employee Perks

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8 low-cost benefits that small business owners can offer employees — beyond free coffee

N1601P66021HEveryone likes to feel 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.

Perks can 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.

There are many things a business owner can do that are relatively inexpensive yet effective when smartly used, and many can be done on site.

Tom Hudson, the general manager and owner of CrossRoads Shooting Sports in Johnston, says he’s challenged in the benefits he can offer employees being a small business and a newer company. To make up for that, he pays a higher start-up wage than big-box sporting goods retailers and takes advantage of programs that can earn his employees free merchandise and other discounts.

“As a small employer, I take huge advantage of these things,” he says. “They are ways to incentivize my employees that I couldn’t do otherwise.”

M2K Marketing owner Kris Winter says she’s looks for a variety of ways to show her seven full-time and contracted employees how she appreciates them even if it’s in the form of a simple “thank you.”

“I’m not a large company, and I can’t offer really large benefit packages,” she says. “I still wanted our people to understand I value their contribution. I’m very aware of making sure I’m telling the people I work with that they’re doing a great job and thanking them for their contributions.”

Several companies brainstorm for ideas or have a small committee that comes up with incentives and activities for employees. 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.

1. Offer a flexible work schedule

Tom Hudson, the general manager and owner of CrossRoads Shooting Sports
Tom Hudson, the general
manager and owner of
CrossRoads Shooting Sports

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 M2K Marketing in Urbandale, employees can set their work hours based on their other commitments and family needs. They can leave early one day or work late another to make up hours.

“We’re more about making sure you’re doing the work to meet our clients’ needs rather than punching a clock,” Winter says.

BirdDog HR has a flexible paid-time-off program, where employees can take off more time from work than their usual amount if circumstances require it.

“Our managers are really good about working with people,” Newsom says. “I think our employees know if they need extra time, or something comes up, we’re going to be very understanding of that. We’re not going to say: ‘I’m sorry. You’re PTO is used.’ ”

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 employee workdays is to create an atmosphere where employees truly feel they can leave the office by a certain time each day to have their own time or spend time with their family.

2. 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.

Grimes, Johnston and Urbandale 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.

3. Support a healthy office environment

Small businesses can do numerous things to help support the health of their employees.

An on-site fitness facility can range from 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.

Another option is to reimburse a membership 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.

Nutrition workshops, a flu shot clinic, online health assessments and coaching are 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.

4. 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 of the time the benefits are worth it to the company and its employees.

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. The company offers 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.

Employees at CrossRoads in Johnston are motivated to sell more items through sales and earnings incentive programs. Hudson participates in programs where his 15 employees can earn financial incentives and free products based on their number of sales. For example, a gun holster company recently offered the first employee to sell 10 holsters a free item valued at about $60.

Last year, more than half of Hudson’s employees received an average of $2,500 in free goods.

5. Create a relaxed, stress-free workspace

BirdDog HR in Johnston, Chief Officer of Finance and Human Resources Sandy Newsom
BirdDog HR in Johnston, Chief Officer of Finance and Human Resources Sandy Newsom

Employees like to feel spoiled and appreciated, and employers want them to want to come to work. Creating a positive and productive work environment that attracts all ages is a big goal of BirdDog HR in Johnston, Chief Office of Finance and Human Resources Sandy Newsom says.

The easiest and cheapest way to create a relaxed work environment is to eliminate any sort of dress code.

Hudson says he operates an informal and relaxed work culture at CrossRoads.

“We have compliance-related items that we have to pay attention to from a legal perspective,” he explains. “I’m not too stern otherwise.”

BirdDog HR lets its 48 employees wear jeans every day, shorts during the summer and even flip-flops. The company also gives its employees apparel with the company logo on it, so it can be worn to work.

A-TEC Energy Corp. in Urbandale is exploring different types of flexible schedules for its employees including an option to work four nine-hour days and one four-hour day. The company also provides employees with birthday cards, monthly catered lunches, company-sponsored outings and free company apparel.

“We feel it’s important to build that relationship and get to know one another outside of the office, as well as, to show employees that what they do does matter to the company,” says Jane Hutton-Edwards, who works in human resources for A-Tec Corp, with 50 employees.

To go one step further, small business owners can 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.

A pool, foosball or air hockey table, dart board and video games can be an inexpensive addition to a breakroom 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.

BirdDog HR keeps its company kitchen stocked with a coffee bar, free and unlimited sodas and snacks for any time of day from oatmeal for breakfast to chicken noodle soup for lunch or dinner. On Fridays, employees can grab a beer from the company kegerator and socialize.

Newsom with BirdDog HR says the cost of extra incentives for employees is budgeted each year and worth the expense.

“There’s a really huge cost to losing people and having to hire people or to retrain and keep them engaged,” she 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.

6. Show appreciation for workers’ families

Employees will likely spend more time 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.

A-TEC Energy Corp. provides employees and their families annual admission to either the Iowa State Fair or Adventureland.

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 needs to get involved in the mix, as well. HR Benefits Alerts suggests employers create a dog day, where house-trained pets come to the office for a social event.

BirdDog HR hosts an annual “Bring Your Dog to Work Day.” This year at least a dozen employees brought their pet.

7. 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.

A-TEC Energy Corp. reimburses its employees’ tuition for classes or degree where it believes both the company and the employee will benefit.

At CrossRoads in Johnston, Hudson has online training programs for employees, where by participating, they can receive free products and earn discounts while they learn more about a product.

Hudson says he’s able to save money through the online trainings but that he’s also closed his store so employees can all go to conferences.

BirdDog HR employees can utilize several online programs to learn about specific topics in which they are interested. The company also hosts “lunch and learns” where employees can learn about a range of things that might help them in their daily lives such as planning for retirement.

8. Recognize hard work and dedication

There are numerous ways business owners can show appreciation toward their workforce. One of the easiest ways 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.

A-TEC Energy Corp. employees can attend at least one company outing a year. This ranges from minor league sports team games to the horse raises at Prairie Meadows Racetrack & Casino. The office joins together for pumpkin carving and decorating contests and an annual ugly Christmas sweater contest.

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.

Winter, the owner of M2K Marketing, includes her employees in the decision-making process.

“They have a say when it comes to campaign development for a client,” she says, “They’re not just told what to do. We sit down and brainstorm together. They really feel like they make a difference in the day to day.”

BirdDog HR has an employee “bucket slip” recognition program in which employees recognize each other for a job well done or express appreciation through slips of paper. Each slip of paper is then stamped and exchanged for BirdDog “bucks” that employees can trade in for merchandise or gift cards.

BirdDog also recognizes its employees through spot bonuses, special events such as I-Cubs games, movies, chair massages, manicures/pedicures, a company-sponsored potluck lunch, and its birthday buddies program in which offices are decorated for employees’ birthdays and special cards are given and activities are planned.

M2K Marketing caters in lunch once a month for its seven full-time and contracted employees. The team will go out to lunch to celebrate employee work anniversaries or the completion of a special project. Sometimes employees will be given the rest of the day off after lunch. Other times owner Winter brings in Starbucks coffee or doughnuts.

“It’s a nice little treat that the team seems to appreciate,” she says.

There is a cost associated with some of the things she does, Winter says, but she says the benefits outweigh the cost. She hasn’t had to do much recruiting in the almost 11 years she’s owned her business.

“I think what I spend is a good investment for good people who are part of our team and help grow the business,” she says. ♦








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