Unusual perks

Companies get good returns from surprising benefits

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Print this page by Gary Robertson

It’s the little things that count — in life and, increasingly, in business.

A card on your birthday, a party where everyone comes dressed as a pirate and goes on a treasure hunt, insurance for the furry friends in your family.

Those are just some of the ways that Virginia’s Best Places to Work are rewriting and expanding the traditional benefits package for employees.

The return, according to company officials: happier employees, better retention and more applicants for vacant positions.

A company’s reputation for giving their employees special treatment gets around, through word of mouth and social media. Just ask Caitlyn Scaggs, director of communications and marketing at Polymer Solutions Inc., in Blacksburg, who says, “We do get a lot of inquiries” about job openings.

Polymer Solutions, an independent testing lab, has 35 employees and ranks 18th on the Best Places to Work list for small companies. It has a corporate culture that might be summed up in four words. “Work hard. Play hard,” Scaggs says.
One aspect of that philosophy is that, if employees are happy and engaged on a daily basis, good things — like company growth — begin to happen.

Polymer employees have come to anticipate company-provided treats like Slushies and Blizzards plus breakfast every Friday.

“We have exceptionally smart scientists who take their work very seriously,” Scaggs says. So, she says, organized fun, like the pirate party, is one way to loosen things up and help people relax, before they plunge back into their work.

Free iPads
Birthday cards, Thanksgiving gift cards and reimbursement for flu shots are some of the ways that Base Technologies of McLean tries to let employees know that the company cares about them.

And, oh, by the way, every employee also receives a free iPad. “The iPad really caught the attention of our employees,” says Mirvat Suleiman, Base Technologies recruiting manager and a member of the HR team.

When she talks about the iPad benefit to prospective employees, she says they always perk up.

Suleiman emphasizes that the iPad is not so much about fun and games as it is about keeping employees connected when they’re away from the office.

An IT company with a work force of 165, Base Technologies, ranked second on the list of medium-size companies, sends its employees to a number of government work sites. It views the iPad as an alternative to assigning everyone a laptop computer to lug along with them.

“I don’t think we realized the impact [of the iPads] until we passed them out. People were saying, ‘Oh, this is really nice!’” says Suleiman, who credited her CEO with coming up with the idea.

In many ways, she says Base Technologies swims with the big fish in the IT business, but it operates as a small business that constantly tries to let its employees know that they are valued.

Ordering out for free ice cream on hot days and maybe for pizza on rainy days are among the ways the company strives to keep things interesting.

Domestic partner benefits
On a more serious note, Base Technologies began offering domestic partner benefits two or three years ago. “It’s a trend that’s happening,” Suleiman says. “For us, it’s something that opened more doors” to highly qualified prospective employees.

“We wanted to be able to say we had it, if someone wanted that option,” she says.

Among the firms on the best companies list in Virginia, 33 percent of small companies offer domestic partner benefits; 47 percent of medium-size companies; and, 60 percent of large companies.

One of those large companies is CARFAX, a company of 600 employees ranked 10th on the large companies list. The company provides customers with a wealth of information about used cars.

The company has found that keeping their families healthy is a major priority for employees. “Families are defined in different ways,” says Larry Gamache, CARFAX’s communications director.

In addition to domestic partner benefits, CARFAX also provides employees the opportunity to purchase pet insurance.  Once a gagline for comedians, pet insurance is no longer a laughing matter. It has become an emerging employee benefit nationwide.

Only a handful of the companies on the best companies list now offer pet insurance. CARFAX , however, believes it’s headed in the right direction. “We want to do what’s important to [employees],” Gamache says.

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