The same way an unexpected complimentary dessert can be a sweet way to reward loyal restaurant patrons, offering employees "people pleasers" allows companies to enrich benefits packages without rolling out too much dough.
At the Liberty Hotel in Boston, for instance, pets are front and center in the thoughts of the hotel's management. Every Wednesday over the summer, Liberty sponsors Yappier Hour, where four-legged friends of all persuasions mix and mingle in the hotel's enclosed courtyard. Lucky canine and feline attendees are treated to gourmet appetizers, as well as special nonalcoholic "Puptails" and "Muttinis." Off-duty employees are encouraged to bring their extended family members, too.
Yappier Hour is only one ingredient of the hotel's commitment to employees' pets. Liberty recently began offering pet insurance as part of the employee benefits plan, which about 20 workers signed up for. Employees pay the entire cost of the insurance.
"As I attended Yappier Hour, I heard from many associates that they were interested in having pet insurance available," says hotel general manager Rachel Moniz. "I began to hear horror stories of employees being faced with having to spend thousands of dollars for surgery for a pet, or be faced with having the animal put down."
Her conversations with employees also convinced Moniz that workers would happily absorb the full cost of many benefit offerings if the hotel could use its purchasing power to help reduce rates.
It's a similar story at many companies, where benefits plan administrators are discovering that lifestyle benefits are becoming more important, and employees are willing to eat the cost.
"The big focus now is on offering people pleasers," explains Marie Dufresne, a Dallas-based senior principal with Hay Group. She defines these pleasers as offerings that cost the employer little to nothing, but save the employee on something that they would be paying for anyway, or perhaps couldn't quite afford.
"The savings might not seem like much to the company, but to the employee, they could be huge," Dufresne says.
For instance, coupons, group purchasing discounts and cash rewards are big crowd pleasers, according to Bernie Knobbe, senior director of global benefits at Yahoo Inc., and former chairman of the International Foundation of Employee Benefits Plans, a not-for-profit educational organization based in Brookfield, Wisconsin. Employees appreciate the opportunity to save on anything, he says. But to really improve the mix, Knobbe likes cash reward programs that track purchases and give employees a cash credit every time they use them toward future purchases.
Another area that's ripe for a people pleaser is the commute to work, says Megan Priest, director of human resources at Verndale Corp., a Web strategy and design firm. Offering free parking or passes for parking or public transportation are obvious. But consider setting up a car pool program, giving bicycle rental and repair allowances, offering group automobile insurance plans, or providing mileage reimbursements or rebates for hybrid car purchases.
Companies also can stir in their purchasing power on virtually any product or service, and pass along the savings. According to Elizabeth Weber, vice president of benefits at Comcast Corp., employees can buy any number of discounted items on its intranet—from iPads and iPods to tickets to sports and entertainment events. "It gets the highest traffic on our site," Weber says.
And in today's corporate landscape where lean staffs are more the rule than the exception, many employees have a hard time finding time to exercise. Offering on-site gyms or memberships at remote gyms that have more family friendly services, such as child care, could please the people putting out the proverbial 110 percent.
Dufresne also recommends adding wellness coaches and personal trainers to the program. To try to ensure employees stay on track, employers can base membership discounts on the number of visits to the gym, with a certain number of employees earning free memberships. "That's when it will really take off," she says.