Leaders at three small businesses who have received accolades for their workplaces believe they have the secret sauce: providing not only excellent benefit packages and enticing perks, but a work culture that fosters engagement, camaraderie, and genuinely supports employees’ well-being.
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Founded in 2006 by Chris Taylor, Square Root is an Austin-based enterprise SaaS provider in the operations performance management space. Taylor says that culture and benefits are topics “near and dear to my heart.”
“I consider culture to be a reflection of me — I want to come to work every day and my hope is that our employees do, too” he says.
In addition to providing “table-stake benefits” like health care, dental, vision, and (for the tech world) stock options, Square Root also provides benefits and perks that “revolve around ownership and impact,” Taylor says. New employees get a $4,000 budget to choose the type of desk, chair, monitors, and computer they prefer, which “sets a tone around accountability and trust in decision-making throughout the organization.”
One of the firm's highest-rated benefits is a $3,000 training budget per employee, which can be used broadly across personal development, conferences, classes, or other professional development investments.
“We had one team who pooled their money together to rent a place offsite for a week so they could experiment with new coding techniques and to study new course work to hone their skills,” Taylor says. “Of course, more important than simply giving $3,000 for their development is giving employees the ownership over how they want to spend it, and having them know that we care about their career trajectory.”
Courtney Branson started at Square Root in 2014 as the office manager, but was later promoted to head of HR and recruiting. She is also known as the firm's “happiness captain and culture champion.”
“From day one, I’ve felt supported to try new things — and even fail,” Branson says. “I’ve taken advantage of every benefit we offer to help me grow. Square Root has accelerated my career in a way that would not be possible in another organization — at least not in my opinion.”
One of her favorite perks is the firm's kudos program, Bonus.ly, a public platform for giving peer-to-peer micro bonuses. Anyone can give a bonus to another member of the team, which is “a great way to recognize and celebrate the many achievements happening each day.”
Square Root also supports Girlstart, an Austin nonprofit that empowers young girls in science, technology, engineering, and math. In addition to financial donations, the firm organizes volunteer opportunities each quarter. “I find a lot of purpose in being part of a company that puts emphasis on giving back,” Branson says. “It's an example of what makes this a great place — how we treat each other, our clients, and the people in our community.”
Jessica Bouthillier, technical program manager at Square Root, says that she never has “the Sunday night blues.”
“I love coming to work,” she says. “Everyone from the top down is smart, fun and supportive. Every quarter, the CEO checks in with me to see how I’m doing, how my family is doing, whether I’m happy with my role, and whether I have any questions or concerns. If I do have strategic questions for him, he is incredibly transparent.”
Related: Happy employees make a happy company
One of her favorite perks is flexibility in her work schedule, something particularly important for her as a new mother. Moreover, Square Root offers a stocked kitchen of nutritious foods that employees have the liberty to request. Bouthillier has a dairy allergy and appreciates that the firm provides almond milk for her morning coffee. The company also encourages employees to stay active by providing in-office group workouts or allowing them to take a workout class during lunch.
“I am also very grateful for the friends I have made here—our culture truly fosters friendships,” she says.
Ben Bohonowicz, director of client services at Employee Benefit Services of Maryland Inc. in Baltimore, says that a good organizational culture is built on trust.
“When employers expect their workers to actively participate in the growth of the company, they need to provide an open line of communication and then actually act on constructive feedback,” he says. “Employees are going to feel burned if they openly discuss their concerns but the organization doesn't own up on it.”
One rule of thumb when it comes to perks is to first try to find things that don't cost money, such as allowing employees to have flexible work schedules, or enabling a dry cleaning service to come into the workplace and pick up clothes, he says. But employers can also choose to pay for benefits and perks outside of their traditional benefits package to try and differentiate themselves.
“Some employers offer unique benefits like a credit towards the purchase of a house that's closer to the workplace,” Bohonowicz says. “Other employers offer a wardrobe credit towards workplace attire such as suits, shoes, and other items to ensure they project an image of professionalism in front of clients.”
Limeade is a corporate wellness technology company based in Bellevue, Washington that offers an online platform to boost employee engagement — and the principles it advocates are practiced within, says Lia Marley, business process manager.
Related: What makes a worker happy?
“The most unique thing about working at Limeade is that our values and culture norms overlap,” Marley says. “At most companies, values are aspirational in nature, but at Limeade we actually live them.”
The company's LimeMates program offers fun challenges and initiatives to foster “healthy competition,” and company events and meetings that are meaningful for employees and “a really good spend of our time,” she says. “We have a lot of alignment within the organization — everyone points in the same direction.”
Marley particularly loves the onsite fitness center, while remote employees can be reimbursed for working out at fitness centers closer to them.
“Because of our culture of improvement, I feel more enabled to go out and find that balance,” she says. “For me, it's working out. I really love fitness, and continuing to improve in that area. And that is supported in everything we do and say.”
Limeade's chief people officer, Laura Hamill, says that the firm's leaders think about benefits somewhat differently than most companies, in that management considers culture as a benefit, emphasized through the firm's Intentional Culture Circle.
The approach has nine components, from just talking about culture — having a very clear vision for the kind of culture leadership wants to foster — to behavioralizing that culture — naming specific behaviors that employees are encouraged to demonstrate and ensuring they really understand what it means to demonstrate that.
In job interviews, Hamill and her team ask candidates questions to determine if they would fit into the culture. For example, one of the firm's values is to speak plainly — “having the courage to speak the truth and to be evidenced-based.”
Sample interview questions include, “Tell me about a time when you had to deliver bad news to a customer? How did it go? What actions did you take, and how did you follow up?”
“Then we can start to uncover how comfortable they are speaking plainly, especially to power—to levels of leadership,” Hamill says.
During onboarding, new hires learn that the firm assesses performance half around what goals they need to achieve, and half on how they do that.
“Do they act in alignment with our cultural values, and are they supportive of those values on a day-to-day basis?”
Managers are also encouraged to help employees exhibit behaviors that support the culture, and often work with facilitators on role-playing exercises.
Employee feedback and involvement is strongly encouraged through all-employee meetings and “solution sessions.” A weekly survey includes questions such as, ‘Does your manager support your well-being? Do you feel engaged in your work? Do you think management and employees collaborate well?”
Limeade also offers peer-to-peer recognition as part of a weekly survey called Cheers for Peers, where employees can give kudos to recognize great work.
“I also think it's very important that we offer a flexible work environment, in which people can take time off when they need to, or work from home,” Hamill says. “As an employer, if you give flexibility, you get so much more back. People will be excited to come to work; their energy will be higher if they feel supported as a human being.”
Limeade's offices are “high energy, with lots of colors and lots of open space for people to collaborate,” she says. The firm offers happy hours with alcohol, other drinks and snacks, and outside speakers on a variety of topics to boost culture and engagement. Employees also design social events to boost camaraderie, such as a recent office Olympics, complete with medals.
The firm is currently considering offering an online benefits platform which would provide employees with a set amount of money to spend on benefits of their choice, Hamill says.
“We think that choice is really important for employees, and it's vital that the organization provides benefits that works for them,” she says. “We have employees at many different stages of life, so lots of different things matter to them. It's hard to find a one-size-fits-all approach, so it makes sense to consider moving toward a much more consumer-based model.”
Tom Wagoner, president of Accelerated Benefits in Columbus, Ohio, says that employers can increase employee engagement by providing a benefits platform that has as many offerings as possible, including options like legal plans, pet insurance, homeowners insurance and auto insurance. Many employers go further with defined contribution plans, giving employees a set amount of money to spend on the employer's marketplace for ancillary benefits like pharmaceutical and non-medical benefits.
“When employers offer more choices to solve workers’ financial needs and concerns, they become stickier employees,” Wagoner says. “It's all about how to get good people from other employers and how to prevent other employers from getting your good people.”
More companies are also offering enhanced benefit delivery systems and benefit administration programs, in which third parties help communicate benefits and cost savings strategies through online content, videos and PowerPoint presentations, he says. They also help employees enroll in benefits and automate the onboarding of employees into the eligibility rolls.
DayBlink Consulting, a McLean, Virginia-based boutique management consultant firm, “only wants to recruit and attract the best of the best. And that means offering exceptional benefits — plus, it's the right thing to do,” says Kim Horner, human resources manager.
The firm, which was founded in 2013, not only pays 100 percent of health, dental, vision, short-term disability, long-term disability, and life insurance premiums for its employees, but also for all of their dependents. They also provide paid parental leave.
Moreover, DayBlink reimburses for gym memberships; for cell phone costs, including $200 every two years to upgrade devices; provides all new hires with a new laptop of their choice; and provides all employees equity in the company through profit interest unit shares.
Patrick Crowley, a DayBlink consultant, says his favorite of the 14 benefits the firm offers to help promote healthy and well-balanced employees is the 50 percent gym reimbursement.
“DayBlink helps offset some of the costs, but still makes sure each employee has some skin in the game,” Crowley says.
The firm recently had a three-day, all-expense-paid training session in Las Vegas, which included gambling chips in the employees’ welcome gift bags, Horner says.
“We have clients and sites all over the U.S. and Canada, so not everybody in our firm is based out of the McLean headquarters. This means we don't get to see each other that often,” she says. “This training session was about learning and strategy, but just as important was spending time together to grow our culture, connect with teammates and build camaraderie.”
Other perks include Summer Fridays, where the office closes at 3 p.m. on Fridays between Memorial Day and Labor Day; catered lunches at the McLean headquarters; free food, snacks and drinks throughout the day; $100 for annual medical checkups; free estate planning, and happy hours. The firm also pays entrance fees for its employees to participate in team events locally, such as the Spartan Race and Philalympics.
DayBlink also own a real estate company, and if employees use it to buy a house, they get a quarter of the commission percentage back. If employees rent through the company, they get a $500 gift card of their choice.
Horner says the firm's culture, including its benefits offerings and perks, was just too good to pass up.
“I joined the firm at the end of April and the deciding factor was that I could not walk away from an opportunity to work for an organization that truly values their employees,” she says. “That's an HR manager's dream come true right there. I couldn't ask for anything more.”