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The return of perks at work
Companies from Microsoft to General Mills are beefing up on-site benefits to keep workers happy - and on the job.
By Emily Huo, Business 2.0 Magazine

SAN FRANCISCO (Business 2.0 Magazine) -- When Lisa Brummel, Microsoft's top HR executive, announced an expanded package of perks at a company meeting this spring, the to-go meals from Wolfgang Puck and an increase in restricted-stock awards didn't draw the most applause.

Instead, the loudest applause came when Brummel introduced the return of free towel service at company gyms, a longtime perk which the company had eliminated in a $60 million cost-cutting campaign two years ago.

As the economy rebounds and the labor market tightens up -- the national unemployment rate is down to 4.6% from 6.0% in 2003 -- companies are once again trying to find new ways to attract and retain talent. And time-saving perks seem to be the answer.

To be sure, the lucrative stock-option packages and five-digit signing bonuses of the dot-com days aren't making a comeback. Nor are Google's (Charts) lavish employee perks, like free food and personal computer repairs, becoming a widespread practice. Instead, companies are focused on boosting worker productivity without significantly increasing what they spend on people.

Saving time, not money

Indeed, Microsoft (Charts) has maintained many of its earlier cost cuts, which included reducing vacation time for new employees by a week, cutting the discount offered in an employee stock-purchase plan, and upping a prescription drug co-pay to $40.

But the return of the free towel service, at a small cost to the company, was hugely symbolic for employees - a signal that the company recognized what they valued more than anything, which is saving time.

"Doing more with less is the mantra now," says Joe Vocino, a senior consultant at Mercer Human Resource Consulting. That's also leading companies to think of creative ways to liven up workdays.

For instance, in Vancouver, Wash., where it can rain more than 150 days a year, employees at homebuilder Zephyr Communities now have the option of taking time off on an unexpectedly sunny afternoon and making the hours up later.

Monthly meetings at Quicken Loans in Livonia, Mich., include time spent rocking out to in-house band The Loaners. The company's vice president of marketing is the lead guitarist.

General Mills (Charts) is also trying to offer workers more on-site perks. At its Minneapolis headquarters, workers no longer have to leave the office to develop their film, receive a pedicure, or get an oil change for their car. These services, which are offered at its offices, aren't free - workers pay market rates, a spokesperson says - but they are convenient.

And even Microsoft's expanded benefits, while more generous than most, aren't going to break the bank, given that the company is expected to pull in revenues of more than $50 billion this year. Microsoft hasn't disclosed the specific cost of its expanded benefits, but says the expenses are already included in the financial guidance it's offered Wall Street.

"The bottom line is, the changes being made at Microsoft are not going to have a huge financial impact on them," says Matt Rosoff, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft.

But if free towel service can draw applause from skeptical employees at the world's biggest software company, it's clear that even modest perks can make a big difference in employee morale. Top of page

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