A common lament among smaller companies is that they can't afford to compete with the benefits packages offered by major corporations. But even if you don't have much money to spend, with a little bit of effort and creativity, you can offer extras that don't cost you a cent-but make a big difference in employees' attitudes and productivity. Barbara Adolf, a principal with Kwasha Lipton, an employee benefits consulting firm in Ft. Lee, New Jersey, offers these ideas:
Conveniences. Reduce the need for personal errand-running by having products and services brought to the office. Contract with a dry cleaner to pick up and deliver on a scheduled basis. Make arrangements with a restaurant to prepare meals and deliver them to the office at closing time for employees to take home. Look for companies that will come to you to wash and service vehicles. In all cases, employees pay for the service but benefit from the convenience.
Postal products. Consider installing a postage vending machine, or buy stamps employees can purchase at face value. You may want to extend this service to include other personal products employees need to purchase, such as greeting cards and toiletries.
Children's activities. When school-aged children are on vacation, parents can be extremely distracted. Arrange activities, such as field trips, that employees pay for but that provide peace of mind. Your local YMCA can probably help with ideas and information.
Discount tickets. Many theater chains let you buy movie tickets in bulk and pass along the savings to your employees. You may also be able to negotiate deals on tickets to concerts, plays and sporting events.
Discounts on products and services. Negotiate group discounts with a variety of sources, such as child-care providers, health clubs and warehouse stores. Ask your bank to provide your employees with a discount on fees for their personal accounts. If you buy from vendors that sell products your employees can use, ask that your commercial pricing be extended to your staffers.
Group insurance. Beyond typical health care, there are a variety of insurance products-including automobile, homeowners and disability policies-that can be purchased more economically through a group plan. Employees pay 100 percent of the premium, but you provide the strength in numbers.
Education and information. Hold "lunch and learn" sessions on a regular basis. Bring in speakers to address your employees on a variety of topics while they eat. There are plenty of organizations that provide speakers at no charge; plan programs that address current issues.
Before implementing a creative benefits program, survey your employees to find out what they want and will use. Include a list of ideas you're considering, and ask for additional suggestions. You might also want to ask for volunteers to coordinate various aspects of the program, from doing the research to negotiating the terms. Be sure to establish guidelines on the amount of time volunteers can devote to the program, keeping in mind that a benefit which increases the productivity of the entire company is well worth investing a few hours of someone's time. Or consider hiring an outside firm to manage your benefits program.
"There's so much pressure on people to be more productive and for organizations to be more competitive, people are very stressed," Adolf says. "To have the convenience of a lot of things they need and want available to them at work, as well as some stimulating experiences, is a terrific morale booster and ultimately helps productivity."
Jacquelyn Lynn is a business writer in Winter Park, Florida.