Business & Tech

SCOTT KIRSNER | INNOVATION ECONOMY

Free beer isn’t enough anymore

one-time use with Kirsner story 9/24/17

Hal Mayforth for The Boston Globe

More companies are offering pet insurance as a benefit.

In the battle of the benefits, tactics are shifting.

With an unemployment rate of just 3.4 percent in Boston, companies are vying to stand out to prospective hires, and hold on to the people they’ve already got. But the candy buffets, beer taps, and work-from-home policies that helped companies differentiate themselves a decade ago are today unremarkable. Some employers are now dangling free Hubway bike-rental memberships, pet insurance, birthdays off, a stocked seltzer fridge, paid college coaching for your kids, free onsite gift-wrapping around the holidays, and “dream vacation” bonuses — like $7,000 on your seventh anniversary with Cogo Labs, a startup creation firm in Cambridge.

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Executive recruiter David Melville of the Bowdoin Group, a Waltham firm, puts it this way: “Ten years ago, we tried to do things the San Francisco way, with unlimited candy and free lunch and beer kegs and open environments. Now, we’re doing things the Boston way. What’s important in Boston is work-life balance and being healthy.”

Companies are also acknowledging that the same perks that attract millennials might not be as appealing to other age groups, and that offering dazzling benefits just for the sake of grabbing a candidate’s attention might not actually bring the kinds of employees you want.

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At Needham-based TripAdvisor, for instance, one of the perks is partial reimbursement for personal vacations — if employees use the travel company’s website and apps to plan their trips. That, explains chief people officer Beth Grous, is a way of “having employees understand how our tools work, and getting out there and experiencing the world as a traveler.”

The big trends in benefits are about offering flexibility, and sanding away some of the stressful edges of working in a demanding job while also keeping family commitments.

“Flexibility has become the most important benefit,” says Audrey Lampert, a human resources consultant who has worked with startups and larger employers like Biogen.

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That may mean time off to volunteer with a nonprofit (employees of the Needham software maker PTC get two days a year, on the company’s dime), a concierge service that can find a last-minute baby sitter, or a company-paid ride to work in a bus equipped with Wi-Fi.

At HubSpot, a publicly traded maker of sales and marketing software, “the thing we are working the most on for the year ahead is infusing flexibility into our experience,” says Katie Burke, the Cambridge company’s chief people officer. That includes “exploring more remote work options” and “making no travel or minimal travel an option for senior positions.”

HubSpot also offers some prospective hires the opportunity to be hired for a four-day workweek. “We have a new VP who doesn’t work on Thursdays at all, some folks who work from home two days per week, and some folks who have switched from full to part time to fit their lifestyles,” she says.

Mary Good of Fuze, a cloud-based communications company in Boston, sounds a similar note. In May, the company introduced “Work from Anywhere.” Good explains: “For some employees, it means a day or two at a favorite local coffee shop, for others a co-working space option close to their kids’ school, and for me it’s working from the [Amtrak] Acela on the way to see my 90-year-old mother in Philly.”

In addition to flexible schedules and work-from-home policies, employees at fast-growing companies also prize tuition reimbursements and training, health benefits, and stock options, says Marie Burns, founder of Untappt, a Boston startup that helps companies with hiring issues.

Workers also want a concrete number of vacation weeks, she says. “Unlimited vacation sounds nice, but it isn’t trusted after being abused by many companies.” That means employers who technically offer unlimited vacation days to employees — but the culture is so intense that it doesn’t actually encourage using them.

While many employees are seeking better work-life balance, there’s still something to be said for fun and frivolous benefits that make your friends jealous of your job.

“Just offering health insurance doesn’t cut it anymore, and in order to stay competitive, we have to get creative,” says Kelly McDonald, senior human resources partner at Cogo Labs. At Cogo, that includes a harbor cruise every summer, catered lunch every Friday, and the aforementioned “dream vacation” bonus.

Employees at Piaggio Fast Forward, a Boston innovation center run by the maker of Vespa scooters and Moto Guzzi motorcycles, can borrow a set of wheels for a road trip. Hudl, a sports analytics startup with a Boston office, covers the cost of employee tickets to sports events. Several local companies offer in-office haircuts, manicures, and pedicures, and a few give employees free use of one of the boss’s vacation homes after a certain number of years of service. (Probably want to be careful with that glass of red wine.)

TripAdvisor offers a lavish free lunch in its in-house cafeteria, as well as cold-brew coffee and beer on tap in employee lounge areas. The startup Gingko Bioworks had set up an indoor badminton court in some high-ceilinged space in its digs on the Boston waterfront. But as the biotech company expanded, the badminton court bit the dust — though the company still offers unlimited vacation, free snacks, and an annual ski trip.

At HubSpot, Burke notes that while the “perks race is absolutely heating up,” it is also “the most interesting dynamic for the media to cover. No one talks about the hard, gritty work of training good managers or training people to develop new skills, because it’s much easier to talk about the new sexy trends” related to employee benefits.

And for Boston companies seeking to attract techies with the most current programming skills, or scientists who know how to design new drugs, there’s no perk that can stack up to allowing people to work on “really cool projects and technologies, allowing them to advance their learning, and providing people with meaningful work that they find interesting,” says Melville at Bowdoin Group.

In other words, in nerdy, ambitious Boston, working on an interesting challenge with cutting-edge tools may be the most alluring perk of them all.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner and on betaboston.com.
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