How to win workers in a hot job market
From wine tastings to pet insurance, Cambridge biotechs roll out perks in competition for talent.
PET INSURANCE ANYONE? How do unlimited vacations sound? And please drop by the weekly wine tasting hosted by a “senior executive sommelier.”
Welcome to the world of employee perks, Cambridge-style.
As scores of biotechnology companies vie for talent in Cambridge, a global hub for life sciences business and research, they are offering prospective employees an ever-growing list of fringe benefits. Syros Pharmaceuticals Inc., which moved to Cambridge recently from Watertown, provides unlimited vacations along with limitless snacks, on-site yoga, and a company-sponsored ski trip. At three-year-old startup Jounce Therapeutics Inc., bennies range from pet insurance and tuition reimbursement to a fridge stocked with food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For dessert, the freezer has every flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Oh, and there’s fresh fruit, too.
“It’s a very, very competitive job market,” says Leslie Kaufman, senior director for human resources at Syros. “These perks used to be the thing that differentiated companies, but they’re not that unusual anymore. It’s something that everyone does.”
Voyager Therapeutics Inc. hosts a Stimulate Your Neurons happy hour on Wednesday afternoons, complete with wine tastings and lectures by Bob Pietrusko, a senior vice president of regulatory affairs who doubles as the company’s sommelier. The events typically draw more than half of the company’s 74 employees, says Kathleen Hayes, Voyager’s human resources vice president. “People who probably couldn’t tell red from white are now asking, ‘Is there a Barolo this week?’ When we went public, we had congratulatory bottles. Some of these wines are quite expensive. One week we had a $250 bottle.”
The largesse is part of an employee-nurturing culture that migrated to Cambridge from California in the 1990s. That’s when alums of San Francisco Bay Area biotechs like Genentech came east to lead pioneering local companies such as Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc., according to Kaufman. She says she learned at Millennium that mingling at happy hours and other company gatherings “absolutely helps build the foundation for good relationships.”
Ultimately, says Kaufman, employees are still drawn by compelling science and the chance to make a difference for patients — but the perks don’t hurt. At Mersana Therapeutics Inc. in Cambridge, every day is bring-your-dog-to-work day. Such is the directive from chief business officer Eva M. Jack, who is a volunteer puppy raiser for the nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence. “We have one person who brings her dog in every day,” Jack says. “I bring my dog in four days a week. You can walk into a meeting and you could have two or three dogs in the meeting.” The company recently hired a new head of regulatory affairs who is allergic to dogs. He’s been fine so far, though, and “if he’s in a meeting with a dog, they sit at opposite sides of the room,” Jack says.
Startups aren’t the only ones that are perk happy. Takeda Pharmaceuticals Co., the Japanese Big Pharma company that bought Millennium, provides fitness reimbursement, paid days for volunteering, and up to $10,000 in assistance for adoptions. Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research offers flextime, rejuvenation periods, and mini-sabbaticals where employees can spend three weeks to three months at another Novartis site or academic lab to connect with new ideas and expertise. Outings at Cambridge’s Alnylam Pharmaceuticals Inc. range from child-focused “family fun days” to employee socials with Bollywood or Oktoberfest themes.
Can all the perks discourage people from doing actual work? Unlimited vacation time sounds suspect, for sure. But Kaufman says employees seldom abuse the policy, and many take less than four weeks. The goal, she says, is to let employees and their colleagues figure out how and when to complete their tasks without heavy management involvement. “It’s treating people like adults,” she says. “Everybody knows what they have to get done, and we’ll assess their performance on whether they do that.”