Top Places to Work

Top Places to Work

10 creative perks designed to make workers feel valued

Bonuses for failure, dog-friendly workplaces, and handwritten notes from the CEO all tell employees they matter.

Illustrations by Alexei Vella

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A BONUS FOR FAILING

At one of Boston’s elite advertising firms, management wants employees to fail. Sometimes, at least. “We’re asking you to create work that is so great and so different that people can’t help but notice it,” says Hill Holliday chief executive Karen Kaplan. “Sometimes in striving for that, you’re going to fail greatly as well.”

So in 2013, the company began recognizing particularly notable missteps with an annual Epic Fail Award. The $5,000 prize is given to an employee or team who hatched an ambitious plan and pursued it with passion, yet failed to reach their goals. The award was launched when Kaplan became CEO and decided she wanted to change what she saw as the agency’s tendency to be unforgiving of mistakes. She wanted people to feel comfortable taking risks to innovate. “If people don’t feel emotionally safe, they don’t push their ideas far enough,” she says.

The approach seems to be working: The first two winners of the Epic Fail Award went on the following year to win the Jack Award, the company’s highest honor. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

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Employees at Flour Bakery + Cafe’s seven locations spend all day immersed in food. So naturally one of the company’s most popular perks is, well, more food. Assistant managers and up get a monthly “Dining Out” benefit to spend at any eatery they like. The monthly sum begins at $25 and increases as workers advance and have more responsibility and influence on the menu. “It’s a cool benefit, especially because if you’re working with food you always want to be exposed to new things and exciting things,” says human resources director Dave Mazzarelli.

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The only requirement: Employees have to fill out a brief questionnaire explaining where they went, how they heard about it, something they liked about their experience, something they didn’t like, and any ideas they gleaned for how to improve Flour. Recently, an employee’s visit to a pastry shop inspired a change in the chain’s signage, from hand-lettered labels in a special Flour font to simpler chalkboard signs. 

A DEALER GONE TO THE DOGS

The Planet Subaru sales staff isn’t pushy, but the greeters might hound you a little. At the Hanover car dealership, the workforce includes a Labrador retriever named Blue, a mutt named Milo, and three more dogs charged with welcoming customers — and sometimes licking and snuggling them.

Canines first joined the team in 1998, when owner Jeff Morrill’s brother and dealership cofounder began bringing his dogs to work. Having the animals around was so well received, they decided to let employees bring in their dogs, too. Pet owners like the ease and companionship of having their dogs with them, while many of the dogless enjoy spending time with the animals, Morrill said. Any dog belonging to an employee is eligible for a greeter position, as long as they’re qualified. “We look for the same qualities we have in our human team members: People who get along with others and don’t bark or bite,” Morrill says. 

EXTENDING THE HOLIDAY SPIRIT

Last year, WinterWyman decided that celebrating the holiday season for just a few days wasn’t nearly enough. So the Waltham recruiting firm launched 25 Days of Giving, a spree of volunteering, donating, and charitable acts that runs from late November to just before Christmas.

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On volunteer days, employees last year taught coding in local schools, prepared meals for the housebound, and assembled care packages for deployed troops. On other days the company conducted food drives, donated a new couch to the Waltham Boys and Girls Club, and provided holiday gifts for children in need. On Random Acts of Kindness Day, employees were sent to toy stores, gas stations, and grocery stores to hand out gift cards to shoppers. Similar plans for this year are already in the works.

Though the program focuses on external organizations, it engenders camaraderie and delight among the staff, said Ruth DuFresne, director of benefits, compliance, and community development. “The employees loved it,” she says. “It’s honestly my favorite time of year.” 

POD PEOPLE

When Taylor Arrington started work at Boston’s InsightSquared in 2015, he noticed that it wasn’t always easy for new employees at the rapidly growing sales analytics provider to get to know their co-workers. So he decided to do something about it.

His deceptively simple idea: Ask colleagues to sign up for lunch, paid for by the company, then randomly assign participants to groups so they are compelled to interact with people they don’t know.

The initial lunches worked so well that the company gave him a budget to expand the program. Arrington, a customer success manager, created groups he dubbed “pods” and diversified the activities. Participants might sign up for after-work cocktails, band together for a trivia contest, or compete against one another in charity drives. New pod assignments are made for each activity.

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The program has helped new employees find their way and strengthened connections across departments, Arrington says. “It’s all super low pressure,” he says. “It doesn’t cost the company much at all, but then the benefits we’ve seen from the employees have been amazing.” 

NOTE-WORTHY

Bill Sprague believes in the importance of a hand-written thank-you note. In fact, the chief executive of Bay Cove Human Services is so committed to the practice that he writes close to 1,000 of them every year. For many years now, Sprague has penned individual notes to employees on the anniversary of their start date with the Boston nonprofit. The notes start coming after a few years of employment and contain a small check along with Sprague’s personalized thanks for another year of service.

The notes  –  up to 70 each month  –  help him keep connected to his workers, even as the staff grows to close to 2,000 employees. “It’s just another way of saying thank you to folks who commit an awful lot of time and energy to a mission we think is really important,” Sprague says. 

UPDATING THE SUGGESTION BOX

Lots of companies have suggestion boxes where employees can submit ideas to improve the business. Boston cybersecurity firm Rapid 7 takes the concept one step further with Moose Tank, an annual competition modeled on the entrepreneurial television show Shark Tank and named after the company mascot. “Everyone has really cool ideas,” says chief people officer Christina Luconi. “But how do you decide who to invest in?”

Anyone can assemble a team and pitch a concept. Every January, five winning teams are selected and given an executive mentor to help develop the proposal. Completed projects are due by December. This year’s initiatives include extending the company brand and finding ways for employees to use artificial intelligence to communicate with software. Each team that successfully completes its project receives $25,000, though Luconi says the money is generally secondary to the chance to build experience, network across teams, and prove themselves to executives.

GETTING DANCING DOWN TO A SCIENCE

Employees at Addgene dance like everyone’s watching. Because they are.

In response to requests for more activities that encourage physical movement, the Cambridge biotech nonprofit earlier this year launched officewide Just Dance competitions on the Nintendo Wii. Each contest is an elimination tournament made up of 30-minute sessions every Friday morning for about 10 weeks.

About 20 people sign up for each contest, using stage names such as Twinkle Toes and Twerkin’ Perkins, decked out in feather boas or cowboy hats. Those who are not competing gather to enjoy breakfast on the company and to watch their colleagues’ moves. The top three participants win trophies.

“Everyone just enjoys the fact that it’s a ridiculous thing we’re doing,” says outreach scientist Tyler Ford, who organizes the competitions along with Lianna Swanson, senior director of biology — and third-place winner in the inaugural dance-off last winter. 

FLYING FASTER AND FREER

CM Group employees get to breeze through airport security with their jackets on, laptops in bags, and shoes securely on their feet. And the company foots the bill.

Most staff members at the Hingham meeting management company travel frequently for work, heading everywhere from Arizona to Lithuania. To help ease the stress of long lines and the constant possibility of missed flights, CM Group decided to pay for memberships in the TSA Global Entry or Precheck programs. Employees enroll in the $100 program themselves, and the company reimburses the cost. “We’re always looking for ways to show employees that we appreciate them and what they do,” says human resources manager Michelle Alconada. “It is a small investment for us to make in our employees that makes a big impact.” 

A HAIR-RAISING RAFFLE

Gift cards and fleece jackets are nice, but Rockland Trust decided its employee rewards program should have some slightly more dramatic options. When workers participating in the Rockland-based bank’s wellness program win the quarterly raffle, they can choose from prizes including helicopter tours over Boston, rides in a Ferrari, and a getaway to the Berkshires, as well as more conventional options like Patriots tickets or gift cards.

Employees earn points through wellness activities like watching webinars, eating fruits and vegetables, and participating in monthly challenges. For every 500 points they rack up, they get one entry in the quarterly raffle. So far, though, the bank’s employees seem to be keeping their feet on the ground: employment specialist Colleen Balboni, who oversees the program, which is administered by another company, has not heard of any employees choosing one of the high-flying prizes.

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