Betting on Benefits

It's getting more costly for top employers to stay ahead of the competition with their benefits packages. But they know large investments in employee perks will reap huge payoffs.

To the casual observer, Richard Wight's Fridays may seem anything but exciting. A trip to the local Home Depot. A stop at the town dump. Some work on the addition he's putting on his home.

But it's the very tedious nature of the day that makes it so exciting for Wight, a stage management administrator at State Street Corp. in Quincy, Mass. Thanks to Boston-based State Street's flexible schedule benefit, Wight works from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and takes Fridays off. So Fridays have become errand days, which frees up Saturdays for relaxing family activities, such as coaching his son's soccer team.

"Being a parent's a one-shot deal, so you get it right the first time," says Wight. A great attitude in theory. But for most people, it's not as easy as it sounds. As work demands increase, many struggle to find enough time to spend with their families. It seems to be a problem that each of Computerworld's Top 10 Best Places to Work for Benefits are trying to address in their benefits packages.

Flexible work hours, telecommuting and family-friendly offerings such as adoption assistance, domestic partner benefits and child and elderly care are among the benefits that the best places to work offer. They also offer time-saving services, such as on-site concierges, dry cleaning, oil changes and cafeterias that prepare dinners to go.

Companies must also be practical, and the fact remains that money talks. Stock options, matching 401(k) contributions and bonuses are mainstays at top employers such as UnitedHealth Group Corp. and Lockheed Martin Management & Data Systems (MD&S). And despite the slowing economy, these companies have all made benefits a top priority that doesn't fall victim to company cutbacks.

The costs can be significant, but the payoff can be even greater. At Freddie Mac, for example, the turnover rate is an uncommonly low 7.2%.

"Freddie Mac believes the rewards of working here are made up of three things: Your compensation, benefits and the work experience," says Laurie Dalton, director of benefits. "We're an environment that understands the varied needs of our employees."

The McLean, Va.-based financial services firm offers a laundry list of benefits, including one that is starting to become a staple of many packages: lactation rooms where women can privately breast-feed or pump milk.

The company also offers new mothers a free consultation with a lactation expert, gives new parents beepers and has highchairs, coloring books and crayons in the cafeteria, according to Laurie Dalton, director of benefits. It's all a part of the family-friendly environment Freddie Mac works to foster. "You see children a lot," she says.

Culture Club

At CDW Computer Centers Inc. in Vernon Hills, Ill., the customer doesn't come first. Employees come first. That philosophy is what Art Friedson, vice president of co-worker services, calls the circle of service: If we all take care of our co-workers, they'll take care of our customers, he explains.

In order to create such an environment, CDW's IT department goes to great lengths to build camaraderie, says Executive Vice President and CIO Jim Shanks. That's where activities such as WhirlyBall come in. Once or twice a year, the department dukes it out for the WhirlyBall title, with employees hopping into bumper cars, wickets in hand, trying to whack a whiffle ball into a basketball hoop.

"Some people are great at scoring, other people are just great at hitting everyone," says Shanks. And the next day, everyone comes in "just bruised and battered with the hugest smiles on their faces."

Activities are also an important part of the benefits package at State Street. The company regularly gives employees discounted tickets to sporting events and theme parks. With an IT department of 2,800 people, such tokens go a long way toward making the workplace feel a little more personal, says Amy Gutschenritter, senior vice president of IT governance.

"You have to see 1,500 State Streeters sitting in the bleachers at a Red Sox game," says Julie Haskell, manager of work/life.

Because of the nature of its industry, Minnetonka, Minn.-based UnitedHealth offers a long list of health and wellness benefits, such as an employee assistance phone and e-mail service through which workers can get around-the-clock advice from nurses.

Sabbaticals, personal leaves and maternity and paternity leaves are also popular. One benefit that Freddie Mac IT project manager Judy Lubnow says she's grown to love is the ability to buy extra vacation time, with equivalent compensation deducted from her paychecks. That lets her have five weeks a year away from the office.

State Street has a similar program.

Prudential Financial not only offers a leave after an adoption, but it also gives time off during the adoption process, says Dave Fitzgerald, vice president of human resources for operations and systems at the Newark, N.J.-based company.

Prudential doesn't just pay lip service to work/life balance, says Fitzgerald. The company rewards employees who do an exceptional job at balancing work and life. Rewarding those who coach their kids' sports teams or volunteer to serve on their town governments' boards, for example, sends a message to the entire staff that personal time is important.

"I think it starts at the top," Fitzgerald says of the emphasis on work/life balance at Prudential. "It just spreads throughout the leadership and down to everybody at Prudential that this company cares about who they are."

At Freddie Mac, the IT department helps manage the ever-evolving benefits package. This spring, the company rolled out a Web portal with details about all the benefits that workers receive, or, as Dalton puts it, the total value of working at Freddie Mac.

Training is another popular offering.

"What we found . . . is that critical to the IT person is the quality of their leadership," says Pamela Hansen-Hargan, vice president of human resources at King of Prussia, Pa.-based MD&S. The company has a number of technical and leadership development programs as well as roundtable and one-on-one mentoring relationships.

"The leadership training they've offered me has been tremendous," says Sondra Barbour, a 15-year veteran of the company. MD&S gives all managers a 13-module course spanning nine months, which, says Barbour, has helped her move up through the ranks to her current position as manager of e-transformation.

Leadership training doesn't just benefit those who move up the ranks, it also helps build morale, says Bob Dapper, senior vice president of human capital at UnitedHealth. "I don't think people identify with companies," he says. "I think people identify with people," so having managers who empower employees goes a long way.

Two secrets behind most successful benefits packages are regular employee surveys and informal conversations with workers. State Street, for example, added domestic partner benefits because of comments from workers. And CDW decided to offer lactation rooms based on suggestions from focus groups that Friedson runs for new mothers returning from maternity leave.

"A lot of the things that people ask for are not big, expensive things," says Friedson, pointing out that some of the most popular offerings include free on-site dry cleaning and employee discounts at stores and restaurants.

The top 10 also look closely at what their competitors are offering, so they can lead the way in terms of benefits. They also work with outside consultants and human resources associations to get new ideas.

But, says Jim Hudack, CEO of UnitedHealth's technology division, offering the right benefits is not rocket science. An organization just needs to listen to its employees. "And our IT people are not shy about saying what they think," he says.

Computerworld Online-only Bonus:

Seeing How the Other Half Lives

It's a big day for Dave Fitzgerald—new job, new office, new boss. It puts everything into perspective.

As vice president of human resources for systems and operations at Newark, N.J.-based Prudential Financial, Fitzgerald tries to imagine the experience of the rank and file at the company, so he can anticipate which benefits will be the most appreciated.

But, as they say, until you've walked a mile in someone else's shoes...

And that's what he's doing. Last fall, Fitzgerald's boss came up with a plan: Each person on the senior staff would spend one day doing someone else's job. Everyone up to the director level could put his name into a hat. ("And trust me, they all do," says Fitzgerald.) One lucky winner would get to play boss for a day.

Fitzgerald is, as he puts it, the "first one out."

He was extra careful about arriving at the office in Millville, N.J., on time to meet his new boss, Sharon Warren, a human resources generalist. She and a colleague made him feel right home by walking into his office, sitting on his desk and striking up a conversation.

"They came in and asked, 'What's going on in your world?'" Fitzgerald says. Then they made him pore over some reports. "They're cracking the whip and having me look at some employee data," he adds. "They're working me."

But, Fitzgerald says, it provides him with a rare glimpse of a day in the life of a Prudential employee. "You see a lot more that's going on down here than you do when you're sitting at your desk doing more strategic things," he says. "It goes back to understanding others, caring about co-workers. It puts life into perspective."

Of course, Fitzgerald does have to be on his best behavior. "I had to ask permission to do this interview," he says.


Top 10

Best Places to Work in IT for benefits

Rank Company name
1 UnitedHealth Group Inc.
2 Charles Schwab & Co.
3 State Street Corp.
4 CDW Computer Centers Inc.
5 FedEx Corp.
6 Freddie Mac
7 Lockheed Martin Management & Data Systems
8 Nationwide Insurance Cos.
9 Prudential Financial
10 PricewaterhouseCoopers


Benefits offered by the 100 Best Places to Work in IT
401 (k) 96%
Flexible hours 95%
College tuition reimbursement 91%
Employee assistance programs 91%
Offering/paying for continuing/executive education programs 91%
Individual employee performance bonuses 90%
Employee referral bonus program 90%
Pretax spending accounts to pay for uncovered medical expenses 90%
On-site cafeteria 89%
Reimbursement for technology certification 86%
Telecommuting options for employees 85%
On-site fitness center or fitness membership reimbursement 83%
Paid family leave 83%
Profit-sharing or employee stock ownership program 80%
Comp time for overtime hours worked 77%

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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