Owner's Manual

No stock options to offer? No company-provided lunches? Don't despair. Here's a terrific benefit with no out-of-pocket costs

There is probably no business more in tune with the wants of today's employees than our family-owned business--a temporary-staffing company. Dawson Personnel Systems has 65 full-time employees, who are in touch with hundreds of companies daily. In the course of their work our people learn about the benefits and perks offered elsewhere--and there are many solid companies with incredible benefits packages in the Columbus, Ohio, area, where we are based.

We, like many small private companies, provide as many benefits and incentives as we can afford. But last year we tested a noncash benefit that ended up outstripping all our expectations. We got the idea from looking at employee surveys, including some brought to our attention by an organization of temporary-staffing companies we had recently joined. It seems that the number one thing employees want more of is not money. Rather, more than anything else, the survey found employees want to feel that their work is making a contribution toward the good of the company, and they want to have time off with their families. We decided to see what would happen if we offered our employees generous amounts of time off once their jobs were completed.

First we approached our sales team. We met with the 15 salespeople individually and set their productivity goals for 1998 at levels that were 20% higher than 1997's. That was not a popular move--until we dangled the carrot: "banker's hours." We told members of the sales team that as soon as they hit their monthly goals, they could go home every afternoon at 2 for the rest of that month. In addition, the first salesperson to sell more than $50,000 would have the last two days of the month off.

Not only did our salespeople break every record in the company's 52-year history, but they were focused as never before and really began to work as a team. So last October we decided to raise the bar. If the entire sales team could achieve a very high sales goal, we would give them all a Friday off and fly them to Chicago. They enjoyed the trip.

Then, lest we be faced with a coup d'État, we turned to other departments such as administration and accounting. We established goals and let the employees set their own schedules. Now some people work four 10-hour days, while others come in at 10 a.m. and leave at 6:30 p.m. We also decided that if the company has a productive week, we'll close early on Friday to give everyone a jump start on the weekend. On holiday weekends we close the offices at noon. And why not? The work completed the day before a holiday is usually not significant, since people's minds are elsewhere. That seems to be especially true the week between Christmas and New Year's, and as a result we are now open only until noon that week.

The result of all those changes has been our best year ever. Sales in 1998 increased by 20%. Even better, profits shot up 40%, and we're projecting $25 million in revenues for 1999. We've never had a more cohesive and productive group. Though our particular incentive plan may not work for your company, it's been a tremendous experience for us. And with unemployment at a record low, what choice do any of us have but to figure out how we can create in our companies the best environment in our industry?

David DeCapua is vice-president and a partner at Dawson Personnel Systems, based in Columbus, Ohio.