It's easy to get discouraged when you hear about giant companies offering employees drool-worthy benefits. After all, can you really afford to give a whole year of paid parental leave, as Netflix recently did?

If you can't, that means you're like most companies. For small, cash-constrained businesses, it's just not possible to offer to freeze employees' eggs (Apple), or to give new parents $4,000 in "baby cash" (Facebook). But that doesn't mean you can't add pizzazz to your benefits list.

Even on a more modest scale, providing volunteering opportunities, fitness stipends, or spa services can help attract and retain workers. "Implementing these types of programs shows employees that their company is prioritizing their well-being and investing in their careers," says Great Place to Work's Michael C. Bush. Moreover, the right employee benefits can strengthen the corporate culture and mission, as these examples demonstrate.

Cater to Employees' Tastes

The specialty wholesale coffee supplier Counter Culture Coffee offers to match employee investments up to $500 annually in personal, environmental, or social projects, from the installation of home rain barrels to gym memberships. Last year, the Durham, North Carolina-based company matched more than $10,500 worth of employee projects. In addition, it gives workers subsidized half-shares of produce from local community-sponsored agriculture programs.

Counter Culture also offers each employee one annual paid-volunteer day. "The employee volunteer day costs us a day's pay for 75 employees, plus we pick up the tab for lunch," says co-founder and president Brett Smith. The ROI on such benefits is hard to judge, but Smith thinks they've been helpful for retention. "There are a lot of food-loving people here who cook and explore food," he says. "Given the connection between food and coffee as taste-sensory experiences, an employee CSA program made sense."

Pamper Your People

Adam I. Sandow, the founder and CEO of Sandow Media, which publishes magazines like NewBeauty, Interior Design, and Worth, keeps the refrigerators stocked with beverages, and he even opened a Starbucks café at his company's offices in New York City and Boca Raton, Florida. There's a gym in Sandow's Florida location. Employees in both places can access free weekly manicures or biweekly massages.

"We own a national beauty magazine, so we get a lot of perks," says Sandow, whose 300 staffers appreciate any and all company-sponsored pampering. Each week, about 50 staffers (including men) sign up for a manicure.

The benefit actually makes financial sense--even though it sets the company back about $1,000 a month, says Sandow. "We started in our Florida office, because there, to get in your car and drive to and from the nearest nail salon is an inconvenience," he says. In the end, "a weekly manicure saves our people from having to go out and that saves our clients money.

"I'm utterly, positively convinced that there's an impact to the bottom line. There's a wow factor almost every day in our offices," says Sandow, who launched his company in 2003, after helping the Knot go public in 1999. "I've been wired this way since I started; to attract and retain great employees, you have to give them more."

Offer Things That You Want

Before moving to Santa Barbara, California, in 2009, Joel Heath relished living at the base of the Vail ski area in Colorado. There, he says, he skied 68 days a year and mountain biked the rest of the time.

Then he took an office job. Despite presiding over the footwear company Teva, owned by Deckers Brands, he lamented being sedentary. "I was sitting at a desk 60 to 80 hours a week," he says. "My whole mojo just started to change. Everything slows down."

That experience inspired his current venture: FluidStance, which Heath calls a "company in motion." It makes the Level, a platform that allows people working at standing desks to keep moving. It also inspired the benefit he now offers his four full-time staffers: monthly "whole health," after-tax stipends of $100 that can be used for nonmotorized recreational equipment, like bicycles, surfboards, and yoga mats. "Good things follow passionate people," says Heath. "I want to attract employees who create a culture, not who are byproducts of culture. For me, that meant giving benefits that I craved when I started my company."


How to Size Up Benefits


What smaller companies can afford depends on the same factors that large ones consider, says Beth A. Livingston, assistant professor of human resource studies at Cornell University's ILR School: money versus time, workplace flexibility, and autonomy. How do you decide? Her advice:

  • Focus on why benefits work instead of what to offer. To do this, you can either pay people and they can buy "time" (child care, household cleaning, food prep) or give them flexibility and autonomy over their schedules so they need not outsource those things completely.
  • Audit your employees' needs. Are 80 percent of your workers new graduates with no children? Maybe child care subsidization isn't ideal. Flexible start and stop times and some offsite work may be more appealing. Reevaluate often: Those 22-year-olds will eventually become 29-year-old parents-to-be.
  • Make them useful. Benefits improve organizational attractiveness. That's only part of the equation. How many people are truly going to take a year's leave at Netflix? Will your culture support what you're offering?
  • Understand what's causing the most distress--then find ways to reduce it. Is it the commute that your workers dread? The late-night emails? The long meetings? Try adjusting start times away from peak traffic, embargoing emails until business hours, and encouraging virtual meetings. Subtracting friction from employees' lives is often the best benefit of all.

Happy Bennies

For some clever ideas on the variety of add-ons you can offer your employees, let these companies be your guide:

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Giving the Goodies
Betterment New York City

Benefit: Two types of cold-brew coffee and beer on tap whets the staff's whistle at this automated investing firm. A restaurant chef also cooks a meal three days a week. It's a perk, but one with the competition in mind.

Vacation on Steroids Seattle

Benefit: Porch, a home remodeling resource site, takes work-life issues to heart, allowing staff to work remotely as needed and to vacation without limit. "Flexibility is core to our culture," says CEO Matt Ehrlichman. "We give our employees an opportunity to balance their lives."

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Gaming the System
Sparta Systems Hamilton, New Jersey

Benefit: The supply chain-quality manager has a two-story "employee forum" filled with board games, Xboxes, and Wiis. "Whenever employees want to, they can play," says CEO Eileen Martinson. "We place a high value on collaboration; the games are just one way we help support that."

Unlimited Pay Raises
Squaremouth St. Petersburg, Florida

Benefit: Employees at this travel insurance aggregator can request a raise at any time. The catch: The entire 21-person staff votes on it. Only two requests have been turned down.

Bigcommerce Austin

Benefit: The e-commerce platform designer's 350 employees in three locations organize fitness-related activities. Onsite yoga is popular in Austin; a fitness boot camp is offered in San Francisco. The goal is to give employees time to de-stress in a healthful, team-building way.