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John Garland is president of Roanoke architecture and engineering firm Spectrum Design: “We want the best we can get. Benefits are what young architects are looking for.” Those include fresh fruit, flexible workdays, 16 vacation days to start and a pervasive pro-employee approach.
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Spectrum Design II
Despite a (slowish) recovery, this isn’t the economy where you charge into the boss’ office to demand a better health care policy, the freedom to work from home or Cheetos in the vending machine. This is an economy where you keep your head down, your mouth zipped and tell yourself you’re lucky to have any job. Period.
While many workers had to pay more for our company health insurance in recent years and others lost the company match on their 401K, some employees at area small businesses enjoy generous benefits and perks designed to keep them healthy and happy.
Offering top-notch benefits is essential to recruiting top-notch employees, says John Garland, president of Roanoke architecture and engineering firm Spectrum Design: “We want the best we can get. Benefits are what young architects are looking for.”
Spectrum Design’s benefit package includes all the usual stuff like long-term disability, life insurance and health, vision and dental insurance. But there’s more. Even the newest employee starts off with 16 days of paid time-off, not including eight holidays. Each worker gets $1,000 a year to spend on education and $300 annually to go toward joining a gym.
There’s always free fresh fruit and beverages in the lobby. Once a month, the company hosts a birthday party for workers. The more important benefit at Spectrum Design, though, might be the less tangible one: employee-friendly policies.
Workers have a two-hour window in the morning when they can come into work and a two-hour window when they can leave. Early birds arrive at 7 a.m. and people who need to get their kids to school first or just like sleeping a little longer get there at 9 a.m. Garland tells a story about a worker who needed to work from home for a time because of an issue with her child. So, they let her do that.
“We try to be flexible and understanding,” he says.
It’s probably easier for CEOs to be compassionate when they know every employee by name — typically the case at small businesses.
“Everybody here knows everybody and is involved with everybody’s kids,” Garland agrees.
Interactive Achievement, an educational software business in Roanoke, also offers distinctive benefits. The company pays 100 percent of each employee’s health insurance premium and gives six weeks of paid maternity or paternity leave. Everyone also gets a free membership to the Kirk Family YMCA, located a few blocks from the company’s office.
“You definitely have to put in your time and do your work because there’s a lot going on right now,” says Jacqueline Hitt, business development specialist at Interactive Achievement. “But there’s never a time when you can’t say, ‘I need 15 minutes’ and go up to the YMCA and walk on a treadmill.”
Interactive Achievement employees also participate in a company health challenge as a motivation for getting fit. Competing against the staff from NetVentures, another Roanoke software company, employees earn points for being active. The company with the most points wins and the losing CEO presents a trophy to the winning CEO at an end-of-summer exercise party.
“It has nothing to do with weight loss,” explains Hitt. “We’re just working as a group to exercise more than NetVentures. Employees can do anything from walking to running and weightlifting. They can alsoparticipate as much or as little as they like to.”
Employees at Interactive Achievement also get the benefit of time to give back to the community. A sign sits above CEO Jonathan Hagamier’s desk that reads “Honorable, Unselfish, Generous.”
“You can’t work here if you’re not that,” he says.
And so, volunteering is part of each employee’s job description. Workers regularly use their business day to do things like tutor at Westside Elementary or volunteer at the Taubman Museum of Art. If getting to use work time to help others doesn’t seem like a benefit to a perspective hire, Hagamier doesn’t want that person at his company. “It’s expected when you come on,” says Hagamier.
Working at the Wilderness Adventure at Eagle Landing in New Castle might be Nirvana or a living hell, depending on your feelings about the great outdoors.
Trip leaders at WAEL need to be excited about spending two weeks without running water, serving as lunch for a variety of bugs and going to the bathroom in the woods, according to the job description.
For a person who finds that appealing, it probably doesn’t get any better than working at WAEL. Outside magazine named the adventure center one of the Top 50 Places to Work in 2010 and 2011.
“Obviously, our staff is outside the majority of every day,” says Julia Boas, group program director.
Boas points out that workers don’t make a ton of bank working at WAEL, though room and board (not necessarily with indoor plumbing) is part of the deal. “It’s got to be pretty good because you’re not getting paid much to do it,” she says.
Founder and former Marine Gene Nervo – affectionately called Colonel by the staff – encourages workers to take 30 minutes a day to exercise. Staffers have some flexibility in their work schedules, depending on what’s going on at WAEL at the time, so if there’s a big outdoors event they can often go. Most of the employees take a few months off in the slower winter season – often so they can work other cool jobs, such as serving as a whitewater rafting guide in Colorado.
Nervo, 72, also gives workers 10 percent off on new outdoors equipment, but who needs to buy anything when you get free use of the huge inventory of WAEL gear?
WAEL employees often form lifelong friendships and 17 couples have taken hold among staffers. WAEL holds regular staff happiness days where employees take trips to the U.S. National White Water Center or to the Virginia Safari Park.
“Everything we do is together,” says Boas.
All that aside, working at WAEL can be hot and grueling. Everyone is expected to roll up the sleeves and pitch in. Most workers run or bike the mile from their lodging to the base camp – and that’s likely one of the least physical things they do all day.
“This is a young person’s job,” says Boas. “Our staff’s average age is probably like 23, although Colonel tweaks it up a little bit.