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Weekend Workout: Something to consider at your next staff pajama party

Globe and Mail Update

M&Ms on Wednesdays. Free yoga classes. Onsite daycare. Pajama parties … pajama parties?

The economy may be in turmoil, but that hasn't stopped many employers from continuing with their quirky perks.

It's not just a touchy-feely workplace trend. The investments make long-term business sense, say executives at software maker SAS Institute Inc. and Boston Consulting Group Inc., both of which recently made Fortune magazine's list of the 100 best companies to work for.

Engaged workers tend to be more productive, stay with the company longer and have fewer absences, they say.

Financial woes are already causing companies to trim areas such as travel or training and development. But many programs designed to engage employees remain a holy grail. And some – such as M&Ms treats – seem a small price to pay for happy staff.

Zany ideas still abound. The pajama party comes from online retailer Zappos, which states that one of its core values is to “create fun and a little weirdness.” The Las Vegas-based e-commerce site, ranked No. 23 in Fortune's list, lets any employee grant a co-worker a $50 (U.S.) bonus if they do a good job, and encourages managers to spend part of their time outside the office with team members, according to the magazine.

Here are some other novel ideas three companies have taken, and the benefits they've seen from using them.

Lower absenteeism

Boston Consulting is a U.S.-based global business that includes more than 100 Canadian employees. Global is the key word, and employees keen on international experience can go on exchange to places such as India, Sweden or Australia. Placements range from three to 18 months and working abroad is entirely up to the staff member.

It has also introduced “shadow” hours. Full-time consultants typically work up to 50 or 60 hours a week, but they're not expected to, and even discouraged from, spending all that time in the office.

“We're actively discouraging face time for the sake of face time. It's about results and outcomes,” says Kilian Berz, Toronto-based partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group of Canada.

Rather, employees can choose when and where they log their hours. At home in the evenings. En route to the cottage. Or on a weekend from a café. And parents can choose to work reduced hours.

It also recognizes that many staff members want to do meaningful work. It encourages staff to work on “social impact” projects, such as assessing how to reduce drop-out rates in schools, consulting on art festivals or researching projects that cut emissions.

“This is one of our explicit themes,” Mr. Berz says. “Over 20 per cent of our staff in North America every year works on social impact project. We're talking about a large number that has that opportunity to be involved.”

Absenteeism has sunk to, on average, less than two sick days per employee a year. The average full-time Canadian worker, by comparison, takes about eight days a year for sickness or disability, according to Statistics Canada.

Healthy lifestyles

“We don't want you to work hard, we want you to work smart,” SAS Canada spokesman John Quinn says.

Not work hard? He elaborates: “We want to keep employees healthy and happy, mentally and physically. We don't really want people coming in at 7 a.m. and working until midnight because it's just not healthy. And productivity is up. People say: ‘If the company is going to allow me to have a fulfilled life outside of the office, then I want to give back.'”

If an elderly parent or child is sick, they're allowed a few days off to care for them. If they want to work from home at times, the Toronto-based subsidiary will pay half the Internet costs.

Health care remains a big perk. Employees receive $1,000 subsidies aimed at fitness; if they don't have time to hit the gym, they can use the money toward buying fitness equipment for home.

It also serves fresh fruit on Mondays, breakfasts on Fridays – and M&Ms (which, presumably, are worked off with the gym equipment).

Like Boston Consulting, it doesn't anticipate layoffs among its 240 Canadian staff this year. And employees are encouraged to volunteer for an organization of their choice one work day off per quarter.

The investments pay off in lower turnover rates, Mr. Quinn says. He estimates SAS's voluntary turnover is about 5 per cent compared with the software industry average of 21 per cent. That saves money; he figures the cost to recruit and hire a new employee is double the cost of retaining a worker.

Pride in ownership

Employee ownership is central to Winnipeg-based financial services firm Wellington West Holdings Inc. Almost all of its 600 workers, from receptionists to analysts, have a stake in the privately held firm.

“From the sense of ownership comes a sense of entitlement and responsibility, and a sense of urgency in giving us information to help us compete effectively,” president Kish Kapoor says.

It doesn't just talk about transparency. It distributes an internal magazine to share ideas, holds half-hour conference calls on Tuesdays along with regular conferences. It deliberately seeks “people who are bored out of their minds working in large institutions,” and offers them “fun, independence and a say in decision making.”

The company, which was ranked No. 6 in Hewitt Associates' recent best employers in Canada list, is reining in some spending – delaying some technology projects and building new offices. But despite the sorry state of the stock market, it still expects to hire this year.

Bottom lines perked up

Recent research suggests top employers financially outperform their peers. Shares of the top companies featured on Fortune's list rose at twice the pace as the general S&P 500 in the decade to 2007, according to San Francisco-based Great Place to Work Institute.

Happier employees also tend to be healthier. Stress tends to affect about 39 per cent of disengaged workers, versus about 28 per cent for highly engaged employees, according to soon-to-be published Hewitt research. More than half – or 56 per cent – of employees who are high engaged say they're in good health compared with just 41 per cent of unhappy workers.

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