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by Jennifer Saranow | March 10, 2009

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Sam Paschel's place of work in Burlington, Vt., features the usual sea of cubicles.

And dogs. Lots of dogs.

At Burton Snowboards, every day is bring-your-dog-to-work day, a perk that about a quarter of the company's 230 headquarters employees enjoy regularly. On most days in Mr. Paschel's corner of the office, there's a black-and-tan coonhound under one desk, a chocolate Labrador leashed to a coffee table and a golden Lab staking out the hallway, he says. And at least three days a week, the 30-year-old business director brings one of his own dogs, either his boxer, Jordan, or his Rhodesian ridgeback mix, Dharma.

Creative benefits had a heyday during the dot-com era as companies competed for top talent. Pet insurance, concierge services and ping-pong tables are just some of the perks that spread during the technology bubble, only to be abandoned once the bubble burst. But just because the boom ended doesn't mean there aren't still some fun employer offerings out there. Now, they just tend to be perks that pose little or no expense to employers. Some even help companies cut costs.

Things like nap rooms and massage recliners may sound out of place to some in a working environment. But such perks can boost productivity when there are older workers with sore backs, or young parents with sometimes sleepless nights. Musical performances, too, may seem at first like an unnecessary distraction. But companies trying them say that they can be done simply and inexpensively, and that they produce better morale, increased motivation and less stress.

Petting Breaks

When things get stressful at Burton, Mr. Paschel says, he and his dog go for a walk or take a petting break. Some of Mr. Paschel's best brainstorms, he says, have come in moments away from his desk and with his dogs; most recently, he thought about a potential opportunity, and liability, in the way Burton was writing a sales program. "I've never done my best thinking in front of a computer screen," he adds.

So it's good for Burton's employees, but is it good for Burton?

Letting the dogs in "doesn't really cost us anything," says Kathi Sporzynski, Burton's manager of benefits and compensation. Plus, "the humor and the morale boost that it brings far outweighs any lost productivity," she says. To make the policy workable, she adds, employees must clean up after their canines and remove pooch evidence from the company's front lawn when the snow melts in the spring.

Other companies promote employee health in more predictable ways, like subsidizing exercise programs. Then there are those that encourage rest.

The nap room at the New York office of Segal Co., a benefits-consulting firm, has been around for about two years. It's basically an empty office with a massage recliner, rocking chair and abstract art. Employees can use it one at a time to take a quick catnap or meditate. After rough nights with her restless 3-year-old daughter, MacKayla, Ysa Bogle, a 27-year-old health-benefits specialist, retreats to the room first thing in the morning or at lunch for a quick 20-minute snooze. When she wakes up, Ms. Bogle says, she feels "revived, more alert, ready to go."

Edward Kaplan, a 40-year-old health-care consultant at Segal, recently took 20 minutes after lunch to soothe his bad back in the massage recliner. "The heating pad helped enough so I could get back to work," he says.

Melody Makers

Sometimes music hits the spot as well. SAS Institute Inc. uses daily performances of live music to keep its employees relaxed and healthy. Each day over lunchtime in the cafeteria of the company's Cary, N.C., headquarters, a pianist serenades employees with jazz standards, show tunes and classical pieces.

The music doesn't cost a lot but adds a great deal to the company's culture, says Jeff Chambers, vice president of human resources at SAS. For two hours, either a food-service employee or a member of the SAS choir (another fun activity encouraged by the software company) takes a turn as pianist. The musicians don't take requests. They "don't have time to stop," explains Julie Stewart, food-service manager.

Similarly, four times a year Baystate Health System, Springfield, Mass., hosts a 90-minute lunch during which employees with musical talent perform for their co-workers. At one filled-to-capacity luncheon in 2003, performances included classical piano, rock music and a rendition of Lionel Ritchie's "Lady" that "just brought people to their knees," says Anne-Marie Szmyt, director of work-life strategies at Baystate, a network of health-care providers.

The cost of that particular event: a few dollars per person for the food. Among the benefits: Singer Phil Jackson, a 48-year-old PC specialist at Baystate's help desk, says now when people call for assistance, they recognize his voice and ask him about future performances. The musical lunches "really help them put a face to my voice," he says. "It feels good."

Some benefits cost a little more, but by helping to make workers' lives easier, companies can also increase their time at work. SAS runs several day-care centers and a summer camp for its employees' children at its 900-acre headquarters. Camp Awesome Adventure, for ages 9 to 14, features swimming, basketball, soccer and nature hikes, among other activities.

"It makes life easier for me because I know they are in a place where they are having fun and I don't have to stress, 'Do I need to pick them up?' " says Mimi Stapleton, a 39-year-old curriculum specialist who brings her three children to the summer camp. An added bonus: She likes to meet her kids in the employee cafeteria for lunch. Employees pay $135 per week, per child. The camp is run by one of SAS's day-care providers.

Good Sports

A few companies provide fun and games for the workers instead of their children. Network Appliance Inc. last summer installed a putting green and a beach volleyball court at its Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters, where the network storage company's employees also celebrate good quarters by engaging in tugs-of-war and tricycle races.

"Golf always puts you in a better mood -- unless you have a bad round," says John Re, a 52-year-old telecom engineer who keeps his clubs in his truck. If the weather permits, he arrives at work at 7:30 a.m. and chips balls for a half-hour or so before going into the office. The putting green "just makes it enjoyable to come here," he says.

A well-known sporting-goods company, on the other hand, thinks there's no better way to keep employees around than fly-fishing. Orvis Co., which specializes in fly-fishing equipment, has a lake on its 377-acre property stocked with bass. The Manchester, Vt., company offers employees free fishing classes and equipment they can use during their breaks. "It helps align the associate with what we do and why we do it," says Mary Cheddie, vice president of human resources at Orvis.

Dan Gracia, an international-travel specialist at Orvis who practices casting during his lunch hour, says it would be hard for him to leave the company, "because I love fly-fishing."

Happy Days

On the subject of love, another morale booster can be helping to sponsor what for some employees is already the happiest day of their lives. Newlyweds at international financial-services firm MBNA Corp., for example, receive limousine service on their wedding day, an extra week's vacation and $500.

What does the Wilmington, Del., company get in return? Making employees "happier people" should also make them friendlier to customers, says spokesman Jim Donahue.

At global advertising agency DDB Worldwide Communications Group, meanwhile, employees can get happy the old-fashioned way: with alcohol. Like yoga classes in its conference rooms and on-site bicycles, DDB Worldwide considers alcoholic beverages a part of work. The firm's Paris office has a cafe serving wine and beer from the afternoon on, while the London office has a pub. In the U.S., Budweisers are whipped out from kitchen refrigerators both to celebrate or to ease tensions during a hard project.

These socializing opportunities are "a great way to get to know your fellow employee," says Ken Kaess, DDB chief executive officer and president. "Our whole business is based on people being able to work together." Budweiser also happens to be one of DDB's clients.

To be sure, what may be considered quirky one day may not be the next. Take at-work massages. Atlanta-based Stress Recess Inc. now provides massages for workers at about 2,000 companies, up from three clients when it launched in 1997.

Yoga Clash

There's also the risk that some quirky benefits won't always work out as planned, or might cause a stir, instead of a hum, in the workplace. Some employees, for example, may feel alienated by certain perks.

Winston Rost, a 39-year-old learning leader who teaches his fellow employees about coffee at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in Waterbury, Vt., often takes lunchtime yoga classes in the company's year-old meditation room. But Mr. Rost says he has heard some employees "poo pah" that the company spends money on a 24/7 meditation center while its workers sit crowded in "cubby land" or at desks in hallways.

"They are the ones who don't take yoga," Mr. Rost says.

Green Mountain, for its part, maintains it already had the free space, so it spent a couple thousand dollars setting the center up.

Back at Burton Snowboards, Ms. Sporzynski adds that people who don't like dogs "probably wouldn't even come to work for Burton in the first place."

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