HEADLINES


DOES YOUR WORKPLACE OFFER THESE AWESOME PERKS? - By Brian Martucci, Second Wave
October 8, 2014

Second Wave

What does your average workday look like? If you're used to a punch-in, punch-out, 9-to-5 kind of grind, you're in good company. Though sociologists and workplace efficiency experts are raising more questions about the wisdom of "traditional" workweeks, cluttered offices and rigid corporate hierarchies, the majority of American workplaces still hew to these constraints. That's not necessarily a bad thing -- companies are run by people, not machines, and there's often flexibility in apparently inflexible policies.

But a growing number of Michigan businesses have discovered the value of workplace perks that go beyond casual Fridays and microwaves in the kitchen. These three -- Elegant Seagulls in Marquette, Central Michigan University Research Corporation in Mt. Pleasant, and Plante-Moran in Traverse City -- are experimenting with some cool incentives that might just help their bottom lines.

Elegant Seagulls: All Work, All Play?

In Marquette, the creative mavens at Elegant Seagulls understand the importance of a cohesive workplace. Formerly a "one-man operation" led by Ben Johnson, the company now has 11 employees (including two who work remotely from other parts of the Upper Midwest) and a handful of relationships with outside contractors. Despite its growth, says senior designer Mike Forrester, Elegant Seagulls is still "a very close-knit place to work" where colleagues consider themselves friends.

But since assurances of friendship don't necessarily boost employee morale, Johnson and the team have embraced some creative ways to build team spirit. Elegant Seagulls devotes a few hours each Friday to "creative hours," where the team picks a potential client's -- or totally random -- website and redesigns it in awesome fashion. They might spiff up the logo, revamp the site's layout, improve navigation, and add creative copy.

It's a great way to push the boundaries of design and development practices without fear of rejection or deadlines -- "a creative energizer," says Forrester. And if the team is particularly proud of its work, they send it out to the prospect. Talk about a win-win proposition: If the client accepts it, Elegant Seagulls gets a new account; if it's rejected, the team learns why and puts another notch in its collective experience belt.

The Elegant Seagulls crew also tries to make late-week time for more traditional social outings. Twice a month (or so), the group gets together outside the office, typically at a local restaurant or brewery, and talk about things that have nothing to do with work. It's a nice break, says Forrester, and an easy sacrifice to make in light of group members' natural affection for one another. Every few months, Elegant Seagulls organizes a more involved get-together -- also over beer, and pizza often makes an appearance as well -- where the leaders open themselves to criticism from newer employees and discuss goals for the coming quarter.

Elegant Seagulls employees can look forward to an annual perk too. Every summer, Johnson brings the team to his parents' Lake Michigamme camp for a "Seagulls Party," a full day of wakeboarding, boating and fishing. This year, they entered the Lake Michigamme rock bass tournament and finished second out of nearly 100 entrants. "For a group of designers and programmers, we know how to set the hook," quips Forrester.

Longer-term, Elegant Seagulls looks to embrace a hot human resources trend: flex hours. Johnson and Forrester are avid hunters, so they're often occupied on fall and early-winter mornings. With more flexible scheduling, they can come to the office a few hours after everyone else and stay into the evenings. Early-bird employees might prefer to do the opposite.

"We're learning that the rigid, 40-hour workweek just isn't attainable for most humans," says Johnson, "and when you're stressed, there's a good chance you're not being productive. So we want to be flexible for when life gets in the way."

CMURC: Something Special for Every Working Day

Central Michigan University Research Corporation's business accelerator and incubator services are well-known to entrepreneurs and creative types across mid-Michigan, but its workplace perks aren't exactly world-famous. That's a shame, because the small-but-ambitious organization's employees and resident entrepreneurs have it pretty darn good. CMURC has six full-timers and between 60 and 70 entrepreneurs in a typical month.

According to Elissa Richman, CMURC's head of marketing, the organization has two basic types of perks: daily "cowork perks" for internal team members and entrepreneurs in its business incubator, and organized activities outside the office. Both are tailored to enrich the experience of CMURC's resident entrepreneurs while boosting the morale of its permanent employees.

"Everything we do revolves around the entrepreneurial ecosystem," says Richman. "It's all about building relationships."

Indeed, some of the daily perks are laser-focused on relationships. Mondays brings "community lunch" -- "basically our 'academic office hours,'" says Richman. Entrepreneurs can sign up in advance and request meetings with CMURC staff or local service providers that can help them achieve their goals, all over a lunch spread. Tuesday brings an open ideation session, where entrepreneurs can talk over their ideas, demo presentations and rehearse pitches.

Later in the week, things get more fun. "Wellness Wednesday" features casual team sports -- volleyball, dodgeball, wiffleball -- for anyone who wants to participate. Thursday brings "Beer 30," an informal, BYOB creative meeting that's surprisingly productive. "We've named a lot of companies and orchestrated successful crowdfunding campaigns during these sessions," says Richman.

And Friday brings CMURC's already-legendary Food Truck Fridays, which draws food trucks from across mid-Michigan (and hungry people from all over Mt. Pleasant). It actually started as a way for CMURC to facilitate experimentation among its food truck clients but has since grown into perhaps the premier lunchtime destination for CMU employees and students. Though the first week of October saw FTF's last 2014 session, CMURC plans to take a hard look at what went right and what can be improved, with the goal of launching an even better weekly event in the spring.

As for perks that don't fit the "daily" bill, CMURC is big on health, outdoor activity and old-fashioned networking. The employees recently participated in a dodgeball tournament organized by McLaren Healthcare, ran in a 5K race at the Middle of the Mitt beer and music festival, and formed a team for Dance United, a "Dancing with the Stars"-inspired charity event put on by the United Way. And as a major supporter of area entrepreneurs, CMURC regularly pairs up with the local Chamber of Commerce for "Business After Hours" networking events at local restaurants, pubs and breweries.

So no matter what time of the week you catch a CMURC employee or resident, chances are good they'll be on their way to something fun -- even if they're just heading into the office.

North Peak Brewing Company: An Expansive Definition of Workplace Perks

Traverse City's North Peak Brewing Company might not typically be associated with workplace perks. It's better known for serving up an ever-changing line of in-house beers, from the Two Hearted-esque Diabolical IPA to the Mission Point Porter, an ode to the piece of land that separates the two arms of Grand Traverse Bay. And with a full lunch and dinner menu, it's a must-visit destination for local and visiting foodies too.

But for a busy brewpub, North Peak Brewing Company finds ways to give back to its hardworking, often part-time employees, many of whom attend Northwestern Michigan College or find seasonal employment on breaks from other Michigan institutions of higher education.

According to manager Neal Crawford, "semi-regular" contests are among the most popular. North Peak doesn't put these on as often as management (and employees) would like, but they're a hit when they do happen. For instance, with help from the establishment's point-of-sale system, servers and managers might keep track of their average check sizes during a particular month. At the end of the period, the server with the biggest average check size -- the result of enthusiastic upselling, the thinking goes -- gets a food or cash prize.

The same basic idea applies to "special selling" contests, where the server who sells the most specials in a particular night or week gets a prize. While the contests don't make North Peak's employees rich, they do give them a stake in the business's success and encourage meaningful engagement with patrons.

Perhaps the most inclusive workplace perk at North Peak is its long-running Sunday night service industry party, which is open to restaurant and coffee shop employees from across the Grand Traverse area. If they can prove that they're employed at a local establishment, perhaps by furnishing a pay stub or employee card, service industry workers get 25% off their bill for the evening. Though North Peak devotes minimal promotional bandwidth to the deal, as those most likely to benefit from it probably already know of it through word of mouth, it's among the most popular service industry appreciation events in the area.

And for servers and bartenders who often feel underappreciated, that's valuable.

"We try to make our [hourly] employees feel like they're an important part of what we do here," says Crawford.