Mixing Work and Play

The information technology group at Harrah's Entertainment had been working days and nights for weeks, slaving to meet a tight project deadline, when the familiar music of an ice cream truck rang out. People ran from the office, money in hand, clamoring around the truck to get a midday treat.

Like any other IT group, Memphis-based Harrah's workers are no strangers to hard work. But, said Eileen Cassini, the company's director of IT services, it's important to offer staff opportunities to relax and avoid burning out.

The tight job market is causing many companies to offer their IT employees more frequent and unique benefits to show appreciation for their hard work and dedication.

Christine Hirsch, a principal at Chicago-based Recruiters World, said she's seen it all.

One company she works with relocated the brother and friend of a new hire who recently graduated from college, she said. Another plans to start offering its employees health insurance for their pets.

Connie Pate, a principal at Strategic Associates Inc. in Austin, Texas, spoke of one company that flew all its software development workers and their spouses to Walt Disney World in Orlando for an all-expenses-paid weekend.

Another of Pate's clients has margarita parties every Friday afternoon for its employees.

Thank Y2k

While the tight labor market has had a major impact on the type and level of perks offered to IT workers, another factor was Y2k. As companies frantically competed for talent in preparation for the date change, they began offering better perks than ever, said Barb Gomolski, research director at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

For instance, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Interwoven Inc. offered new hires brand-new $US37,000 BMW Z3s or the cash equivalent in order to lure workers before the Y2k crunch.

"There are unbelievable demands for companies to hire quality people," said Frank Jones, CEO of Mazescape LLC, a recruiting firm in Stamford, Conn.

Often, companies offer overworked IT employees perks to help them relax and forget about the stress in both their personal and professional lives.

For instance, San Francisco-based Epicentric Inc. has yoga classes, a massage therapist and an on-site concierge service that runs errands such as picking up groceries or getting oil changes for employees.

Epicentric also offers peer counseling workshops and "internships" for employees' children so they can understand where their parents work and why they put in such long hours.

"The IT group can become very, very overworked," said Epicentric CEO Michael Crosno. If a company doesn't offer its IT employees recognition and special perks, they can easily go to other jobs, he added.

Harrah's gives its employees facials to help them relax. Cassini even hired a maid service for an employee who had been saying that she was going to clean her house as soon as she had a free weekend.

Perks, like health care for pets and free meals, aren't going to keep employees on the job, but if they perceive improvements in their quality of life, they are more likely to remain loyal to their employers, Hirsch said.

Show Me the Money

Cash bonuses still seem to be the most popular perks, according to Hirsch.

But the amounts and types of bonuses are becoming more outrageous, according to Jones, who said he knows of companies that offer bonuses and incentives for employees' spouses.

But material and financial rewards aren't ultimately the reason employees stay at a company, said Gomolski.

"Mobility in the marketplace has really little do to with employers' perks. It has more to do with people looking for better opportunities," she said.

"Do these perks like BMWs work for attraction? Yes, they bring positive attention. [But] ultimately, people stay for a whole lot of reasons aside from perks - they stay for corporate values and challenging work," Gomolski said.

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