Quirky Job Perks: Surf Lessons, Free Ice Cream, Dog-Friendly Offices

What many small businesses lack in budgets, they make up for in creative benefits.

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When mobile expense report company ExpenseCloud relocated its Santa Monica, Calif. office to a spot one block from the beach this summer, CEO Eric Sikola decided it was time for a new employee perk – surf lessons. He hired a private surf instructor to take the five of them out surfing and picked up some inexpensive surf boards to keep in the office.

“I want a culture where people are living healthy,” says Sikola, who founded the company in 2009. Although ExpenseCloud is now a division of human resources firm TriNet, Sikola says employees still contend with the stress and long hours typical of a startup. Surfing seemed like the perfect antidote. “If you go out for an hour and surf you’re going to come back here with a clear head and ability to solve problems better,” he says.

Yoga, unlimited paid vacation, catered lunches, dog-friendly offices. Large and small companies alike are rolling out the perks like it’s 1999. But unlike the go-go days of the dot-com boom, perks today are less about wooing new talent and more about shaping corporate cultures and, in many cases, finding creative ways to reward employees when bonuses and pay bumps aren’t in the budget. “With the economy still not picking up, companies are trying to figure out different ways to motivate employees and manage burnout,” says Danna Greenberg, associate professor of management at Babson College and author of The New Entrepreneurial Leader.

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In Des Moines, cloud computing company Appcore hosts an annual scavenger hunt at the Iowa State Fair, where CEO Brian Donaghy doles out prizes for such feats as riding the ferris wheel while eating a taco or photographing the best mullet. At education tech company Echo360 in Dulles, Va., a favorite tradition is the company’s eclectic Thanksgiving potluck, which is paired with a food drive. Last December, New York-based Keep Holdings – whose Swizzle service helps consumers unsubscribe from and manage mass emails – doled out its American Express points to exemplary employees. “People loved the ‘free money’ and bought great stuff they perhaps otherwise wouldn’t have,” says MaryAnn Bekkedahl, co-founder and president of the 20-employee company. “And it didn’t cost the company a penny.”

Some of today’s quirky perks are the byproduct of long work days, big deadlines, and the evaporation of the 9-to-5 work schedule, says Greenberg. “If you can ease people’s life stress it enables them to be more focused on their work,” she says, referring to catered meals, in-house dry cleaning, and unlimited time off – to use when it’s actually feasible to take time off.

Others are about building community and fostering creativity. “My first job was at a Big Six accounting firm where it was suits and ties every day, and it was miserable” says Flint Lane, president and of Billtrust in Hamilton, N.J. “We’re spending a big portion of our lives at work, and we shouldn’t be miserable.” The company hosts everything from movie nights and Wii Olympics to surprise visits from an ice cream truck on hot days. Lane says there’s no ulterior motive – such as coaxing employees to stay longer – the goal is simply to make work a little more enjoyable.

Even if the intent isn’t calculated, some of these creative perks can do wonders for office creativity and problem solving, says Hayagreeva Rao, professor of organizational behavior and human resources at Stanford University. “It’s called priming,” he says, citing one study where people who are shown a picture of a library and told they’re going to a library start speaking softly. “What does surfing imply? It’s a powerful way of telling people there are no constraints, you can go out into the blue yonder and do something you’ve never done before.”

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Rao’s advice for companies looking to introduce new perks is to make sure the ideas are authentic and consistent with the underlying culture. For example, Clif Bar is known for such bennies as a full-blown fitness center, paid time for working out and stipends for signing up for races or events. Those all make sense for a company that specializes sports nutrition, says Rao, whereas a weekly happy hour might not be such a good fit.

A word of warning: Once you introduce a perk, it can be devastating to take it away without offering a worthy substitute. Employees may understand if you replace the elaborate holiday party with low-key luncheon, but they’ll remember the exact day you revoked free coffee, says Rao.

It also helps to bring employees into the discussion. “Ask them, ‘What can we do here that would make your life easier?’ and ‘What can we do to make the work environment more fun and creative?’” says Greenberg. Once you do offer a perk, she says, don’t make participation mandatory. That will only backfire.

What about the proverbial foosball table? In many places it’s anathema, reminiscent of the dot-com bust. “When I go into high-tech startups today, they specifically say they don’t want foosball,” says Greenberg.

Ping pong anyone?