- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2001

The sound of a gong at the offices of Interactive Applications Group signals more than just the start of Zen Thursdays. It is a call to arms for savvy companies to offer benefits beyond the traditional sick leave and dental plans.
Some local firms, often those with a connection to the dot-com or technology world, are offering their employees some unexpected benefits.

Concierge services. Barbecue picnics. Chair massages.

Miles Fawcett, president and chief executive officer of Interactive Applications Group, a Web development firm in the District, says not everyone agrees with his companys approach.
"Some bosses would look at 15 billable people talking about Zen philosophies as not a good use of time," Mr. Fawcett says.
But at his company, which supplies Internet services to nonprofit organizations, that approach makes for a kinder, gentler workplace — and, as Mr. Fawcett hopes, a more productive one.
David C. Martin, a management professor at American University, says the trend began on the West Coast — in Silicon Valley, to be specific, with companies that wanted to stand out from the crowd.
"Theyre looking for something unique for their employees, who can then go out and talk about it," Mr. Martin says.
Interactive Applications Zen gatherings find employees taking turns reading selections from Buddhist/Zen tomes. Then they discuss how the ancient philosophies can be applied to the modern workplace.
"Its an abstract conversation, but we make it tangible. How does it correspond to how we deal with clients?" Mr. Fawcett says of the meetings, which grew out of a discussion of "Zen Computer" by Philip Toshio Sudo, a book that combines meditation with computer-age technologies.
"People are pretty excited about it," he says. "Theyre a primary reason why people come here and why they stay."
On warm Fridays, workers gather on the offices balcony, which offers a view of the District, for barbecue lunches.
Mr. Fawcett started implementing the employee-friendly policies when his young firm moved into its current Connecticut Avenue space near Calvert Street NW in November 1999.
Efficiency and profits are rising, which could be a tangential benefit of the programs.
In the year before Interactive Applications moved to its current office, it gained 12 new projects. Six months after the move, it gained 25 more clients. Hiring has doubled since the move, and the number of worker hours needed for projects has dropped, Mr. Fawcett says.
Angelo Ioffreda, director of internal communications at America Online, says his mega-company offers a wealth of benefits to its workers across the employee spectrum at its location near Washington Dulles International Airport.
Need your favorite shirt dry-cleaned? No problem. Is your car fixing for a tuneup? Pull er into AOLs garage.
The concierge service, available for the past two years, "can help you with anything thats legal," Mr. Ioffreda says, from buying a gift to planning a birthday party. The services are available to all employees, no matter the level.
"Were trying to create a workplace where there can be productivity," he says. "All these things can distract people from work. It allows people to do what they do best."
The company also offers seminars on topics of employee interest, such as laser eye surgery. Some services are free; others require a fee, such as classes in the Pilates method, a trendy form of body conditioning, at the companys deluxe fitness centers. An employee child care center will open this fall.
Jenny Veach, benefits manager at Blackboard Inc., an online educational company on 19th Street NW, says her firm provides perks to its workers in a more spontaneous fashion.
The companys offerings include parties the last Friday of each month, occasional voter-registration drives enhanced with pizza, and in-house charity putt-putt tournaments with homemade golf holes. The last such competition netted $2,000 for Greater DC Cares.
At the close of the business quarter, computer developers get seated massages to work out the kinks at crunch time.
"Our goal is to make working here very convenient," Ms. Veach says, adding that some benefit ideas stem from employee suggestions.
"It is the basis of the culture of our company. If we lose that, we lose what we are," Ms. Veach says.

James Dixey, associate director of Georgetown Universitys Career Center, says companies use perks to lure employees, particularly in competitive fields.
"Some of these dot-coms got unrealistic as they tried to attract talent," he says. He has spoken with California companies that offered potential employees rent subsidies, free use of cars, free meals and health club memberships.
An economic slowdown, Mr. Dixey says, may affect the intriguing benefits some companies offer. A few perks may survive the cuts, though. Anything that can relieve stress, for example, can be a true benefit for both employers and their staffs.
"The bottom line is employee productivity," he says.
Ian Mooers, recruitment manager at Georgetown, says the goal often is retention.
"A lot of the tech companies are leading the charge," says Mr. Mooers, a former tech recruiter. "Theres such a high turnover. Their skills are so much in demand."
Soon-to-be graduates are starting to inquire about the various perks offered by companies that come a-courting to their schools, he says.
He says companies such as the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. (Freddie Mac), which supports homeownership and rental-housing efforts, offer referral programs that pay cash for those bringing new workers into the fold.
"Its all about retention. Youre going to bring in somebody whos gonna stay," he says.
Such bonuses may remain, even in economic hard times.
Mr. Martin suggests that companies trimming benefits with too much fervor may be seen as troubled, which could signal an employee exodus.
Mr. Fawcett says the perks wont change if his businesss waters turn choppy. Harder economic times might spell the end of perks with some companies, he says.
Not at Interactive Applications Group.
"Its not a benefit; its an outgrowth of our culture," Mr. Fawcett says.

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