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Low-Cost, High-Impact Employee Benefits

Ways to boost morale in times of sinking paychecks.

Helen Modly, 08/12/2010

The financial turmoil of the last couple of years has meant a lot more work and possibly a lot less pay for many advisors. Bonuses and income from asset-based fees may be disappointing again this year. No matter how loyal, hard-working, or committed your employees may be, it's hard for them not to feel discouraged or unappreciated when their paychecks shrink. But money isn't the only motivator. Consider creative ways to show appreciation and boost team morale without hurting the bottom line.

Corporate Health Initiatives
Our small firm has hired a local fitness instructor to put together a program for just our employees. For one hour, twice a week, we go to the gym together for a workout. Regular attendance has been high because peer pressure makes it really hard to bail out. The class starts one hour ahead of the normal quitting time for our office, so employees with child-care or pet-care commitments can still get home in time. The studio is just down the street so we can come back to the office and answer any phone messages or work late if we so choose. Larger firms may have space in which a trainer could conduct classes.

This approach works better than offering free health-club memberships, because we know that the benefit will actually be used. Of course it is voluntary, but if made convenient enough it's pretty hard to pass up. Although we are potentially shortening the work week, we think that the benefits of regular vigorous exercise, increased camaraderie, and the general feeling of well-being translate into increased productivity for the firm. We find it to be a win-win situation all around. Joining hands and singing "Kumbaya" is optional.

The cost to our firm is $400/month for six people. Much of that is offset by the fees that the firm principals would have been paying out of pocket for their personal gym memberships, so the cost is essentially neutral. While two hours of weekly exercise will not turn us into athletes, it has definitely been a great stress-reducer, and it allows us to interact as people pursuing a common goal, rather than employers and employees. 

Reassess Paid Time Off
The classic system of awarding time off is to separate the days into vacation, sick leave, personal leave, and holidays. We have had an informal practice of swapping some of the Monday holidays for additional vacation time in order to accommodate clients who would like to meet on those days. This year we took that approach a little further and updated our entire time-off policy.

We have recharacterized vacation days, personal days, and some of the holidays as simply "paid time off." Instead of 10 days of vacation, six sick/personal days, and 11 holidays (27 days total), we now have 21 days of paid time off and six holidays. Employees have the same number of days off but it feels very different. We now have up to four weeks of vacation to be used when it works best for us. It is up to each employee to set aside paid days for doctor appointments, illness, and family emergencies. It also eliminates the feeling of loss or unfairness when unused sick days evaporate at the end of the year. The new system allows us to carry over up to five days to the next year to keep as an emergency cushion or add to future vacations. Just eliminating the need to call in and fib for a mental health day, increases the sense of responsibility and trust that the firm has for each person.

Bonus Fridays
If you know that bonuses will be small or non-existent, be frank about the situation and let your employees know how much they are valued and appreciated. One way to reward your employees' hard work is with extra days off. This works best in the summer when days are long, kids are out of school, and activity with clients slows down. In one particularly lean year in the early days of our firm we set up a rotating schedule of "bonus Fridays." Substituting time for money (or lack thereof) was greatly appreciated. Because we have a dedicated and capable staff there was never a problem with work getting done on time, and our clients continued to receive the same high level of service.

An accounting firm in our area arranges for a masseuse to come by for a couple of hours a week to do 15-minute chair massages during tax season. In firms where there are regular periods of high stress because of deadlines, this is a quick and easy way to say thank you. 

Flex Time
Giving employees control over setting their daily schedules can significantly affect their quality of life, especially in areas with horrendous traffic or for parents with young children. This benefit in particular requires a lot of thought before implementing. Since not all jobs can be performed on a nonstandard schedule, you may be offering this to some employees and not others. At our firm, we work around "core hours." Employees are expected to be here between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and can adjust their arrival and departure accordingly. This works as long as we have at least two employees that plan to be here by 8:30 a.m. to open the office. One additional benefit of flex time for our employees is that they can usually schedule doctor and dentist appointments without having to burn their paid time off.

Financial Planning
We have the talent and we have the software, but it's not uncommon to spend all of our energy taking care of our clients and neglect our own planning. Offer to prepare a financial plan or update a plan for any interested employees or their family members, then put it on the schedule so that it doesn't get put off. 

At the end of the day, take a hard look at the way you interact with your staff. Make an effort to let them know they are valued team members and not merely subordinate laborers. Although there is an firm hierarchy with distinct levels of authority, your employees deserve your respect. If they aren't competent enough to be trusted, they shouldn't be working for you and if they are it's to everyone's benefit to develop a good work/life balance. Be creative with benefits. A little effort can go a long way.

This article was cowritten by Tommie Monez, CFP, MBA, a wealth advisor with Focus Wealth Management.

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