Most often, we associate large, publicly traded companies with impressive employee perks. Through the lens of conventional wisdom, it takes a big budget to invest in employee wellness by offering game-changing benefits. Entrepreneurs, of course, have no time for those status quo limitations. While incentive programs are known to boost morale on a budget, some leaders are getting even more creative and resourceful in proving their commitment to employee well-being.
Companies around the country are going above and beyond to stand out in the much buzzed-about wellness sphere. Read on to learn more about a food-and-beverage program inspired by one of the world's oldest medical systems, along with other unexpected approaches to supporting employee health and happiness.
Ancient Wisdom Fuels Modern Productivity
As chief operating officer of Prodigy Network and The Assemblage, Vincent Mikolay recalls an internal "awakening" among their joint leaders, led by CEO Rodrigo Niño. That wake-up call, which led to the mission "do well by doing good," laid the foundation for their food-and-beverage program for employees, among other perks.
With the real estate crowdfunding platform Prodigy Network as parent company to The Assemblage—which operates Manhattan spaces for community gatherings, co-working and co-living, including hotel rooms—these two entities emphasize both individual and collective transformation. "So when we talk about employee benefits," says Mikolay, "it's really about what we're trying to do with humanity, and how do we start at home?"
Every perk that The Assemblage offers to its paying members, it also offers to employees. That includes access to daily health and wellness programming at 9 a.m., 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., which may include reclining sound meditation therapy with live instrumentation. "We block off 3 p.m. on all employee calendars as a no-meeting time," says Mikolay. "We encourage them to take advantage of these meditations that allow a break and a reset from what can be the madness of the workday."
Employees (along with members and hotel guests) are also provided complimentary, seasonal, communal Ayurvedic breakfast and lunch at The Assemblage. Its food and beverage program—based on the 5,000-year-old system of Indian holistic healing known as Ayurveda—was co-developed by nutritionist Noël Graupner. Trained in Dharamshala, India in Ayurvedic tradition, Graupner integrates issues of food, the environment and health. With often conflicting and overwhelming information circulating around "wellness" these days, she relies on the timeless wisdom of Ayurveda, rooted in medical texts that evolved from the Vedas, a collection of Sanskrit literature composed roughly during 1500 to 1200 BCE.
"Within the Ayurvedic system," says Mikolay, "the foods we consume and how we combine them can lead to different medicinal properties." With her chef-partner, Carolina Santos-Neves, Noël has given educational talks on Ayurvedic practice to audiences of up to 150 at The Assemblage, along with informal lunch-and-learns for the community.
"While it's a challenge for any company to offer a food-and-beverage program [in addition to its core business]—let alone a healthy food-and-beverage program—there's a bit of a misconception that serving healthy food is expensive," says Mikolay. "We found local sources within 200 miles of Manhattan that cost less than a large-scale, big-name food distributor. We work with incredible farms and distributors to source grains, vegetables, and meats aligned with the Ayurvedic Institute's recommendations."
Along with increased mental focus, numerous employees have reported that since eating the Ayurvedic lunch on offer, they return to work with more energy and less fatigue, according to The Assemblage. Since most have not made other significant health-related changes in their lives, they link these improvements directly to their consumption of these largely plant-based food and elixirs. Along with improved digestion, employees have also credited this diet with some weight loss.
A Space for Creative Side Gigs in the Legendary "Music City"
Gene Caballero, CEO and co-founder of Nashville's GreenPal, grew up with a piano in his home and has enjoyed playing for more than 20 years. Given Nashville's thriving music scene, with its Country Music Hall of Fame and more than 100 music venues, including the home of the weekly Grand Ole Opry show, many of his employees and contractors are also professional or amateur musicians. As a result, Caballero—who describes GreenPal as a marketplace for homeowners to find, schedule and pay pre-screened lawn care providers—provides a music room for them to practice.
"A lot of people in Nashville are transplants who moved here for music: for songwriting, to be an artist or to work as a studio producer or engineer," says Caballero, who has outfitted GreenPal's music room with a keyboard, guitar and some basic recording equipment. "We used to have a set of drums in there, but they were a little too loud for an office environment."
The room, accessible to employees at any time of day, is utilized mostly during afternoons or just after the workday. Caballero, who describes the scene in there as "very laid-back and chilled," likes to play in the morning to clear his mind.
"Playing an instrument has been scientifically proven to engage practically every area of the brain at once," he says. "Learning and playing music is a workout for the brain, strengthening visual, auditory and motor functions. We see our employees apply those strengths to other activities that boost productivity and reduce stress."
People contribute so much more when they love to be at work.
-Emily Lyons, CEO, Femme Fatale Media Group
Furry Friends Facilitate Bonding and Balance
In addition her role as CEO of Femme Fatale Media Group, an event staffing, media and communications agency based in Toronto and New York, Emily Lyons is "a dog mom of three." Through that experience—and by observing that many of her employees don't have children, or have them much later in life—she decided to offer "pawternity leave" in addition to more standard benefits. This means that employees can take three paid days off from work to "adjust to puppy parenthood."
Inspired by the belief that dogs reduce work-related stress, she also encourages employees to bring their dogs to work. "We find it becomes a much more fun environment when everyone has dogs running around and coming for cuddles," she says. "It's something we all bond over and a good conversation piece."
Since she has welcomed dogs to the office, Lyons has observed greater productivity among her employees and a strengthened company culture. "People contribute so much more when they love to be at work," she notes. "Having animals around gives us more of a family feel."
Multiple Gains for Active Employees
In managing a team that provides answering services to small law firms across the U.S. and Canada, Emily LaRusch makes contributions to employee well-being within and beyond the office walls. As CEO and co-founder of Back Office Betties in Scottsdale, Arizona, she is most energized around the company's "Fit Betties" benefit.
"We allocate an annual budget to each team member that can be used for anything from getting active to supporting outside interests," she says. "Every company can adopt this practice. The budget doesn't have to be large to show that you care." These small gestures cost the company less than $2,500 per year for the entire team, while creating what LaRusch calls "familial bonds."
Instead of offering gym reimbursement, the company created a social channel where team members can post a photo or story of active adventures in exchange for reimbursement on their paycheck. To qualify, employees can submit relevant receipts or post a photo of their activity for reimbursement up to $25 per month.
"We've got pics of hikes to some of the deepest caves in the U.S. and swimming at the beach with family," she says. "Our employees may be camping at a state park, but they know that their work family cares about their personal life, too."