If you find yourself walking by a cafe in the Italian city of Perugia around 10 a.m. this September, you may see a large group of lively people inside, all whom know each other. That group may well be the employees of Expensify, a U.S.-based company that sells expense report software and flies its team members to work in an international location for one month every year.
“We rent a cafe every morning and serve breakfast to the team," says Alex Revelli, Expensify's director of people operations, adding that the company refers to these trips as 'offshores.' “Everyone is expected to be there by 10 a.m. and then people usually disperse and work from wherever they want. If we are at a beach location, they may find a spot along the water. If we are in a city, they may find another cafe."
Italy is on tap for this year; last year the company went to Uruguay. Past destinations have included Portugal, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Croatia. The idea for the over-the-top benefit came organically back in 2009 when waiting around for an office build-out.
“The early team—maybe three or four people including [founder] David [Barrett]—had been squatting in a luxury apartment conference space for a while, but when it went under construction, they had to move," says Revelli. “They'd signed a lease for an office, but couldn't move in for a month, so they decided to go to Thailand. They made the decision in a few days and realized that they could work anywhere with internet."
Now with more than 130 employees (Expensify has offices in San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; Ironwood, Michigan; London; and Melbourne, plus remote workers), the company understands that it can be difficult for employees with commitments at home to make the month-long trip.
"It isn't mandatory, so if traveling isn't your thing, you don't have to go, but we find that only about 3 percent choose not to go," says Revelli. "We have one 'fancy week,' where we stay at a nice place, so people with families usually will come out only for that week."
—Linda Le, talent lead for Americas, Smartly
Expensify's offshore excursions aren't its only eye-popping benefit. The company offers unlimited vacation time, dogs in its Portland office and $20 to expense on lunch every workday (Revelli says the latter benefit helps ensure staffers keep using the expense-focused app).
And Expensify isn't the only company going above and beyond when it comes to employee benefits. Many companies these days are trying to find creative ways to not only attract talent, but also retain rock stars. Benefits seem to help… as long as they're the right ones.
Linda Le is the talent lead for Americas at Smartly, an online advertising platform headquartered in Helsinki, Finland, with 10 offices all of the world. Based in its New York City office, Le has an interesting perspective when it comes to benefits. Smartly is the sixth startup she's worked for and, in that time, she's seen a benefits evolution from what she calls “vanity perks" to more substantive employee benefits.
“Things like happy hours and beers in the fridge are nice to have, but now companies are thinking about how they can go further," she says. “We see that employees want professional development, they want wellness, they want their employers to truly help them realize that work/life balance can exist."
At Smartly, Le has helped spearhead a wellness program, which gives employees $100 per month to spend on anything from massages to gym memberships to cultural events to museum tickets.
Le finds employees are equally interested in professional development benefits, too.
“We really like to encourage people to participate in professional development if they want to learn a new skill," she says. “We are in the process of formalizing a way to enable our employees to attend workshops and seminars that help them professionally, as long as there is a business need for it."
And like at Expensify, Smartly also embraces company-wide overseas trips—the company takes its employees to different destination for one week a year. Smartly's trips focus on tackling "key issues and problem-solving as a team with a few excursions on the last day," she says. The event—dubbed “Futurio"—took place in Spain in early 2018 and Greece in 2017. Le says time together helps staffers focus on problem-solving and builds bonds within teams.
“Trust really strengthens when you go on a trip like that," she says. “We talk about our culture and our values—it brings people together."
Over in Hoboken, New Jersey, Nate Matherson also believes in giving employees eye-catching perks. As co-founder and CEO of LendEDU, a student loan comparison site, he's helping to pay off his employees' student debt.
“We give employees $200 per month to pay off any student loan debt," he says. “We've found that in many cases, that is a person's entire payment."
The idea came to Matherson from personal pain: He graduated from the University of Delaware in 2016 with $55,000 in student loan debt.
“We launched the $200-per-month-program as a way to differentiate LendEDU from other employees, and we use it when recruiting," he says. “While some companies will offer repayment, they will usually cap it after a few years. Our program is indefinite. We will pay as long as you work for us. Employees love it."
So how do these companies afford such incredible perks?
Matherson's case isn't hard to understand. As he says, he wanted to do something meaningful and $200 doesn't break his company's bank. But what about Smartly's week-long trip and Expensify's month-long sojourn to another country?
At Smartly, the week is entirely paid for—flights, food and lodging. The only things not covered are optional excursions. And while it can cost a chunk of change to get employees from all nine global offices together, Le says it's worth it.
“We see so much value in meeting with people from other cities," she says. “It's one thing to do a video conference, but another to be in front of a person. It can be really impactful."
The extent to which Expensify pays for its month away includes flights, accommodations for one of the four weeks (the 'fancy week,' which includes an all-expense-paid hotel; employees pay for accommodations the other weeks), breakfasts and lunches. But since the company pays for lunches at home offices anyway, food isn't much of a cost issue.
"It is so important to our culture that we don't worry about cost as much," Revelli says.
She adds a few pieces of advice for business owners looking to offer enticing benefits: Give team members flexibility and trust them.
“Flexibility can come at a low cost and it means a ton," she says. “Let people go to the gym for an hour or two during the work day. And trust them. People won't take advantage of a benefit if they think it will go away."