Contributed Column

Cal Workman

Creating Community

by Cal Workman

Vermont is rich with “shovel-ready” benefits

My first job out of college was in book publishing. The pay was lousy, barely enough to cover a diet of mac and cheese and rent in a cramped apartment. No matter; as a fresh-faced young professional, there were two perks that really delivered: free books and launch parties. 

I amassed an impressive collection of art, lifestyle, travel, and cookbooks thanks to my employment in the publishing industry. I also met world-renowned authors, illustrators, and photographers. Through their connections, we hosted epic book launches at celebrity penthouse suites, tony nightclubs, five-star restaurants, and museum special collection rooms. 

A lesson is hidden within my New York City work experience: Intangible benefits go a long way. Obviously, a raise is great, but unless it’s a significant one, the shelf life of the goodwill it engenders fades over time. Money isn’t everything.

No one is talking about raises or bonuses in this economic climate anyway. People are walking around on eggshells wondering whether they’ll be the next to go. In work environments, this undercurrent of fear is demoralizing. Now more than ever, those hanging in there could use a bit of cheer to help carry them through the rough patches. 

Luckily, we live in an area that is rich with possibility thanks to our beautiful natural surroundings, the availability of quality local products and services, and a business community that’s on a friendly, first-name basis. Together with a little imagination, it’s easy to come up with some low-cost or no-cost “shovel-ready” benefits that appeal to our Yankee roots and shared values. Just look around and see what resonates with staff. 

Here’s an example. Most Vermonters share a deep and abiding commitment to our environment. Employees at the Vermont Housing Finance Authority expressed to the management team their desire to reduce their individual carbon footprints. In response, management partnered with interested employees and purchased monthly bus vouchers through CCTA’s Smart Business program. 

The value of the benefit was far-reaching. VHFA saved on monthly parking fees and realized federal and payroll tax savings. Commuters who took the bus to work saved more than $2,500 a year in gas and other car expenses and said they enjoyed their “down time” on the bus. Talk about a win-win situation!

When researching ideas for your own “shovel-ready” benefits, think health, family, recreation, the environment, and shared values — five big categories that are brimming with potential for benefits that connect with everyday people. 

Help employees get and stay fit by negotiating a discount at a nearby health club or offer to buy a six-month membership for those who commit to quit smoking. Studies show that healthy employees are more productive than those who lead sedentary lifestyles. Healthy workers also don’t need to visit the doctor as frequently, and that brings down everyone’s health-care costs. 

Do you have a conference room? Maximize its use by transforming it into a lunchtime yoga, t’ai chi, or kick boxing studio for workers. If a professional trainer can’t be budgeted, tap into your talent on the inside. Chances are there’s an employee who’d be willing to lead a group in something of interest, whether it’s stress reduction class or a knitting group. 

 Reach Vermonters’ inner bargain-hunters by facilitating in-house swaps where just about anything is fair game, including perennial plants, kids’ clothing, cookies, books, and music; or host a continuous swap table like the ones found at DR Power Equipment and Gardener’s Supply. 

Check out the Vermont Barter Network and swap your product and service for something offered by a neighboring company. Share the bounty with employees.

Sometimes simple gestures of generosity speak the loudest. At Caleidoscope Communications, a telecommunications employer of 15, workers are frequently greeted in the morning by the smell of freshly baked muffins, or they’ll find bouquets of sweetly scented flowers on their desks. President Loretta Roby believes these acts of kindness serve as important reminders that her employees are appreciated. 

Citizens Bank chooses to throw its support behind each employee’s favorite charity with a matching donation program and a dizzying number of employee-driven community projects that V.P. Brigitte Ritchie says “makes everyone feel good about themselves and proud about their workplace.”

 In my humble opinion, what it boils down to is this: It doesn’t cost a lot of money to make our workplace lives a little sweeter. Employers, please take note. •

Cal Workman is a freelance writer and public relations professional.

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