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by Diane Serapina

When Lisa Benne left her job as a seller of medical diagnostic equipment two years ago to join the Essential Data Corporation, a Stamford consulting firm, little did she expect to get breakfast at the office every morning, not to mention massages and other eclectic thank you’s, courtesy of her boss.

And when Suzanne Haas needs to get her creative juices flowing at the Atlantic Group, a Norwalk-based printing and marketing firm, she takes a midday break to shoot some pool. The boss thinks it’s great. The evidence is everywhere. Connecticut’s business environment may not be as relaxed as Silicon Valley’s, but it’s certainly moving in that direction. With a national reputation as a center of culture and brainpower, it’s a no-brainer that companies around the state, large and small, are discovering that being as creative as possible with benefits and workspace is the key to attracting the skilled employees they need. “Connecticut trends generally to be behind the trend,” says Cathy Wooley, senior vice president of administration for the Hutensky Group, commercial real estate developers based in Hartford. “It is the land of conservative habits. But I think we’re going to see companies bend a great deal.”

At Hutensky, she said, “The one thing we are doing more of is paying attention. We are listening to our employees as to what works for them and trying to figure out how to make the work work around that.”

Human resource professionals around the state agree that no matter the size or type of company, the biggest problem facing Connecticut companies is recruiting – and, even more importantly, retaining – employees with scientific and technical skills.

“An ounce of retention is worth a pound of recruiting,” warns Bruce Tulgan, president of Rainmaker Inc., a New Haven consulting firm that teaches corporations how to attract and retain skilled Generation X employees. Those who go unchallenged or whose needs go unattended, he says, go out job hunting. Companies are listening – through surveys, employee committees, or direct contracts – to learn what their staff members need to get the job done and still have a life outside the offices. Yes, there are increased salaries and benefits, but there are also child care and health and fitness centers, casual dress, allowing staff to rearrange their workspace or listen to music, and giving a day off for winning the company’s baby picture contest. In between, companies are offering flexible hours, telecommuting, job sharing, and additional training.

“I tell my clients that they’ve got to create opportunities for people to reinvent themselves over and over again,” says Mr. Tulgan.

And what do the companies get in return? Increased productivity, experts agree. “It’s really about recognizing that workers are people, too,” Mr. Tulgan says.

Large and small companies may approach the problem in different ways, but, at a minimum, they’re looking for guidance.

“The tight labor market has upped the ante. Companies have to do more,” says Robert D. Noonan, vice president and counsel for management services for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association.

The association will offer a special session at its annual two-day conference on Employment, Law, and Human Resources Management in June to focus on recruiting and retention strategies. “And I expect it will be very well attended,” says Mr. Noonan.

An association survey on personnel policies of 200 Connecticut companies last year indicated that up to half are paying rewards to existing employees for referrals, 90 percent provide training and development opportunities for salaried employees and one-third offer 100 percent tuition reimbursement for undergraduate courses. (The number goes up to one-half for graduate courses).

Many are shortening or eliminating waiting periods for health benefits, providing medical coverage for domestic partners, accelerating raises, expanding leave policies, and subsidizing child care and adoptions. “Flexibility varies with the industry,” says Mr. Noonan.

The more progressive companies also find visibility and community service powerful tools for attracting new employees and invigorating current staff.

Small private firms like Essential Data, a $12 million company that provides technical writers and documentation trainers to businesses, and the Atlantic Group, with 50 marketing, creative, and print production employees, can offer even the quirkiest policies and benefits.

“I try to make my associates feel appreciated,” says Antoinette Allocca, president of Essential Data. “And that can’t just be in the pocketbook.” When she notices a staff member is under particular pressure, Ms. Allocca says, she may prescribe a massage or a round of golf. Birthday parties are celebrated and breakfast is available daily.

Stephanie Primm, president of the Atlantic Group, says her philosophy has always been to keep the office atmosphere loose, creative, and full of team spirit – especially when looming deadlines add to the stress level.

“People need to be allowed to be themselves.” Says Ms. Primm. “They need to have a little downtime. I think playtime fosters greater creativity.

At Atlantic Group, an antique electric train on the lobby ceiling can be set in motion by a switch at the receptionist’s desk. The billiard table in a space off the lobby and another on the second floor are in use most lunch hours and often after work.

A nearby bar is a hangout after work hours and the center of happy hour-style get-togethers with the staff and clients. MS Primm’s two dogs, a beagle and a golden retriever, often roam the offices and sometimes have animal visitors.

Suzanne Haas, associate creative director, and Heidi Adair, senior account executive, agree that the Atlantic Group’s unstructured environment makes for great camaraderie and job cooperation, but it may not work for those who aren’t self-motivated, they warn. “We grew up with this place,’ says Ms. Adair. “That’s why there’s such a comfort level here. The wackier GenX’ers – maybe they needed to be there.”

At the Hutensky Group in Hartford, which employs 55 people in four states (45 in Connecticut), the staff likes half-day Fridays in the summer. Desks are cleared off by 1 P.M. Friday, says Ms. Wooley, the senior vice president of administration.

Staff members make up one-half hour each day from Monday through Thursday, either at the beginning or end of the workday. Clients appreciate the extended office hours, says, Ms. Wooley. “It’s not a benefit; it’s a productivity tool, she explains.

“Some of the things we asked for when we entered the workforce were unusual, too. She remembers.

Large companies too are trying to be more innovative and they have more resources to back up their changes.

The Xerox Corporation in Stamford, a regular in Fortune and Working Mother magazines, listed as one of the top 100 United States employers is getting calls on how to do it. In recent months, five to 10 companies a week – most of them large – call Marilyn Timbers, Xerox’s life cycle program manager, to get details about the company’s practices. “Never before have I gotten these kind of calls,” says Ms. Timbers of the volume.

Xerox, among many other things, provides each employee with a bank account of $10,000 that can be used over his or her work career for child care, extended health coverage, or first-time mortgage assistance. Other applications, including elder care and college tuition assistance, are being considered. The company also offers free referral services for child care, elder care, parenting skills, and education.

“When all is said and done,” says Ms. Timbers, “what employees really want is flexibility and empowerment. Everybody doesn’t have the same needs. One-size benefits don’t’ fit all.”

Last fall, Xerox rewrote the employee motivation and satisfaction survey it distributes annually to reflect more life/work balance issues. Managers are evaluated based on the anonymous results, says Ms. Timbers.

BankBoston, meanwhile, in addition to its regular benefits packages, offers a minimum of 100 shares of stock options annually to each full-time employee.

In October, the end of the first year of the program, the value had risen by $42 a share, meaning a minimum gain of $4,200, says Karen Schwartzman, BankBoston’s spokesperson.

“BankBoston is doing exceedingly well, she explains, “and we wanted to share the wealth and to give employees a stake in the performance of the company.” BankBoston has 1,150 employees in Connecticut.

Next, in response to staff requests, BankBoston will extend family medical benefits beginning in July to domestic partners of one other dependent residing with the employee.

The Bushnell, which operates the performing arts center in Hartford, also uses contests, gift certificates, days off, and complimentary show tickets to reward its 45-member staff, says Diane Bruno, director of human resources. And any suggestions made by its employee committee are definitely considered. “It’s important to have progressive benefits programs because people have choices,” says Ms. Schwartzman, “It’s a tight labor market. We have found time and time again, that if our employees are happy and appreciated and valued, they do better for the company and the company does better for its shareholders.”

At the Bayer Corporation’s pharmaceutical division in West Haven, the company recently opened a childcare center and created a lactation program for breastfeeding mothers as a result of a survey of the needs of its 2,000 employees.

The lactation program, which provides pre- and post-natal counseling as well, has allowed mothers to return to work sooner and will be offered at Bayer’s other sites around the country, says Laura Malis, a Bayer spokeswoman. Fifty-five women have taken part in the West Haven program.

“At Bayer, we spend a lot of time talking about what it means to be an employer of choice,” says Kim Carpenter, vice president of human resources. “We like to think we’re open to good ideas.”

Perhaps the closest Connecticut workplace to Silicon Valley is Hyperion, the Stamford-based Software Company that had only 200 employees six years ago and now has 1,300.

“Our challenge, ” says Bill Hewitt vice president of marketing, “is to maintain the culture of a smaller company.”

In a large, still expanding fitness center, television sets provide programming from around the world by satellite hookup. The workspace has been rearranged to provide common meeting areas. And a billiard room and game room supplied with pinball machines, Nintendo and other games are almost always in use. The company encourages it as a means for hard-working staff to clear their heads, says Mr. Hewitt.

“It’s a good way for people in different departments to get together,” he says. “People work out ideas; they work out problems there. Especially in a company growing as quickly as ours, communications is key.”

With developers who work odd hours, Hyperion makes sure it keeps the pantries around the company well-stocked with sodas, water, juice, and coffee. “To keep people fed and happy – and supplied with lots of caffeine,” says Mr. Hewitt.

Connecticut’s technology companies must compete with high-tech centers around the nation for the skilled workers they need to grow. But the state’s reputation as a defense and insurance headquarters has hurt its image, says Tom Bradley, spokesperson for the Connecticut Economic Resource Center, a nonprofit agency whose mission is to attract new companies to the state and help existing ones grow.

Last December, the center began to print and radio campaigns in technology trade publications and major newspapers touting Connecticut as a hotbed of technology activity. After all, 17 percent of the workforce is employed in technology, the largest ratio in the nation according to Federal Labor Department statistics says Mr. Bradley.

“The campaign is a lot funkier and geared to a younger audience,” he says. “We’re reaching the skilled worker.”

So what if Silicon Valley companies allow animals in the workplace, stock refrigerators with beer, and let employees walk around barefoot? Do these things increase job satisfaction, motivate workers, and add balance to their lives?

“These lavish perks seem sort of frivolous,” says Brent Laymon, a spokesman for Xerox. “I’m not sure the people looking for them are in the long run, the ones who are going to make you competitive.”

But it doesn’t hurt to be more worker-friendly. According to Mr. Hewitt of Hyperion, “People want to come to work and be productive. Anything we do to make that happen is to our benefit – obviously!

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