Early one recent Friday afternoon, Karen Pannier and some co-workers at the Koll Co. in Newport Beach left their office and drove to Laguna Beach, stopping at an oceanfront restaurant to sip margaritas. They didn't show up for work until the following Monday.
But the afternoon away from work didn't land the Koll employees in hot water on Monday morning. They were just following company policy.
From Memorial Day to Labor Day each year, employees of the real estate development firm can take off Friday afternoons as long as their supervisors approve it. The policy, Koll officials say, is intended to create a happier workplace.
"It makes the week go by better," said Pannier, an executive secretary. Several times this summer she has left work early on Friday to beat the weekend traffic to Big Bear.
Koll is one of a number of Orange County companies that is taking a creative approach to employee benefits. Gone are the days when health insurance, paid sick days or a pension plan were considered remarkable benefits. In fact, more and more benefits are becoming standard: tuition reimbursement, relocation allowances and company fitness centers.
Nor are the more imaginative benefits reserved only for a company's top managers, who have long enjoyed such perks as reserved parking spaces, private offices or free tickets to the ballgame.
Some local companies are finding ways to make regular staffers take notice of job benefits by offering extras such as discounts on computers to special bonuses for employees who share rides to work.
To be sure, these special benefits aren't generous gestures on the part of selfless employers. There is usually something in it for the companies, too.
Take Disneyland, for example. Disney capitalizes on the prestige associated with its corporate name by designing merchandise that is available exclusively to its employees. For Disneyland's annual picnic this year, the company designed a "Mick Tracy" line of T-shirts, beach towels and key rings. The items show Mickey Mouse in silhouette, wearing Dick Tracy's signature yellow fedora.
The merchandise "identifies people as (Disneyland) employees," said Joel Hicks, supervisor of Company D, Disney's company store.
Hicks said the special items make Disney employees feel like part of a team. But they also mean that thousands of employees become walking advertisements for the amusement park when they wear their special T-shirts or other items.
Fluor Daniel Inc., the engineering and construction arm of Irvine-based Fluor Corp., offers its workers a more tangible benefit: spot bonuses for work that rises above the call of duty. In a nine-month period ended July 31, the company handed out 200 bonuses averaging $1,365, said Joan Howard, a company spokeswoman.
In one instance, Howard said, an employee came up with an idea involving the leasing of office copiers that saved the company $121,000.
AST Research Inc., an Irvine computer manufacturer, has given a different twist to traditional profit-sharing plans by offering employees special bonuses tied to the company's performance. Called "results sharing," employees can receive bonuses of up to 15% of their regular pay every three months if AST meets or comes close to quarterly revenue and profit goals. For an AST employee who makes, say, $25,000 a year, that could mean a quarterly bonus check of more than $900.
Howard Derman, AST's director of human resources, said the program encourages employees to be more frugal--to make fewer personal phone calls, use less copier paper or keep a tighter lid on travel expenses. Because bonus checks are tied to AST's financial success, he said, employees feel that they have a greater stake in the company's performance.
"The point is to get your employees involved in the bottom line and let them see tangible results, right in their pockets," Derman said.
Daihatsu America Inc. in Los Alamitos enables its employees to lease two new cars each year at half the rate offered to its regular customers. While Daihatsu employees get a break on car payments, the lesser-known Japanese auto maker benefits by getting its new car lines on the road to be seen by potential customers, said Mark Nease, a company spokesman.
Hyundai Motor America of Fountain Valley also offers discount lease programs, said Debbie Douglas, a spokeswoman. "Everybody gets one," she said, "including the guy in the mail room."
Another employer, the Orange County Transportation Commission, has found that a special benefits program has helped reduce the cost of computer training for its employees, said Thomas Fortune, an agency spokesman. When employees buy a computer and related equipment for their home, the transportation agency pays half the cost, up to $2,000. More than 20 agency employees have taken part in the 5-year-old program, Fortune said.
"It was a way of encouraging computer literacy, and it worked," Fortune said. "A lot of us did things at home that was, in a sense, training."
Incentives on the job got a boost recently when the South Coast Air Quality Management District mandated that all companies with more than 100 workers at one site had to develop and implement ride-sharing programs.
Some employers are encouraging ride sharing by offering preferential parking, bonuses or prize drawings for items such as earthquake survival kits or weekend trips.
Employees at Ricoh Electronics Inc. in Tustin can sign up to become van drivers, earning an extra $200 a month for transporting more than seven Ricoh employees to work each day. They also get free use of the company vans, said Rino Zaccuri, a company spokesman.
Cigna Property & Casualty Cos. in Orange is letting regular car-poolers leave work an hour early on Fridays and giving them an extra two days of vacation for year-round participation.