Luring Best and Brightest With Life's Luxuries

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On a typical day in Silicon Valley, you can drive to Redwood City to swim laps at Oracle Corp., enjoy a massage at Octel Corp. and have your BMW detailed at Cisco Systems Inc. If you're really in a pinch, you can have the Sun Microsystems concierge plan your weekend of wine tasting and bed and breakfasting in Napa Valley.

With more than 125,000 job openings in Silicon Valley since 1992 and start-ups erupting everywhere, older high-tech companies are searching for novel ways to lure the best and brightest, while pampering current workers with luxuries too good to pass up.

"Employees are like free agents," says Doug Henton, consultant and president of Collaborative Economics in Palo Alto. "If you fail to provide a creative and stimulating environment, they'll leave pronto."

Large firms, which cannot offer the start-ups' temptation of instant riches through stock options, are instead affixing shiny jewels to their golden handcuffs: steep discounts on products, services and personal travel; on-site conveniences such as dry cleaning, ATMs and postal services; and four- and five-digit bonuses.

Also in vogue is a corporate movement aimed at evening out personal and business life--a key attraction for those with families. Programs with titles like SunBalance, WellBeing and Work/Life Balance assist in everything from locating sick-kid child care to finding Alzheimer's disease support groups.

"I wouldn't go as far to say that companies really care for the balance of life for their employees," says Steve Radford, president of Radford Associates, a compensation consulting company in San Jose. "They want to offer as flexible a workplace as possible so employees don't blow their brains out."

At Sun Microsystems, the effort to be family-friendly extends to kicking in $2,000 toward child adoption fees. Employee services manager Gloria Debs has an album of some 30 children adopted through Sun's financial aid.

"This is one of my favorite programs," she says enthusiastically. "These babies come from all over the world."

Silicon Graphics remains one of the few businesses offering a paid six-week sabbatical after four years of company service. Unlike other firms, no strings are attached to what you do with your time. Michele Turner, SGI manager of developer programs, spent her entire sabbatical skiing in Utah--and her employer ended up benefiting too.

"I wanted to get over my fear of skiing," she says. At the end of her stay, she was swishing down steep slopes alone. "I came back empowered and really psyched up about the company."

Hewlett-Packard Co. now allows employees to take a one-year leave of absence with full medical coverage and a guaranteed job upon return. Compared with years past, there are fewer restrictions on the program, and employees can use the time to take care of personal or family needs.

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While companies in the '70s invested in doughnuts and beer busts as a way to build camaraderie, today it's goodbye to sticky buns and hello to buns of steel.

"Now everyone is concerned with overall health and fitness. The culture is shifting," says Henton.

At Cisco, 32-year-old Laura Ipsen, government affairs manager, makes it to work each day in time for the 7 a.m. BootCamp class, a one-hour calisthenics session. Her personal best is doing 200 crunches and running up and down four flights of stairs 24 times in half an hour.

"I have a lot more energy at work now, and I only missed three classes," she says proudly. "If we didn't have a gym on site, I probably wouldn't bother doing this."

If the Cisco BootCamp proves too intense, one might opt for rival 3Com Corp., where golf clinics are held regularly. Also part of the company's wellness curriculum is an all-day class on how to conduct business on the golf course; the class is held on the Stanford University greens.

"During campus recruiting, it used to be that students would ask us about our medical plan," says Diane Adams, director of organization effectiveness at San Jose-based Cisco. "Now they ask whether we have a gym, and we do."

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Many aspects of the new wellness programs are aimed at aging baby boomers. At Sun, recent brown-bag seminars have included unusual topics such as "Advanced Directives"--what to do if you go on life support and how you can prepare a legal statement to carry out your wishes.

In May, Sun will debut a menopause health package. Although the program is still untitled, Debs is excited about seeing women form support groups to deal with their new stage of life.

"We are going to keep the program highly confidential," she reports. "Men will also be able to obtain printed packet materials to give to the women in their lives."

Employees agree that although companies say they promote work-life balance, it's up to individuals to manage their time well.

Silicon Graphics' Turner continues to work 10- to 15-hour days. Octel human resources manager Julie Bombino would like to take advantage of a lunch-time aerobics class. The problem is, she's too swamped with work.

At Cisco, engineer Jansen Kwong admits he has never stepped into the stationery shop located near his office.

"I haven't had a reason to go in yet," he says. "I put in pretty intense days, and sometimes you can't get away."

Some employees are so smitten with the entrepreneurial bug, there's no perk big enough to lure them to stay. Case in point: Last year, software engineer James Woo left Octel after seven years to become employee No. 9 at cable modem company Comm21 in nearby Milpitas.

Gone from his work life is the gourmet cafeteria, on-site gym and fresh-popcorn breaks.

"I never cared about those things," says Woo, whose new title is Net surfer. "Besides, we have popcorn here. I just throw it in the microwave."

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