29 ways to build a happier company
Want to turn your business into everyone’s dream workplace? Follow these cues for a more fulfilled, productive, and inspired workforce
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There are jobs—and then there are jobs. You know the ones: The gigs that make coming to work about so much more than punching the clock and collecting a paycheck.
The ones that fill the workday with camaraderie, a sense of purpose, and just plain fun. It shows in the policies and perks a company offers, in ways big (health insurance, parental leave) and small (ski days, free gear). And they pay off—big time—for employers, who can count on loyal, productive employees who feel invested in the company’s success.
Here are just a few of the ways leaders in this industry go above and beyond for their workers. We hope employers and employees alike will consider this a menu of inspiration for greater workplace satisfaction. To say the past year has been a challenging one for businesses across the industry is an understatement. But despite all the hurdles, we still wouldn’t want to work anywhere else. This is why.
We asked industry members to nominate their workplaces for providing a superior employee experience. After combing through all 165 responses, these are our favorite ideas worthy of imitation.
What separates revved-up, motivated employees from cubicle drones? An office culture that promotes camaraderie, connection, and plenty of outside time. Many of us may still be working apart from our colleagues, but that won’t last forever—and we can’t wait to get back into offices like these.
1. Play outside
CASE STUDY: Darby Communications, Asheville, NC
As any veteran of summer camp knows, getting out into the wilds together builds lasting bonds. So this boutique PR firm throws an annual staff campout, taking employees on a (paid) overnight excursion that has included paddling to an island campsite, fly-fishing lessons, tubing, and whitewater rafting over the past four years. “It builds community on our team, so there’s a deeper connection between us,” says Vice President Angie Robinson. The pandemic forced the team to cancel last year’s trip, but Darby replaced it with smaller outdoor gatherings, and when it’s safe, “We’re planning on a blowout camping trip to bring back the tradition in a big way,” says Suzanne Hermann, media relations director.
Pro tip: The financial barrier to this sort of retreat is low, points out Robinson. Camping is cheap, and Darby takes advantage of its clients’ gear and services (like whitewater guiding), so the total cost is only $200 to $300 per year for nine employees.
2. Bring community to the cafeteria
CASE STUDY: Skratch Labs, Boulder, CO
Every month, 29 full-time employees of nutrition/sports drink company Skratch Labs are invited to a communal breakfast at the office, courtesy of founder Allen Lim. Some staffers play sous chef, helping whip up Lim specialties like savory rice porridge, breakfast salad, and egg tacos. “In the same way that a family is closer when they share meals around the table, we are a better team when we do the same,” says CEO Ian MacGregor. Since last spring, the communal dining has shifted to live cooking lessons for employees at home. “We prep and ship all necessary ingredients to each of our team members, then we all get on a massive video call and learn to make something,” says MacGregor.
Pro tip: Even if you don’t have a full kitchen or a cookbook author for a founder, as Skratch Labs does, you can still break bread as a team: Think regular takeout gatherings or voluntary potlucks.
3. Embrace inclusivity
Brands across the industry are beginning to meet the moment by ramping up DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) efforts.
4. Hit the slopes
In what other industry do you get formal permission to go skiing when the pow is fresh? Here are just a few of the businesses that allow—nay, encourage—playing hooky on a snow day: Backbone Media, BoldBrew, Burton, Hala Gear/CKS Online, Meteorite PR, and Stio.
Bold action to fix some of the world’s biggest challenges can push the entire business forward— and make employees proud to be along for the ride.
5. Commit to fighting climate change
CASE STUDY: BioLite, Brooklyn, NY, and Peak Design, San Francisco, CA
BioLite (maker of camp stoves and lights) and Peak Design (a camera gear and travel bag brand) took their sustainability missions to the next level in 2018 with the launch of their Climate Neutral nonprofit. The organization helps other brands measure their total carbon footprints—from sourcing to manufacturing to shipping—and then offset them with carbon credits, earning certification. In 2019, 146 companies joined the program, representing a sizable commitment to reducing carbon emissions. “Climate Neutral makes me so proud to be a part of the organization,” says BioLite Ecommerce Operations Manager Joseph Caravaglia. Hyden Polikoff, treasurer at Peak Design, agrees: “I want the place where I put my time and effort to embody my values.”
6. Get creative when challenged
CASE STUDY: Mustang Survival, Burnaby, BC
When the pandemic hit last March, industry members counterpunched. Mustang Survival was one of them, switching from making its usual dry bags, drysuits, and ocean racing gear to churning out hundreds of thousands of waterproof/breathable protective gowns for healthcare workers (many other brands swiftly did the same with masks and eye shields). Not only did the pivot provide crucial PPE to hospitals across Canada, but it also allowed Mustang to hire 50 new employees (31 of them were still with the brand as of press time). “We set up a school and ran new hires through extensive training on sewing and taping,” says Mark Anderson, VP of engineering. “They learned skills directly transferrable to the apparel we make.”
Genuine support for off-the-clock endeavors translates to on-the-clock loyalty.
7. Be generous with vacation time
CASE STUDY: Roads Rivers and Trails, Milford, OH
Every winter for the past six years, as long as she’s been working at specialty retailer Roads Rivers and Trails, Manager Olivia Eads (pictured below on Pikes Peak) has taken at least a month off work to go climbing. Owners Bryan Wolf, Joe White, and Emily White highly encourage it with unlimited (unpaid) vacation time for all staff. “We get the shifts covered and we make it work,” says Wolf. In 2019, employees averaged 40 days off apiece—“and that’s just outdoor trips, not Christmas,” Wolf notes.
8. Welcome Fido
Embracing pups in the office— when we go back to the office, that is—pays off for both dogs (more walks) and employees (research shows that the presence of a furry friend reduces stress and boosts self-esteem). A few businesses that make room for our best friends: Arc’teryx, Kelty, NEMO, Ruffwear, and Xero Shoes.
9. Spread profits around
Some workplaces give everyone a different kind of promotion. All employees at Outside (OBJ’s parent company) get stock options, which increase with strong performance or a promotion. “It’s critical for creating alignments [between employees and the company] and incentives,” says CEO Robin Thurston. When the company does well and hard work pays off, employees benefit, too.
10. Encourage exploration
CASE STUDY: Cotopaxi, Salt Lake City, UT
How’s this for an antidote to job turnover? After 18 months, employees of this B Corp apparel and gear brand can cash in on their first of two “bucket list stipends”: $1,000 to use on a dream trip anywhere in the world. After five years, the reward bumps up to $5,000. Recent employee trips have included touring Morocco, cycling the French Alps, and a fish-spearing, coconut-gathering survival excursion on a remote Caribbean island. “Number one, we need to be able to attract and retain talent, and this is a unique perk,” says founder and CEO Davis Smith. “And secondly, we want to make sure our employees are living the values of the business. We’re building a brand around adventure and exploring the world.” Cotopaxi has spent nearly $100,000 on its bucket list payouts so far, he says, but, “These things pay for themselves—you don’t have to pay higher wages to convince someone to join the team, or [deal with] rehiring.”
Pro tip: Cotopaxi helps employees make the most of their trips by holding learning sessions on topics like getting involved in local communities and traveling on a shoestring budget. “Within the team, there’s a constant sharing of travel deals,” says Smith. “If you keep your eye on deals, $1,000 can cover a trip somewhere really fun.”
11. Get gear in our hands
CASE STUDY: NRS, Moscow, ID
Paddling gear can be expensive, as NRS’s employees well know. But lack of capital won’t ever stand in the way when someone pulls a rafting permit, thanks to the brand’s “company use” stash of rafts, frames, coolers, stand-up paddleboards, inflatable kayaks, and drysuits. Employees can check out the gear for free. “We’ve had employees go on Grand Canyon trips, and they were able to get everything they needed and disappear with it for 18 days,” says Steve Farley, key account manager. In 2019, 130 employees dipped into the stash for a total of 880 checkouts.
Pro tip: Appoint someone (or a small team, as NRS does) to manage the gear sign-out process and keep items clean, safe, and organized.
Juggling a career and the rest of your life ain’t easy—but these companies make the balancing act a little smoother.
12. Give us long weekends
The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics offers half-day Fridays, and in summer, Outdoor Prolink switches to a four-10s schedule. Nobody’s head is really in the game at 3 p.m. Friday anyway.
13. Support employees’ life goals
CASE STUDY: Outdoor Gear Exchange, Burlington, VT
Employees who get five years under their belts at this retailer have extra reason to celebrate: They qualify for its Living the Dream program, which awards a $5,000 grant for pretty much anything that makes their lives a little easier. “Originally, it was to go on a dream trip,” says Brian Wade, executive director of retail and service. But the list of acceptable uses has ballooned over the years to include down payments on homes, childcare, a new vehicle, or paying off debt. “I can’t think of anybody who hasn’t figured out a way to use it,” he says.
Pro tip: How does OGE afford it? “We just do it,” says Wade, noting that the total expense is a fairly small line item on the budget. “It’s nice to honor the people who’ve put in time. And the emotional impact of getting a lump sum is really great.”
14. Support new parents…
CASE STUDY: Outside PR, San Francisco, CA
In a country where his seven-person PR firm doesn’t legally have to provide any break for its new parents, owner Gordon Wright instead offers the best parental leave policy we’ve seen in the industry: six months of leave at 80 percent salary, moms and dads alike. “It feels like the
right thing to do,” Wright says. That kind of investment pays off in ways both tangible (an attractive carrot when looking for new talent) and intangible, says Senior Account Executive Kelsey McGraw. “Gordon and all the managers believe family comes first,” she says. “They care for my well-being, and I don’t want to disappoint them. I want to work that much harder to see this company be successful.”
Pro tip: Doing without a key employee for six months poses challenges, but Wright notes that hiring a freelance substitute can help any company keep chugging along.
15. …And not-so-new parents
CASE STUDY: Patagonia, Ventura, CA
Parents industry-wide could be forgiven for daydreaming about a job switch to Patagonia. For one, there are the on-site daycares (in Ventura and Reno), which together care for 200 kids and offer tuition discounts based on income. “Being able to nurse my son at daycare rather than pump every three hours was so huge,” says Amy Garrahan, southwest sales manager. And
if a primary parent needs to travel for work while a baby is still nursing? Patagonia covers travel expenses for a caregiver.
Pro tip: Half of the brand’s daycare program is covered through tuition; 75 percent of the rest is recouped via tax credits, improved productivity, and employee retention. Companies that can’t add their own programs can still help parents with daycare stipends and more flex time options.
No surprise: Outdoor lovers value support for an active, healthy lifestyle.
16. Bond over workouts
Good: allowing employees to head out for a midday sweat break. Better: organizing group runs, yoga classes, bike rides, and even surfing sessions (like NEMO does on the New England coast) during the workday for communal exercise, stress relief, and team bonding in one fell swoop.
17. Make fitness easy
CASE STUDY: Wolverine Worldwide, Rockford, MI
Spin classes, pickleball, pickup volleyball, and basketball: All in a day’s work at Wolverine. Opened in 2019, the on-campus, 29,000-square-foot The Rock facility also offers an indoor track, group fitness classrooms, and cardio equipment. Plus, membership is free for all 600-plus employees of eight brands. “Not only does it help in getting people excited to work for Wolverine, but having a variety of activities available is really key for blowing off steam,” says Merrell Senior Marketing Manager Lauren King.
Pro tip: Building an entire gym might not be in the cards. “But figuring out things that might not cost a lot of money, but add a lot to culture, is.” See #16 and #18 for ideas.
18. Give cash for ski passes
Or gym memberships, yoga classes, and other wellness perks of choice, as sales agency Caraway & Co. does ($150 per employee per year).
19. Invest in employee healthcare
CASE STUDY: Waypoint Outdoor, Seattle, WA
Perks like gyms and company bike rides are great, but a real commitment to employee health should be built on a foundation of high-quality, affordable health insurance. This sales agency for brands like Klean Kanteen and Smartwool takes that to heart, covering 100 percent of premium costs for its employees. That’s made a huge difference for sales rep Carly Morava, a cancer survivor who’s been with the company for three years. She’d wanted to switch careers from retail to repping, but was afraid she wouldn’t be able to afford the insurance she needed. Unlike other workplaces she’d considered, Morava says, “Waypoint pays for everything, and it’s a really good plan.”
Everyone benefits when companies help employees get better at their jobs.
20. Help people climb the ladder
CASE STUDY: KEEN, Portland, OR
In a workplace just as on a mountain, sometimes the right guide can make all the difference. That’s why KEEN added formal mentoring to its benefits. The Career Compass Program matches eager employees with seasoned volunteer “coaches” for structured career advice and development. Pairs meet twice a month to set goals and track progress. Though the program is open to everyone, says Global Communications Manager Mindy Montgomery, women make up the bulk of the participants—“Research shows that women utilize formal mentoring programs more because men have greater access to informal mentoring opportunities,” she notes. Senior Compliance Specialist Elsa Clements credits the program with helping her land a promotion in 2019. “It was super-valuable in giving me confidence,” she says. She worked with her coach on strategies for putting her best foot forward, and “It was really good for me to have that framework when I sat down with my manager.”
Pro tip: Career Compass facilitators consider applicants’ communication style and personality when setting up pairs. “If the participant and coach have trouble communicating, they’re going to have a hard time forming a connection,” says Montgomery, “which is a crucial component to a successful coaching relationship.”
21. Support education
Help us advance by springing for certifications, courses, conferences, and skills clinics. Take Vail Resorts: Employees can apply for a $2,500 Educational Ascent Grant to fund a college degree (vocational to Ph.D.) or certificate (such as EMT).
22. Let employees drive improvements
CASE STUDY: Hydro Flask, Bend, OR
Hydro Flask holds its own kind of holiday two or three times a year: the Better Future Day. Each one features a menu of activities for employees to choose from, all conceived and planned by fellow employees. Recent options have included guided meditations, art workshops, public speaking courses, and SUP sessions. “It could be anything from, ‘It’s time to reorganize our shelves’ to ‘Let’s bring in an expert on a topic like racism and have a difficult discussion,’” says Lucas Alberg, senior manager, PR and brand communications. Continually working on company culture is a bedrock value for Hydro Flask, says Senior HR Generalist Ryan Combellick, “but if it’s something that’s just coming from the top down, it can feel forced.”
Pro tip: Don’t overthink the scheduling, and just do it. “There’s never a good time for this, but it’s imperative that you make it happen,” notes Alberg. “Productivity may be lost that day, but it’s taking one step back and two steps forward for the company.”
23. Encourage clubs
Supporting an employee resource group (ERG), a club dedicated to a particular identity or interest—from working parents to sober employees to members of specific ethnicities or religions—cultivates belonging and community. VF Corp. has put significant resources into its ERGs since 2017.
Do good, feel good: Over and over, employees told us they highly value the chance to incorporate service into their workdays with full company backing.
24. Make the world a better place far away…
CASE STUDY: Superfeet, Ferndale, WA
When this insole brand decides to give back, it goes big. Superfeet donates 1 percent of its profits to charity, including an ongoing public-health service trip to Guatemala to build latrines and rainwater-capture tanks for small rainforest villages. “I wanted our employees to be engaged with the charities we’re working with,” says Director of Outreach and Fit Jeff Gray, who runs the program. “How can we get down on our hands and knees and get dirty and make a difference? It’s about writing the check, then also diving in.” The brand has taken eight to 10 employees on the (fully paid) trip for the past four years, an opportunity that has proven so popular that Gray has to pull names out of a size-17 running shoe to select participants. Superfeet’s commitment to nonprofits builds loyalty and helps attract employees, says Gray: “So many are grateful to be able to work within this culture.”
Pro tip: Got the cash—or the time—to donate? Choose beneficiaries carefully, says Gray. He screened a number of nonprofits before choosing six to support based on how well their core values matched Superfeet’s. “Then you can build that relationship, bond, and do some great work together,” he says.
25. …And closer to home
CASE STUDY: Big Agnes, Steamboat Springs, CO
For a company making gear tailored for use on the trail, volunteer trail maintenance felt like a natural way to live out brand values of land stewardship and community involvement.
So Big Agnes zeroed in on the Continental Divide Trail, which passes within two miles of company HQ, officially adopting the 72 miles from nearby Rabbit Ears Pass to the Wyoming border in 2018. Since then, the brand has organized several trail work days on their section every year. “It’s a cool opportunity to see the owners of the company really caring about our public lands, and [having] the employees be part of that,” says Product Developer Paige Baker. And though the point of the trail work is giving back, it doesn’t hurt brand image with customers, either, says co-owner Len Zanni, who notes that the marketing team produces blog posts and publishes catalog essays about the project.
Pro tip: Scale give-back projects according to your workplace’s size and goals. “Think about what you care about, then figure out what organizations or areas could use your help, and how much help you can lend,” says Zanni. “If you’re a smaller organization, maybe you can put someone on a nonprofit board, or donate money or time.”
Four more ways to make your employees love you
These perks are among those with the biggest impact on workplace culture, says Rodney Evans, host of the “Brave New Work” podcast.
26. Remote work policies that work for all
When the pandemic ends, many will still appreciate the flexibility to work remotely. Evans says the best policies let employees work wherever they’re most productive. Her company, The Ready, traded its office for monthly stipends for home office upgrades, co-working spaces, or rent for optional group offices.
27. Fair profit sharing
Sharing success fosters an environment of collaboration, not competition. Email marketing firm ConvertKit diverts a chunk of its profits to a shared pool that’s distributed to all through a formula that gives a little extra to those with the longest tenure.
28. Employee connection
One easy way to help build connection among virtual workers: Start meetings with a five-minute check-in, prompted with questions like, “What was your weekend highlight?”
29. Self-set salaries
Want employees to really feel they’re being paid what they’re worth? Let them choose their own salaries, like tomato-packing brand Morning Star has done for decades—and make all of them public.
This story originally appeared in the Winter ’21 edition of our print magazine.