Errand service is trendy perk

Imagine coming to work, logging on to a Web site, inputting your personal to-do list, then having someone else perform the tasks. You could if your employer offered concierge services, one of the latest perks aimed at attracting and retaining high-tech talent.

Companies such as Brooktrout Technologies, Hewlett-Packard, I-Cube, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Motorola and Sun offer their employees so-called "convenience services." Some businesses offer a handful of amenities, such as dry cleaning or meal preparation. Others contract a concierge service provider to handle just about any errand, whether it's shopping for a gift, taking the car to be repaired or planning a family vacation.

High-tech, financial services and management consulting firms are embracing concierge services, says Holly Stiel, a concierge consultant and author in Hill Valley, Calif.

"It's becoming common for any industry that is very competitive and trying to attract the best and the brightest," she says.

Concierge services are new enough that exact figures on how many corporations offer them are difficult to find. Still, evidence suggests that this trend is on the upswing, particularly for high-tech personnel, says Frank Gallo, New England practice leader for strategic rewards for human resources consultancy Watson Wyatt Worldwide in Wellesley, Mass.

Gallo estimates that less than 1% of all U.S. corporations use an outsourced concierge service. Yet he believes that 25% offer at least some convenience benefits.

"If you're looking at the technology industry on the West Coast, it's closer to 90%," he adds.

In fact, some concierge firms are targeting their services at high-tech firms and the IT departments of large corporations. Two such service providers include Circles of Boston and Les Concierges of San Francisco.

"About 50% of our customers are high-tech companies," says Janet Kraus, CEO of Circles. Moreover, the 35-employee start-up has won a few contracts for IT departments. For example, a large financial services firm recently contracted concierge support for its Y2K staff.

And since this perk has already caught on in many tech-oriented businesses, Gallo says companies from other industries will increasingly need to offer more conveniences in order to compete for workers.

"It's clear that money is not the only reason people stay or leave an employer. One big reason is quality of life," Kraus says.

Concierge services boost quality of life by handling mundane chores that hog workers' free time, contends Phil Wexler, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Les Concierges. Part of the pitch is that this perk boosts productivity by limiting the amount of personal business employees conduct during the workday.

The cost of outsourced concierge service is based on the number of employees covered. Circles charges between $40 and $70 per employee, per year. This fee varies depending on factors such as if errand services are offered and if workers will be charged a co-payment, which is usually about $5 per call. In contrast, Les Concierges doesn't charge co-payments and negotiates each contract individually. The firm calculates expected usage by examining employees' demographic information.

Some employees say concierge service is a definite attraction. For Jennifer Zahm-Maguire, an engineer at Sun, it meant help with her wedding details. She needed a location for her rehearsal dinner last month, but wasn't familiar enough with the area to make the reservation herself. Instead of spending part of her workday on the phone researching restaurants, she e-mailed the concierge. Problem solved.

"I typically work 10 hours a day. Concierge services are one of the many that Sun provides and a big part of why I like the culture and stay at Sun. These services are very important to me," she says.

A few reservations

Nevertheless, concierge benefits don't necessarily make a company nurturing. In fact, concierge service could be a guise for an employee-unfriendly company, says Barbara Miller, president of Artemis Consulting, a work/life consultant in Mill Valley, Calif.

"If concierge service is put in place because employees can't leave the workplace, I've got a problem with it," she says. "Employees need to leave the office to be creative, recharge." However, she's all in favor of concierge services for corporate cultures that encourage reasonable hours.

And obviously, concierge services alone don't make a killer retention tool. Measuring use is difficult, and it's impossible to directly correlate use to job satisfaction. Few employees would stay at a company purely because they were helped with their errands.

So says Chris Ledoux, director of IT for Brooktrout in Needham, Mass. "I use the dry cleaning service, and it definitely saves me time. Such conveniences are nice to have but not a reason why I would, or would not, take a job," he says.

That said, at least concierge services can help make life a bit easier for time-starved employees. "Concierge services are one of the few - if not the only - benefit that no one complains about," Les Concierges' Wexler says.

Who could? Your wish is their command.

This story, "Errand service is trendy perk " was originally published by Network World.

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