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Cool Perks! What Pittsburgh Companies are Offering to Lure Top Talent







A ping-pong table cozies up to a player piano which is near a stand of clinking, clanging carnival games.  Across the way, an expansive lounge features a flat-screen TV with Xbox and Play Station 3; movies are featured midday as well as late into the night. Is this a private party space? A LoLa lounge?  Nope, you're at Schell Games on the South Side, a studio that specializes in social games for Facebook and smart phones, especially those that appeal to kids and families.

"You could say it's like a theme park here," says Jake Witherell, COO. His company, along with many others in the Pittsburgh area, is getting ever more creative with employee benefits in an effort to lure top talent.

Safe to say this ain't your grandfather's gold watch.

"We have a birthday system at the company that's like Secret Santa," continues Witherell.  "You're assigned someone randomly, you figure out what they want and we pick up the tab.  And then there's mini-fridges for anyone who wants one solves the problem of the communal fridge.  Our desks are robotic they move up and down so you can work standing or sitting.  We have book clubs, game nights, EatBrains..."

You don't know what to expect from the crew that designed the "Toy Story Mania" TV game and is now working on "Battleball" with Mark Cuban.

"It's lots of different small things that feed into our culture," notes Witherell.

Over at Showclix, the online ticketing service, an entire lobby wall is lined with plexiglass cylinders dispensing Froot Loops, Reese's Puffs, Fruity Pebbles and Special K Chocolate Delite, among others. Milk's in the fridge and employees have personalized bowls in the cupboard.  

The gang can also jam out on Rock Band or pick up a guitar and sing (BizDev Manager Melinda Colaizzi is a professional musician) while a theater-worthy popcorn machine stands sentinel for late-night munchies.

"This is an early-stage company," says President and co-founder Lynsie Campbell.  "The team puts in long hours so we need to have enough food in the office to keep them going." Must be working no one has resigned since the company was formed in 2007.

ThoughtForm
benefits from its location on the Three Rivers Heritage Trail on the South Side, part of the Great Allegheny Passage that wends its way to Washington, D.C.  Many employees choose to bike to work, including marketing manager and local bike enthusiast Jonathan Hill while others, like Renee Segar, take their work outdoors to a deck that overlooks the Mon River.

"I get to see boats going by, dogs, families...if the weather's nice, people joke about finding me in my office outside," laughs Segar. Or biking during lunch hour, followed by refreshments from the soda bar in the modern design of the communal area inside. There's a full service kitchen and dogs can come to work, too.

And how's this for a lifesaving perk? The O'Brien Family Center at PNC provides backup day care when an employee's primary care provider is unavailable.  Up to 70 kids from ages 3 months to 12 years can spend the day in a colorful space filled with toys, games and educational prompts incorporated into discrete areas for kids ranging from infants to school-age.

No fear that big kids will find the facility too babyish:  they can hang in The Lounge, with its softer lighting, TV, electric guitars and pod-style seating.  

The employee cafeteria at PNC is another sought-after perk, with healthy food that includes a delectable crab cake lunch (301 calories) and a top notch salad bar (with salmon), a Bento soup bar with mix and match noodles and ingredients, and grill and various food stations that offer an array of items that change daily.

Highmark is also on the healthy living bandwagon and, as one would expect, has its own eat-well cafeteria with meals priced at or below market rate.  The insurer's corporate gym across the street from Fifth Avenue Place makes personal trainers available to employees. And if that kink in your neck won't go away, stop in at the Health Center @Hand for a physician consult, ongoing physical therapy or meds from the in-house pharmacy.

Athletes appreciate Dick's corporate headquarters in Moon Township, where the sports retailer opened its employee-only DSG Health Club last year.  A cardio zone is filled with row after row of ellipticals, treadmills and arc trainers, the latter simulating a skiing motion at various levels of resistance.  

Strength training equipment includes 15 Life Fitness machines worthy of Goliath and more free weights than you can count (or lift).  Four full-time staff and two interns are certified trainers and know their way around the regulation-size basketball court (digital scoreboard included), a 20-bike Spinning room and three racquetball courts where you can even play Walleyball, or volleyball.  

Heavy Kettlebells which look like mini-teapots are painted in saccharine colors that dare you to take on a 45-minute weightlifting class.. Gotta have game to work at Dick's.

More local employers are playing to their strengths, including the Fairmont Pittsburgh, which offers discounted hotel rates at sister properties around the world as well as a free employee cafeteria where the cooking is done by chefs from Habitat, the hotel's signature restaurant.  

Carnegie Mellon University offers tuition benefits to faculty, staff and dependents with employees eligible for two classes per semester free of charge.  Those who have been with the university for five years can send their kids to CMU tuition-free if they get admitted.  A rejection letter from CMU doesn't spell the end, however, since the university offers grants up to $6K toward tuition elsewhere.

Bringing it all full circle is Google, which has redefined what employee benefits look like.  At the company's Bakery Square campus, you can spend 20% of your time working on projects of your own choosing (killer app SkyMat for Android was developed this way) and if you walk, bike or kayak to work, the company's Self-Powered Commuting program donates to the charity of your choice.  

You can geek out inside a giant hammock high above your peers, get a chair massage twice weekly, hang out in the music room, game room or library (dark leather chairs and stacks to the rafters) or be part of the SciFi book club, among other self-organized experiences.

"Anything that encourages cross-team interaction is what we're about," says administrative assistant Cathy Serventi.  "You get those 'super water-cooler moments' when you sit in less formal environments and just talk."

Perhaps the best place to sit and mingle at Google is the employee cafeteria, where Chef Lee Keener makes healthy eating a pleasure.  On a recent visit, a light-as-air tomato-fennel soup with blood orange primed the palate for fresh mozzarella and spinach-stuffed portobella mushrooms alongside a pepper-crusted petite tender (filet) with house-cured maple bacon and micro arugula on a flax seed bun.

"I get the meat from Logan Family Farms in Irwin," beams Chef Keener.  "In the summer, everything comes from within 125 miles."

Serventi does her best to put this embarrassment of riches into perspective.  "People don't come to work at Google for the free lunch.  They're here because they want to work on interesting problems with other folks working on interesting problems.  That's the perk itself."

If you say so, Cathy.

New Girl In Town Elaine Labalme says working from home is a benefit unto itself can you say pj's at noon?

Captions, from the top: Jake Witherell (Schell Games); ping pong at Schell Games; T.V. at ShowClix; Jonathan Hill (ThoughtForm); PNC's O'Brien Center; Google.

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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