When a customer walks through the door at Madison Computer Works, there is a chance they will be greeted by Tanner, the friendly canine of business owner Brian Lisse.

The mixed-breed Tanner is a regular at the business, much like Lisse’s 15 employees. He occasionally is joined by Audrey, a terrier mix owned by Daniella Lisse, Brian’s daughter who also works for the company.

“It’s something the business always has allowed,” Brian Lisse said of permitting employees to bring their dogs to work, so long as they’re well behaved and don’t disrupt the work day. “Our employees have appreciated it and customers love it.”

And for the occasional dog-phobic customer, any canines in the building are herded into an office but then are allowed to roam freely once that customer leaves.

Bringing pets to work is one of many unusual benefits offered by some Madison-area companies.

At Dodgeville-based Lands’ End, one perk provided to its employees for several years is its Dinner-to-Go, which offers prepared meals for employees to bring home. UnityPoint Health-Meriter for three years has offered free watercraft rentals to its employees through Brittingham Boats at Brittingham Park in Madison.

In a highly competitive labor market, sometimes a company’s perks can be an effective tool to retain employees and recruit new talent.

“Benefits in general are increasingly important, and many individuals these days look at benefits as more important than base pay in some situations,” said Mary Lynn Fayoumi, CEO of the Illinois-based Management Association—The HR Source for Employers.

It isn’t uncommon today for businesses to offer employees reimbursement for mobile devices including cellular phones, tablets and laptops, Fayoumi said.

And sometimes the perks viewed as the best by some workers have no impact to the bottom line.

“Allowing casual attire in the workplace is highly desirable, especially among young people,” Fayoumi said. “Giving people flexibility to work remotely or from home also has grown increasingly popular the past decade.”

Tech’s influence

The technology hub of Silicon Valley can be credited for some perks offered by businesses today.

Fayoumi said with tech companies regularly competing for young talent, they had to offer non-traditional benefits, including down time at work to play video games to recharge and access to unlimited snacks.

“The tech firms provided rec rooms with foosball and pingpong tables, unlimited food and catered lunches, anything that might give them a slight advantage over their competition,” she said.

Some organizations offer benefits with a theme based on their specific industry. A majority of the employee benefits offered by UnityPoint Health-Meriter are focused on the health and well-being of employees, said Megan Matuszeski, Meriter’s wellness coordinator.

“I would say the (standard) benefits we offer to employees are no different than what other organizations provide, but our hope is that we can attract quality employees who have a focus on health and wellness, and as a health care organization that is important to us,” Matuszeski said.

UnityPoint Health- Meriter employees through its wellness program have access to programs including borrow-a-bike, on-site fitness classes and programs such as yoga and couch to 5K and healthy cooking courses.

Matuszeski said the free rentals at Brittingham Boats is the most talked-about perk among Meriter employees. The company covered 900 rentals of stand-up paddleboard or kayaks in 2016. Meriter in June typically schedules a “learn night” for employees who want to try a paddleboard or kayak for the first time.

“Water sports are fun but not everyone is comfortable with it, so during the learn night, it gives our employees the chance to learn or try something new,” Matuszeski said.

Encouraging good health among employees also is practiced at Lands’ End.

In 1988, Lands’ End founder Gary Comer built for the company the Comer Center, an 80,000-square-foot fitness facility with a 25-meter indoor swimming pool, a 1⁄8-mile indoor track, gymnasium, wellness lab and fitness studio. Lands’ End employees also can use the tennis and basketball courts, a sand volleyball court, a half-mile walking trail and baseball diamond on company grounds.

“For years, the Comer Center offered a wide range of recreational activities to keep families active through routine exercise,” said Michele Casper, spokeswoman for Lands’ End.

That recreational emphasis is still important today but with health insurance costs escalating, the various resources and health experts available to Lands’ End employees plays an important role in promoting healthy lifestyles, she said.

With the opening of a pilot medical clinic in 2003, Lands’ End began targeting health improvement strategies, focusing on diabetes, muscular/skeletal health, mental health, weight management, high-risk cardiovascular and company health screenings, Casper said. Employees also have access to a registered dietitian and physical therapists on-site 40 hours a week.

Both sides benefit

Fayoumi of the Management Association said every business wants productive, healthy and happy employees. That begins by creating a favorable work environment.

“Businesses want workers who are engaged in what they’re doing,” she said. “Companies aren’t just hoping for retention, they’re hoping what they do and provide for their employees leads to positive morale, which can lead to being a good corporate citizen.”

Matuszeski said having workers with good attitudes translates to good service.

“Healthy and happy employees can give us a leg up in terms of how they handle patient interactions,” she said. “Positive patient success stories create a healthier organization and culture.”

Happy employees also can be effective recruiters for their companies, Fayoumi said.

“Happy employees are more likely to lead to positive referrals,” she said. “Hopefully happy employees also will be productive and will be good ambassadors for their company.”

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Larry Avila is a business reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.