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Can metro Detroit plug the brain drain with employee perks?

The Rec Room at Gongos Inc-Auburn Hills

Foosball in The Rec Room at Gongos

Pool Break at Gongos Inc 2

Table Tennis in the Rec Room

Gongos CEO and President Camille Nicita's Office

Company Meeting At Gongos Inc

Foosball at Gongos Inc

Company Wide Meeting

Breakout Session at Gongos Inc

Small Meeting at Gongos Inc


Meeting Space at Gongos Inc Auburn Hills

A Mental Break at Gongos Inc

Pool Break at Gongos Inc

Gongos Inc Family Tree

Meeting Space at Gongos Inc

New Team Member at Gongos Inc

Stand Up Desks at Gongos Inc

Bagels Before Gongos Inc Meeting

Businesses in Southeast Michigan are trying to reverse the new economy brain drain by enhancing their appeal to lure and retain the best talent. But they still lag behind industry leaders like Yahoo, Facebook and Google who typify the innovative edge of employee work life enhancements – even without the geographic leg-up of coastal hotspots.

Companies in metro Detroit employ two approaches to perks, "the Google/Quicken Loans approach, which is to surround everyone with amenities and services and fun and color, but work them to death. The other option is to go a little lighter on some of the visible amenities, but focus on flexibility of work/life balance and work when you want to," says Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber.

In some cases, companies will design a hybrid of the two, and in other cases, such as utilities, they follow a more traditional, regimented model. 

"You see it tied to who their target audience is... The companies that are more dependent on young, fresh out of grad school talent really have to lean more heavily to the new directions in order to attract talent." Many large firms with traditional-looking office spaces are adopting innovative work environments, he adds. "They're so dependent on young bright talent that they have been forced to really be the leading edge of this new style of working."

However, more regulated industries, such as utilities, are limited in their flexibility. "With utilities, there's one way of doing things for safety purposes and for regulator purposes. It's really important that they have a highly regimented environment and the average tenure of an employee is very long. A highly regulated industry is far more likely to have a much more traditional work environment. 

"If you're running a nuclear plant, you're not going to have a ping pong table in the middle of the nuclear control center. You can't pick your hours. You can't decide today I'm not going to be at the nuclear control panel at 10 o'clock in the morning because I want to sleep in. It's highly regimented for all the right purposes."

Career counseling and mentorship

Yeo & Yeo, a Michigan accounting firm with offices in Ann Arbor, Auburn Hills and Southgate, recruits actively from recent graduates and creates a rapid progression in career growth. The company realizes that the new work force has expectations, and that the region still isn't as desirable as others in the country.

New employees become "part of the team just as quickly as other firms, but the work that they're being delegated is a greater depth of work, not as repetitive," says Kymberly Hess, director of Human Resources at Yeo & Yeo. The firm invests heavily on internal training, professional development and formal mentoring, including a CPA certification bonus program. They stress collaboration across work units. "It takes a little of the entrepreneurial  spirit  to work here. The growth cycles are greater than a larger firm."

Yeo & Yeo has been named one of the region's "Best and Brightest Companies to Work For" by the Michigan Business & Professional Association, for its employee training and development programs.

Virtual offices and tokens of appreciation

Epitec, a professional staffing company, has also been honored by the competition in the recruitment and retention category. Epitec's challenge is recruiting and retaining a nomadic workforce of higher paying professions: engineers, information technologists, architects. They may be with the firm for only one assignment, then move to another company. The Southfield-based company does its best to retain talent through a "Favorite Employee Experience."

"We're constantly attracting and attempting to retain people, at least until they complete their assignment," says Mark Ruma, chief operating officer of Epitec. For the roving freelancer, "we try to make this one of their favorite stops, in terms of their employee experience. We retain people because we engage them throughout the year."

The Favorite Employee Experience is a structured recognition program incorporating "touch points" that may be as simple as a handwritten birthday card, a pizza delivered to their workplace, an after-work "Beer Break," or, for the high achievers, "President's Club" incentive trips. "These programs are relevant because they facilitate a deeper relationship with our employees, allowing us to connect, engage, re-connect, re-engage." 

Ruma says that employee surveys indicate that the strategy works. The best indicator is when the better employees "circle back" looking for new assignments with the firm.

"Our people like unexpected treats. These aren't the kind of perks that Google and Yahoo would have. These are the things we can do to set Epitec apart from other staffing companies. We're very mindful of it."

Epitec has also instituted a virtual office environment to serve its decentralized workforce. "Our employees have the flexibility to 'office' from anywhere. Internal systems are available on all major devices including cell phones, tablets, computers, and display devices," says Ruma. "The work day is no longer 8-5. Sometimes work is done early in the morning, or late in the evening. With remote access, our employees are available to be highly productive and can also enjoy their time alone, with friends or with family."

Last year, Yeo & Yeo established an employee wellness program which is linked to cost-saving incentives on health insurance plans. The company provides flu shots in the office, educational programs on chronic disease, health risk assessments, lifestyle measurement, and a fitness/lifestyle prescription. 

"It's individualized and confidential," Hess says. "Each of us get a recommendation. It focuses on those areas that are relevant to each individual." The program has 97 percent participation rate. "Most companies don't have that high of participation rate... We have a very educated staff. Once information is in their hands, they are quick to see the value."

Social workspaces and causes

For creative companies like Auburn Hills-based Gongos, whose employee base is skewed to millennials, work-life innovation is critical to retaining talent. A centerpiece of the research firm's benefit program is "Up North," a large space with a half-size basketball court, pool table, ping-pong table, Xbox, and other leisure games. Employees are encouraged to use the space for recreation and socializing. The latter is a corporate value, tied in part to meeting the needs of Millennials who want a social work environment, and to create cultural cohesion.

Millennials "don't necessarily care where they get the work done," says Chris Carmean, director of People Engagement at Gongos. "To them, they can get it done anywhere. When you deal with Baby Boomers, they feel you need to be in the office. What has been such a pleasant surprise for us is that it's been embraced not only by Millennials but by some of the older generations we have here. It has turned into a retention tool."  

Gongos designs perks not just as enticements but measures their effectiveness on retention through employee surveys and customer feedback. Carmean says Gongos has a higher retention rate for its employees, compared with other research firms, especially considering the young workforce.

Millennials also want a strong company charity program, she says. Gongos established an employee "gift committee," which allows employees to determine priorities for supporting social causes.

Gongos also has redefined its definition of worksite. While it places a high value on intra-organizational collaboration, Gongos also allows employees to telework one day a week from home and has employees telecommuting from nine states.

Southeast Michigan remains a tough sell for recruiting talent, but Hess says things are improving. "Location does play a huge part in the lives of the candidates we bring on." In their case, however, the candidate more likely to join Yeo & Yeo is from Michigan. "We're recruiting top CPAs, leaders in their class, but they're the ones who want to stay around here." She admits that the firm loses some of its talent to competitors outside of Michigan.

Recruitment is improving in the region, but slowly. "Michigan as a whole is still not importing the talent we need from outside places: from immigration, not just international immigration but in-country immigration," says Baruah. "We're retaining the national average of college graduates...but we're not doing a good enough job attracting non-Michiganders to the state for work opportunities."

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer and regular contributor to metromode and Model D.

All Photos by David Lewinski Photography
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