Building Company Culture

To woo — and keep — top talent, local businesses are wielding an array of perks and benefits, from unlimited vacation time and free fitness classes to in-office massages

At IAC Applications in Yonkers, shaping a dynamic company culture  is serious business — the company polls its employees regularly to  learn what matters most to them.   

Photo by Stefan Radtke

In today’s workplace, it’s no longer enough to offer only a competitive salary. 

To woo and retain top employees, businesses need to provide more: transparency, a positive environment, a sense of worth and belonging. And yes, often free lunch.

Here in Westchester, employers are learning that a strong company culture is a compelling selling point — and a worthwhile investment. It helps assemble a winning team and can even boost the bottom line.

“Company culture is the personality of a company,”  explains Luba Sydor, founder and CEO of Person2PersonLLC, a White Plains-based consulting and recruiting firm. “It defines the environment in which employees work, including company mission, value, ethics, expectations, and goals.” 

Company culture is crafted through a suite of perks, both traditional and unorthodox, that keep employees happy and successful. And in our county — where small businesses and global corporations alike vie for talent across a range of industries — some seriously creative approaches are unfolding. 

While all company cultures differ, we found a handful of traits are common in Westchester: a dedication to health and wellness; a focus on work/life balance; and an array of miscellaneous perks employees love to brag about, like referral bonuses, gratis fitness classes, and even in-office massages.


Why company culture matters

Daily free lunches keep morale high at Atlantic Westchester in Bedford Hills.

There will always be skeptics: Does a free meal really boost productivity? Does offering that extra week of paid time off truly build morale? But local management experts are quick to dismiss such skepticism. “Companies that focus on company culture create not only a positive work environment, they are also setting themselves up for long-term success,” Sydor explains. Success, she continues, means everything from heightened profitability and reputation to more satisfied customers. 

Laura Persky, the graduate program director at Manhattanville College School of Business, puts it simply: “The happier you can make your employees, the more they want to be at work, and the more productive they’ll be.”

Local managers agree and see company culture as an essential tool to stay competitive in the Lower Hudson Valley.

“We have to be very creative,” says Glenn Shuster, vice president of human resources at Quorum Federal Credit Union, based in Purchase. “We recognize the cost of living in Westchester. [And] if we’re looking for a financial analyst, then so is MasterCard, so is IBM, so are hedge funds and financial-services companies in and around New York.”


A culture of health and wellness

For many Westchester companies — from grocers to technology firms — employee health and wellness is a cornerstone of company culture. It’s common sense: When workers feel good, they perform well.

Persky notes health-and-wellness perks, like office gyms, are especially appealing in areas like Westchester. “Part of the challenge of working in suburban areas is that it’s difficult to get out to other places during business hours,” she says. “So the more services you can bring to your employees, the easier you make their lives.

Wellness is top priority at Stew Leonard’s; employees get discounted fitness classes and a health coach who rotates between locations.  

“When you make your employees feel good, the experience is better not only for you but for all your customers, too,” she adds.

Employee health is a priority at Stew Leonard’s, the family-owned grocery chain with stores spread across the Lower Hudson Valley and Connecticut. The company’s focus on healthy living is hardly a surprise: Its aisles are packed with fresh produce and farm-sourced dairy.

Just about a year and a half ago, the Stew Leonard’s team had an idea: equip its employees with low-cost Fitbits, the gadgets that track — and often motivate — physical exercise. Stew Leonard’s subsidizes the cost, doling out the tech to its workers for just $10. The catch: To hold on to the low-price toy, they must meet a monthly quota of steps.

The program was an immediate success, says Ellen Story, the director of management development at Stew’s who’s been with the company for 30 years.

“We have competitions to encourage employees to remain active,” Story says, including raffles with valuable prizes. A recent competition winner walked away with a paid trip to Disney World, to participate in a 5K race. 

Currently, about 300 employees participate in the program. One of them is Mercedes Aguilar, a hostess in the Yonkers store’s coffee department who has been with Stew Leonard’s for 11 years. “It is a fun activity to do with my coworkers,” she says. “I love the amazing changes in people’s health and hearing stories about how competitive my coworkers have become.” 

“We have competitions to encourage employees to remain active.” 

—Ellen Story, director of management development, Stew Leonard’s

While the Fitbit competition may be the most innovative aspect of the health-conscious company culture, it’s not the only feature. Stew Leonard’s has an on-site nurse and health coach who rotates between locations, providing free sessions to all employees. The company also offers employees mammography screenings, a hiking club, and discounted Zumba classes for $5 each. 

“We have a very active Wellness Committee, which meets regularly to talk about ways to get people more active and focusing on health,” Story says. 

Together, these benefits create an environment where workers want to stay — and even recruit family. “Thirty percent of our team members have a family member working at Stew Leonard’s,” Story says. 

“The culture here at Stew Leonard’s is like a big family,” Aguilar adds. “A lot of us have been working together for a long time.”

Nearby, at IAC Applications — a software company with offices on the Yonkers waterfront — it’s easy for its 250 employees to stay in shape. The company hosts on-site yoga classes and boot camps. And for those workers loyal to a specific gym, the company will help cover monthly membership fees, says Deb Josephs, IAC Applications’ senior vice president of people operations. 

This program and others are part of the company’s strategy to shape the best possible culture. Josephs and others poll employees to learn what values matter most, then work to integrate them within the company fabric. “We’ve come up with a number of themes,” Josephs says. “They primarily include the ability to learn and grow, developing careers in a challenging way and valuing diversity and inclusion in the organization.” 


Respecting work/life balance

A company culture that values employees’ time outside of the office can also be a boon. “We all need to hit the reset button once in a while. People can’t come in early and leave late every single day without getting burned-out at some level,” Sydor explains. Companies that value work/life balance often implement programs like flex hours and parental leave, she adds. 

One local business taking this seriously is Quorum, where Glenn Shuster cites work/life balance as a key component of his company’s culture. It manifests as a company-wide telecommuting program: All 115 employees are able to work from home.

“Different people have different schedules,” Shuster says. “Some people work remotely every day. Some people telecommute one day a week.” The benefits add up for employees: Less time — and money — spent on commuting.

Quorum also has a generous holiday program, which gives employees an additional day to add to those coveted long weekends. “Quorum closes on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, to give employees that extra day to take a four-day weekend,” Shuster explains. 

“It’s not how many hours you’re in the office; it’s the quality of work you get done,” he adds.

Shuster is quick to draw a link between these programs and Quorum’s success. “In the past five years, we’ve just about doubled our asset size,” he says, citing growth from approximately $600 million to nearly $1 billion. 

Its employees are happy, too. “The work/life balance is my favorite thing about Quorum,” says Kevin Dono, the company’s senior director of operations and digital channels. “We work very hard, but I am able to accommodate the demands of family life. We all have a life outside the organization, and sometimes we need to leave a little early or call out sick.”

Another local company rethinking commutes is Atlantic Westchester, a Bedford Hills-based commercial HVAC service-and-maintenance company. Many of its employees are on the road during the workday, meaning that extra hour behind the wheel at the start and end of a day can be especially exhausting. So Bud Hammer, Atlantic’s president, implemented a helpful policy.

“Our field employees drive their service vehicles home, therefore avoiding the necessity to obtain their own vehicle for commuting to work,” he says. 

Atlantic’s office workers are also treated to lunch. “[It] helps build our friendships, and our conversations often lead to laughter,” Hammer explains. It’s all part of a larger strategy: “Several job candidates have expressed an interest in ‘finding a home’ for their work life, and once in, they stay for a long time,” he says. “We enjoy low turnover.”

The ultimate test of a company’s commitment to work/life balance may be its vacation policy. Specifically, how much

At IAC Applications, the answer is “unlimited,” a policy implemented in early 2016. “We compete for talent with the New York City marketplace,” explains Deb Josephs, “and a lot of tech companies have adopted unlimited time-off policies.” 

A fun-loving culture and unlimited vacation (plus free yoga!) help Yonkers-based IAC Applications compete for talent with NYC tech firms.

Josephs says that in just 12 months, the policy has already paid off. “It certainly helps us attract talent,” she says. “[Employees] feel like they’re being treated like adults.” It’s particularly useful in enticing employees whose family and friends live abroad.

It’s a much-appreciated perk. “The company is very responsive to providing an environment for us to take care of ourselves and be with 

our families,” says Jacinta Bowman, IAC Applications’ director of marketing, who joined the company six years ago. “That’s really essential.” 

At Lockard & Wechsler Direct, a marketing agency with offices in Irvington, employees needn’t stress about squandering vacation days on errands and emergencies. 

“Employees don’t have to use PTO [paid time off] for any personal events,” explains Lockard & Wechsler President Asieya Pine, citing doctor appointments, kids’ school functions, and wakes. “We want people to use their PTO for vacations, family fun, and to relax and rejuvenate. We want them to have a work/life balance.”  


When little things add up 

Sometimes the smaller — and unexpected — perks can have an outsized impact.

Local companies offer benefits that don’t directly align with health and free time but keep employees happy nonetheless. Luba Sydor is quick to list some of the more creative ideas she’s come across, including dog-friendly offices, kitchens stocked with free goodies, designated relaxation spaces, and guest speakers. 

Having fun while at the office is part of the work/ life balance approach at Quorum Federal Credit Union.   

At Stew Leonard’s, employees can earn bonuses for recruiting friends and family members. “We have a referral incentive,” Story explains, noting employees earn $100 for referring a family member or friend. “It’s our most successful applicant pool.” Pentegra Retirement Services in White Plains also offers a referral program for employees. “We’ve filled 18 percent of openings [in 2016] with employee referrals,” says Colleen Zanicchi, senior vice president of human resources.

At IAC Applications, workers receive a monthly stipend of about $130 to cover transportation costs. The program, titled WageWorks, can be applied to MetroCards, Metro-North tickets, and even Uber rides. It’s Jacinta Bowman’s favorite perk. “Being able to buy your Metro-North ticket at the expense of the company is nice,” she says. “It’s an amazing benefit to have to get around town.”

IAC also boasts one of the more lavish perks around: in-office massages. Employees are welcome to step away from their desks and into a conference room for a quick shoulder rub. “There’s nothing better than someone rubbing your back and then going back to work,” Bowman says.

Buzz Creators, Inc., a Valhalla public-relations and marketing firm, does something similar for its staff in the form of an annual spa day. “It is only right to take a day to relax and de-stress as a team,” says President Christina Rae. 


The future of company culture

If the business classes at Westchester colleges are any indication, workplaces replete with perks are set to be the new standard. On the Manhattanville campus in Purchase, Persky notes the nuts and bolts of building company culture are baked into the School of Business’ curricula, including in its business leadership, human resources, and marketing courses.

“It’s something we talk about in our classrooms,” Persky explains. “It’s something we’re trying to teach our students.”

She also notes that today’s graduates enter the workforce seeking more than just a nine-to-five gig. “People want to know that they matter. They’re looking for a positive culture and attitude, whether you’re answering the phone or doing paperwork.”

Recently, Persky’s department held a talent-management panel for local businesses, imparting methods for building positive culture. The focus: What can employers do beyond offering money?

The employers — representing a diverse collection of industries, from furniture manufacturing to accounting — listened. 

“They were very interested,” Persky says. 

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Kevin Zawacki is a Westchester-based journalist who writes about technology and business. He is a frequent 914INC. contributor.