Fun employee perk for distributed teams: The Sipscription

At a recent job, I was solely responsible for Total Rewards which included designing and maintaining all employee perks. As a self-proclaimed people-first organization, we poured a lot into the employee experience. I helped institute a wide array of perks and benefits, many of which were typical such as a 401k plan and free access to learning resources. But some perks were unique to our company, including the Sipscription.

Why

The idea for this particular perk was born out of some conversations and reflections I had early on in my tenure as Director of Operations. Some questions I mulled over at the time included:

  • How can we become closer as a team? We were scattered across the globe and only saw each other a couple times per year at the most. I wanted to find more ways for us to connect with one another. I wanted to create “shared experiences” which could bring people together.
  • How can I improve employee retention? Average employee tenure was effectively a KPI assigned to me by our founder and thus I was burdened with crafting a workplace which people would want to stick with long term.
  • How can I compete with bigger, better funded companies? As a revenue funded software company playing the role of the tortoise in a race with VC-backed hares, there was no way we could dream of competing for talent based on pay alone. We could afford to pay fair market rates but needed to find more creative ways to attract and retain great people than just throwing more money at them.
  • How can I help us establish an identity and define our culture? What did we have that was unique which we could lean into? I definitely took stock of our qualities which were less commonplace and ruminated on ways to bring those which were appealing to the forefront.

What

Brief digression: Good heavens, I think this preamble is potentially misleading. I certainly didn’t meditate on all those issues and then think I was going to solve all of them by shipping beverages to the team. I’m interjecting early to emphasize the fact that I came up with an entire strategy for developing a positive employee experience and company culture with dozens of elements. The Sipscription perk was one very, very, very small part of that strategy. But it does kind of capture the essence of what I was trying to do which is why I’m bothering to write about it.

Back to what I came up with…

I researched lots and lots of benefits packages at other distributed tech companies and came up with many great ideas, some of which I did implement eventually. But I was struck by how many perks ultimately appealed to only a select group of employees. I really wanted to find perks which all, or at least most of our team could enjoy.

Some inspiration came from the fact that there was already a strong craft beer loving contingent on the team. Our founder actually co-founded a micro-brewery (which is very good) so fine beer was a big part of our team culture. Meetups never failed to include craft and home brew sampling.

I eventually came up with the idea of shipping beer to the team on a routine basis. Some research uncovered a few different companies who offer “Beer of the month club” subscriptions which seemed like a great fit. I decided to broaden the perk to include wine and coffee so that we could ultimately offer something for nearly everyone. Every person I know drinks so offering a few popular beverage types sounded like a perk which would have a high rate of utilization.

How

I reached out to MonthlyClubs.com and got connected with sales rep Michael Stringer. That guy was is amazing. Michael hooked me up. He worked very carefully with me to figure out a system for organizing our team, making our product selections, billing, shipping alerts, making changes, and everything else related to this perk. We had so many calls and email exchanges over the couple years of working together on this.

I worked with a lot of different vendors while running operations and Michael Stringer remains my all time favorite. I love that guy and highly recommend working with him if you get a chance. This perk would very likely have been too complex to implement and maintain without his help which went way above the call of duty. I am still thankful for all his work and genuinely miss getting to talk with him!

Michael set me up with beer and wine subscriptions for our US based team. For everyone in other countries who wanted beer or wine, which was only a couple more in the end, I had to find local subscription providers. I found some in New Zealand which were easy to work with and some in Europe as well.

For those choosing coffee, I found a great company based in Amsterdam which was able to ship to quite a few countries. They were also extremely accommodating and we worked out a pretty simple system for managing my subscribed colleagues.

Finally, I came up with the “Sipscription” name and announced the perk to the team. I asked every person to communicate their beverage preference (beer, wine, or coffee) to me. In terms of cost, I ended up budgeting roughly $25/month per employee. Some packages costed more than others so as necessary I adjusted their shipment frequency so that it averaged close to $25/month over the course of the year.

Results

Overall, it was a popular perk. I kept track of utilization for more than a dozen different benefits. The Sipscription perk had the highest rate of utilization for opt-in benefits. That’s a higher rate than our 401k match, health insurance, our annual equipment allowance, and more.

The fact that almost everyone opted in meant that it did become a “shared experience” of sorts. Every shipment included the same contents for each recipient meaning all recipients of one beverage type received the same thing that their colleagues did. Employees were able to ask “What did you think of this month’s coffee?” or “did you try that scotch ale yet? It’s great!” On some occasions we even had some Zoom calls where we sampled our shipments together.

Given the fact that we were already craft beer enthusiasts, this reinforced a popular aspect of our team culture and helped make the experience just a little bit more distinct which was an important goal of mine.

In retrospect, I consider the perk quite successful and would definitely consider it again. It was appreciated by the team and didn’t actually cost very much at all.

One of the most interesting things that I observed was just how frequently it came up in conversations about the company. I certainly don’t think it was any kind of big deal but it was referenced often. If I asked an employee about things they valued, they often mentioned the Sipscription perk. I heard it mentioned in a number of interviews with candidates who read about it on our job postings.

The lesson I’ve taken away from this isn’t that this particular perk is special, more that getting creative with perks AND branding them, really does work wonders. “Sipscription” proved to be a catchy title and it was a perk no one else offered so it stood out. Without question, health insurance and retirement savings and PTO are a thousand times more important…but there is actually a lot of value to be gleaned from instituting unique perks.

I’d love to hear from other employers who’ve had experience implementing perks and benefits which are a bit out of the ordinary and what you learned from that. Please feel welcome to share so we can all learn together!

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