Keeping Up With Silicon Valley: Better Benefits, Remote Work

BlackBag Technologies, a small tech firm creating investigative software in San Jose, California, competes against the likes of Apple, Cisco, Facebook and other Silicon Valley giants for talent.

But the 50-employee firm doesn’t have the same name recognition as the big dogs in the tech space. Additionally, its average employee salary is $100,000, less than the $117,000 average offered by employers in San Jose, and it doesn’t boast a flashy office.

“I thought, ‘This isn’t working,’” Cari Graham, director of human resources at BlackBag Technologies, said Thursday at Human Resource Executive’s Health and Benefits Leadership Conference. “There are candidates applying, but the ones who meet my salary range don’t meet my talent requirements. I needed to think outside the box.”

That led to new thinking by Graham and BlackBag in order to find and keep employees, including finding talent outside Silicon Valley, offering remote opportunities and beefing up the firm’s benefits package.

The first step was realizing not every employee needed to work in the company’s offices in San Jose. Not requiring its employees to do so would potentially attract talent that might be scared off by the city’s high cost of living (home averages are more than $1 million, Graham said). Plus, it would give them control over things that make them happy — from work hours to working environment and even the setting of the thermostat.

“I realized we didn’t need to have a developer in San Jose,” she said, explaining that she quickly found potential employees who were looking for flexibility.

“A lot of people are craving work-life balance,” she said, noting BlackBag even has an employee who travels the country and works remotely in an RV. Now, 90% of the company’s employees work from home in 11 states, Graham said.

“It’s been a really good selling point to my candidates,” she said. “And they’re still getting their work done. We don’t have to monitor them and their hours in their office; we have to trust them.”

A competitive benefits package was also vital to the company’s efforts in attracting talent. Though Silicon Valley firms are known for flashy and impressive perks — Facebook, for instance, gives new moms and dads four months of paid parental leave at 100% pay, and Twitter offers 20 weeks of paid parental leave — BlackBag’s major selling point is paying 90%-100% of an employee or family health plan.

It offers three options for medical coverage — a PPO, HMO or high-deductible plan. And for employees who choose the HDHP, BlackBag offers a 100% health savings account contribution — $3,500 for employee-only coverage, and $7,000 for family coverage.

“The family contributions are really big,” says Tiffany McClellan, managing principal at Epic Insurance, who works with Graham on the company’s benefits. “Plus, that HSA money can be extra money for retirement. If a potential employee has multiple offers, [the contribution] might tip someone over to work for BlackBag.”

BlackBag also offers other perks, like time off for volunteering and a day off on employees’ birthdays. It also helps with career development, pairing employees with a mentor who can help them succeed both at the company and in their career in general. It also touts being a small employee as a positive for employees.

“[BlackBag] has fewer employees, so you get more opportunity,” McClellan said. “They get their future skillset faster than [they] would at a bigger firm.”

Those are all efforts to ensure that BlackBag has a company culture that employees love, Graham said. In addition to happy employees, the efforts are paying off in other ways as well: The company hired 30% of its entire workforce last year, and the benefits and remote work were major selling points, Graham said. Current employees have also been referring others to work there.

BlackBag admits it still falls short in comparison to benefits at larger employers, but it is continuing to build out its offerings. Employee mental health and wellness is the company’s next focus, Graham and McClellan said.

“I Iook at each candidate and ask what’s the most important thing to them,” Graham said. “And that’s really helpful for me in terms of helping them get that.”


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