As a bootstrapped startup, we started from scratch. People worked long hours, for relatively low wages. I myself didn’t take a salary for over a year.
However, I strongly believe that employees who stick around are those who feel that they are paid fairly and respected, so I knew that this would have to change as soon as the company started to grow.
Therefore, when a little bit of profit started coming in, we tried to prioritize things that matter — fair pay, good work-life balance, great leadership, and organizational transparency.
Because, let’s be real, if you’ve got a stack of bills to pay, a foosball table won’t cut it compared to a decent paycheck.
Then, finally, three years ago we went on a retreat to Barcelona and discussed the growth of the company.
Things were going well. It was going to be a good year – probably our best ever.
We were starting to have the luxury to talk about what we could do with the “extra” cash.
And as I met with the leadership team they asked a straightforward, but powerful question – what’s in it for us?
Why should the team care about the growth of the company, beyond just their own salaries, which had already been increased a few times?
They suggested we create a wish list; a list of ideas that employees had for improving their work situation. Each month, if it was profitable, I would determine how much to set aside for benefits or improvements and check a few things off the wish list.
Here’s what it looked like
As you can see, some things were pretty basic – like tables, chairs, laptops, and monitors.
But others were more substantial and represented monthly commitments, such as a coffee and lunch budget, which the employees had previously been covering themselves.
And as the months went by, we made our way through the list, so that now I can highlight some of the most important benefits we introduced along the way (as well as a few failures).
Employee Benefits Our Team Actually Likes
I read a Harvard Business Review piece that highlighted the top employee benefits:
Great health insurance, flexible hours/remote work options, and more vacation time were mentioned, and wouldn’t you know it, these happen to be some of our team’s top picks.
Health and Wellness Initiatives
Healthcare coverage for full-time employees. In many remote companies like Shortlist, the team is technically a group of freelancers who work and function like a team of employees. But as freelancers, they may not get access to the benefits their country provides.
This was the case at NinjaOutreach, but, seeing as we took a slightly different approach with Shortlist, whereby the majority of the team is from Macedonia, we allowed our team to create a Macedonian company through which they can be fully employed and therefore get access to state benefits such as health insurance and pension insurance.
Fitness and wellness programs. Getting into fitness and wellness is a win-win for everyone: as an employer, I win by keeping staff motivated, while team members gain better physical health and reduced stress levels. We take it a step further – every member of our team enjoys a paid gym membership, and the majority make good use of it regularly! On top of that, a few times a year we do a Fitness Challenge where we break into two teams and compete.
Ivana really enjoys working out, “Our company’s fitness program is a total game-changer. They’re not just promoting fitness; they’re handing out free gym passes, making a statement: “We care about your health, and we want you to thrive here.” It’s making a difference. Stress levels down, mental clarity up. Best part? It’s an investment in our well-being and motivates us to stay healthier.”
Ana, our editor and one of our longest tenured employees writes, “As a self-proclaimed couch potato who occasionally gets the boost to exercise, I really love having the option to go to the gym without having to pay a dime. It encourages me to actually take that next step in my fitness journey. That’s a win in my book.”
Flexible Work Arrangements
The idea behind offering flexible work arrangements was simple: Allowing employees to tweak their hours can contribute to a healthier work-life balance, improved mental health, and overall well-being. The stats back this up – employees who work remotely at least once per month are 24% more likely to feel happy and productive in their roles than those who don’t. Additionally, a whopping 64% of workers claim that hybrid work has improved their physical health.
So, here’s what we’re bringing to the table for our team:
Hybrid work arrangements. Every team member has the choice to work from home on Wednesdays and Fridays (and the majority of them make the most of this opportunity).
Remote work options. People who have been with our company for a longer period of time can temporarily work remotely. We have had people in the office work from countries like Germany and Portugal.
Jana appreciates the flexibility, “Great work arrangement, especially if someone would like to travel somewhere but doesn’t want to take days off work. We all have relatives or friends (or both) living in foreign countries, and we all appreciate the possibility of being able to visit them while enjoying the change of scenery at the same time.”
Professional Development Opportunities
Training programs. This year we experimented with a new course for professional development – the Managing Happiness Club. It’s like an online hub where we show our employees how to use business tricks and strategies in their personal lives. It’s all about helping them kick out those negative patterns and hitting their personal and career goals faster.
What does that mean for us as a company? A team that’s not just happy but healthier and super motivated to drive our business forward.
Martin, our Business Development Manager, sums it up perfectly, “I had a pretty pleasant experience. Personally, I got motivated to start exercising more frequently and read a book that had been sitting on my bookshelf for some time. The habit tracker put pressure on me to become more active in that realm because everybody in our cohort was making an effort with their habits. I hope to maintain these healthy and productive habits in the following year.”
Inclusive Company Culture
Team retreats. I get it – the idea of spending a whole week at a sleepover with your coworkers might sound like a cringe-worthy mix of awkward team-building games. So, when we set up our first team retreat in Bodrum, Turkey back in 2019, we aimed for the perfect blend of work, fun activities, and some chill-out time. It turned out to be a hit, so we went on to plan three more getaways: Barcelona in 2021, Rome in 2022, and, circling back to the ‘scene of the crime’ – Bodrum in 2023.
Team-building activities. When it comes to team-building activities, I always think, “How can we make this not suck?” Well, the trick is getting to know each team member’s interests and vibes. We’ve found our groove with activities like bowling and laser tag, but also mixed it up with cool stuff like Holiday Parties (Christmas Dinner, Secret Santa, and Office Decorations), movie nights at the cinema, and more!
Unlimited Vacation Days
This year, we switched from 15 fixed vacation days to unlimited. Last year, with 15 days, team members took an average of 10. Only 3 of 18 employees took their full share.
This year, with unlimited, we encouraged vacations in our monthly meetings.
On average, people took 16 days off—some even took 27.5! Surprisingly, it worked better than expected to encourage people to feel comfortable actually taking their vacation days.
We’re sticking with unlimited vacations next year, creating a culture where taking time off is a big “yes.” Read more about this employee benefit here.
Free Lunch / Coffee
The average U.S. worker spends around $37 per week on lunch, adding up to nearly $2,000 a year.
Macedonia is considerably cheaper, so, while we’re not a large company, we are able to cover lunch for 3 office days with around $30 per employee per week.
Offering a free meal at the office goes beyond just satisfying hunger; it eliminates a significant distraction. Now, the team doesn’t have to worry about where to eat, whether to dine in or rush through fast food. Instead, they can channel all that energy into their work, boosting productivity along the way.
Employee Benefits That Didn’t Really Take Off
I must say though, not all of my ideas have been successful.
There was this time when inspired by what Google employees get, I introduced massages at the office only to find out that nobody wanted to be touched by a stranger – who knew?
The same thing happened with the MasterClass, which is a subscription service to allow people to take on demand virtual classes.
What this taught me as a leader is that everyone is different, and I can’t assume everyone likes what I like.
So, I started listening more to what my team wants.
And guess what? Thanks to their suggestions, besides the office equipment I mentioned above, we now also have things like a frappe maker, toaster, TV, and even a PS5 in the office!
Benefits can be a slippery slope, because as you introduce more, the expectation is that even more will come.
Last year was a down year, and while we were fortunate enough to be able to maintain our current benefits as well as do a team retreat, not many new things were introduced.
But, it’s clear our current benefits are hitting the mark, and now that they’re already budgeted in, it’s helping us structure the company and expectations around them.
The stories and quotes from our team prove that these perks aren’t just checkboxes – they’re making a real impact on our work lives and they’re here to stay.