Work Perk: 'Concierge' to Wait for Cable Guy

Like many Americans, Chicago consultant George Trojack used to exhaust his lunch hours doing personal errands - mailing packages, getting his car fixed, or buying a gift.

Now, the Andersen Consulting manager lets the company "concierge" do the chores while he enjoys a salad at a nearby deli.

"It's immeasurable the things that come up between 9 and 5," says Mr. Trojack, who clocks between 50 and 60 hours a week. Having an in-house concierge, he says, "takes the stress off."

In an era of time-strapped, two-income families, more companies are offering concierge services - everything from dry-cleaning pickup to oil changes - as a way to pamper employees, reduce turnover, and boost productivity.

While some workplace consultants warn these "convenience benefits" are a substitute for wage hikes and a way for corporations to get more work out of their employees, most workers, like Trojack, praise the service.

One morning, his wife locked herself out of her office several miles away. The concierge delivered her a spare key. Through the service, Trojack even landed tickets to a taping of the Oprah Winfrey Show for his aunt's upcoming visit.

Time, it seems, is the BMW of the 1990s; working Americans are forever looking for ways to get it. And waiting at home for the cable man to show isn't a prized activity for most workers. Corporations are responding with a variety of benefits, such as flexible work schedules and telecommuting. Executives reason that a service that frees up personal time for leisure will in turn improve productivity and company loyalty. It's important that "people focus on the job at hand and not sit at the office stressing out because these things aren't attended to," says Andrea Arena, president of Atlanta-based 2 Places at 1 Time, a personal errand service.

So far, concierge services have spread most rapidly in Fortune 500 firms. Many provide only a smattering of services, such as dry cleaning pick up and weekly oil changes in the company parking lot. A few, however, offer a full-service, on-site set up. For example:

*Employees at Aetna Insurance Company in Hartford, Conn., who are too tired to cook dinner can order a meal for four at the company's cafeteria.

*Credit-card issuer MBNA America Bank NA in Newark, Del., provides an on-site barber shop, travel agency, newsstand, and bank.

*And Enron Service Corp. offers the 3,000 employees at its Houston headquarters a full-blown concierge service.

While only a handful of companies have taken to the concept, those in the industry expect more firms to come on board. "It's one of those things that will be fairly common in the next few years," says David Lima, chairman of BurCorp At Your Service, a Cincinnati-based firm that sets up and facilitates concierge benefits for companies.

BurCorp (which stands for Best Upon Request) runs the concierge service at Andersen Consulting's Chicago office. There, BurCorp has several "personal-service agents" and "runners" who are on-hand to perform a myriad of tasks: shopping for gifts, planning parties, watering house plants, even sightseeing with those unexpected out-of-town guests.

"We do everything that's legal," Mr. Lima quips, though BurCorp won't transport children or pets for liability reasons. His agency has had some unusual requests. "We arranged for 40 pink flamingoes on someone's front lawn for a morning birthday surprise," he says chuckling. He also remembers one client who arrived at work wearing one blue pump and one black. She had several presentations to make that day, so she had a concierge drive to her home, rummage through her closet, and retrieve the mate.

On average, about 60 percent of the 1,800 workers at Andersen's Chicago office use the service, says Anne Bronson, a human resources manager. Most of these services are heavily subsidized by the companies. Employees typically pay $5 to $10 an hour for each service and are billed through monthly payroll deductions. The company's annual costs vary depending on the size of the concierge service staff and the number of employees who use the service, but estimates range upward from $50,000 a year.

Bronson estimates that each errand performed saves a worker about one hour. But she contends that the purpose of a concierge service is not to keep workers chained to their desks. "The goal is not to make people more productive so that they can spend more time at work," she says. "The goal is to help people be more productive while they are at work."

But Barney Olmstead, co-director of New Ways to Work, a San Francisco-based firm that lobbies for flexible work schedules, argues that convenience benefits break down the barrier between work and personal time, something she says people need.

"Of course its nice to have your dry cleaning picked up, but it's a means of keeping people at their desks," Ms. Olmstead says. "There is so much of a push these days to keep workers longer at their desks, in meetings, and at work."

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