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Think about it: The benefit of encouraging your employees to get outside

The Outdoor Industries Women's Coalition asks outdoor employees if they are getting enough time from work to spend outdoors. Read on for details in OIWC's exclusive monthly column to SNEWS.

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It shouldn’t come as a surprise that people working in active industries want to get outside as much as their customers do. Nearly 100 percent of participants in the Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition’s 2008 Satisfaction Survey indicated that it is very important to them to work in an industry where their job relates to an activity or cause they are passionate about. And it’s good news that more than 75 percent of those surveyed said their employers did a good job executing that goal.

According to the survey, outdoor employers score well in delivering the gear discounts and flexible work schedules employees want. Employers could help their employees meet their adventure goals by increasing paid vacation time, sabbaticals and travel opportunities, respondents said.

Though 80 percent of those surveyed said paid vacation was an important part of their compensation, only 32 percent were satisfied with the amount of vacation offered. And only half of the respondents said their company benefits include a sabbatical. Opportunities to travel to interesting places for work is an important benefit to nearly 80 percent of respondents, though of that group 54 percent indicated that their employers met this need.

To the employer and employee’s advantage, employees who have adequate flexibility in time and resources to live and breathe the sport, product or cause they advocate for from nine-to-five will have experiences that increase their contribution to the organization.

In 2011, Recreation Equipment Inc. was ranked number nine on FORTUNE magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list. The backbone of that high ranking is the company’s mission to provide its employees with more time outdoors. Below are some of the ways REI is accomplishing the goal.

Being flexible at work

REI employees have a great deal of freedom to work around their active lives through a flexible work program. In stores, REI offers flexible work schedules with day, evening and weekend shifts. This means employees can tailor their schedule as they like, as long as it works for the team.

At headquarters, the Customized Work Environment (CWE) program means each employee can work with his or her manager to decide what work method and location is best. Intentionally, CWE isn’t a “cookie-cutter” process. It starts with a simple conversation with a manager—there’s no application and no set hours, schedules or days on which employees are expected to be at the office. In other words, CWE is completely customized to the needs of the individual and the team.

Knowing the gear

It’s common for companies to give their employees gear discounts, and REI is no different. Providing discounts on the gear REI sells motivates employees to get outside and try new activities while enhancing product knowledge. Here’s how it works:

  • Employees and their spouses get a 30-percent discount on of all products REI sells (including REI Adventures trips). That deal becomes a lifetime discount after 25 years of employment with REI.
  • Employees receive ProDeal discounts of 50 percent on REI-brand products; twice a year, featured REI-brand products are even more deeply discounted as a Mega ProDeal.
  • Participating outdoor brands discount their products further on the employee-only ProDeal website.
  • Employees can rent gear for free and participate in gear testing as volunteers.

REI also helps employees achieve their own personal outdoor goals through the Employee Challenge Grant program. REI employees can apply for up to $300 in REI or Novara-brand gear to support a personal outdoor challenge that results in improved product knowledge and increased outdoor recreation experience.

Employees have used the grant to complete personal challenges such as international mountaineering expeditions, bike commuting and winter camping. In 2010, REI awarded 115 grants to its employees, 97 percent of which were from REI retail stores.

Leigh Knudsen, an REI employee at the Bailey’s Crossroads, Virginia store, was awarded a challenge grant for a week-long white water kayaking trip down 226 miles of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. The grant provided her with an REI Halo sleeping bag, which she said kept her warm and was compressible enough to fit in her small boat with other important gear essentials.

Knudsen is a graduate student who has been kayaking for 17 years and working at REI for two. “It was an incredible journey for me,” she said. “Thank you, REI, for enabling me to go on this trip and helping me get the gear which made paddling through the Grand Canyon safer and more fun.”

According to Kristen Ragain, REI’s Employee Challenge Grant administrator, “The Challenge Grant program is a great opportunity to invest in REI employee professional development. With increased outdoor recreation experience and improved product knowledge, REI employees are able to better outfit REI members and customers for a lifetime of outdoor adventure.”

Taking time off

REI’s desire to get employees outside also motivates its paid time off program. Employees who work as little as 20 hours per week accrue vacation time based on the number of hours they work and their years of service. In the first year, full-time employees accrue 11 vacation days. Their time off increases based on their tenure with a maximum of 21 days per year.

Krysia Hepatica, an REI retail employee who works at the Ann Arbor, Mich., store, has taken advantage of the company’s vacation plan to spend time with her kids outside. She recently took her two children on a 10-day rock climbing trip to Wyoming with gear subsidized with her employee discount and enough vacation days to cover it all without taking time off without pay.

“It was their first road trip out west and their first outdoor rock climbing experience. There is no way I could pull that off without the support of REI,” said Hepatica, a single mom who has been at REI for three years. “REI wants you to have a life, and they realize employees are happier when they get to pursue their passion. They come back to work happier and able to provide even better customer service.”

After 15 years of service, all REI employees are eligible for a paid sabbatical, a rare benefit in the retail industry. It’s four weeks of paid time off that increases to five after 20 years of service and six for 25 years of service. An average of 160 REI employees are eligible for sabbatical each year.

This year, REI’s president and CEO Sally Jewell celebrated 15 years at the co-op by climbing Mt. Vinson, the highest mountain in Antarctica. She then joined her husband in Argentina and Chile for an REI Adventures trip.

“Our co-op is a special place, with values that enable us to deepen our connection to nature,” Jewell said. “I will forever be grateful to REI for giving me this opportunity and to my leadership colleagues for doing my job while I was away.”

Whether you’re a large or small company in the outdoor industry, working with your employees to make sure they get their desired time outdoors can only strengthen their commitment, happiness and expertise toward your organization.

–Elizabeth O. Hurst

Stay tuned for monthly columns from the Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition featuring companies big and small, with examples of how they successfully implemented work/life balance programs for their employees. If your company has a program you are proud of, email to be featured in an OIWC SNEWS column.