In listing the benefits of working at Acuity, a relatively small midwestern insurance firm with 1,500 employees, CEO Ben Salzmann sounds less like an executive and more like some kind of benevolent adult daycare provider. “We give out a lot of chocolate,” says Salzmann, 64. “Our employees get chocolate at least once every two weeks.” Then there’s the 40-foot climbing wall at the company’s Sheboygan, Wisconsin headquarters—not to mention the carnival-sized indoor ferris wheel.
After more than a year of working from home, Acuity’s employees may be missing their climbing wall and ferris wheel, but they’re still getting gourmet chocolate sent to their homes. As workers across the country and the world deal with COVID-19-related burnout, that little gesture may be a tiny reason why, in an Oct. 2020 Glassdoor ranking of the best employers for work-life balance during the pandemic, Acuity came in at number one, beating out powerhouse technology firms like Zoom and Slack.
Of course, it’s taken more than a little chocolate for Acuity and Salzmann to get that kind of response from Acuity’s employees. Workers have also received a $100 gift card every month since work-from-home life began, which can help cover smaller pandemic-related expenses. They can also choose which hours they work—making it easier for working parents to manage their kids’ Zoom school time, for instance—or work extra hours earlier in the week and take Friday off to spend more time with family or just relax. Some of Acuity’s most striking benefits precede the pandemic but nonetheless boost workers’ sense of stability in this uncertain time, like the mind-boggling 10.5% 401(k) employer contribution it offers, no match required.
In speaking with Salzmann, it quickly becomes clear he’s the driving force behind these benefits. He’s been referred to as a kind of insurance industry Willy Wonka, but his eccentricities go far beyond free chocolate. He thought it would be hilarious, for instance, to create a “torture chamber” with medieval props in the company’s offices (it’s where employees can get their annual flu shots). He’s known to wear a special cologne for his most serious meetings. He loves giving gifts, and has cried in front of his employees. “Magical” is one word an employee used to describe him. “Crazy” is another. In conversation, he shoots from the hip and jumps between topics—disarming for a reporter accustomed to dueling for quotes from executives that don’t sound straight out of a public relations handbook. “I’m a loner among the CEOs,” Salzmann says. “They think I’m nuts.”
Growing up in Wausau, Wis., Salzmann watched his father struggle through years of backbreaking labor on a loading dock—an experience that today motivates him to ensure his workers are happy and healthy. He also witnessed firsthand how badly things went under Acuity’s previous CEO, who used bells to enforce strict 27-minute lunches followed by three-minute daily bathroom breaks. More than one in four employees quit the company or were fired every year.
“It was a very rigid, very tightly run organization,” says Joan Miller, Acuity’s head of human resources and general counsel. “There was no individuality at all, and you were expected to really toe the line.”
Things transformed radically after Salzmann, who was formerly the chief technology officer, took over 20 years ago. But the changes he brought were often more subtle than a giant indoor ferris wheel. Rikki Mason, an Acuity communications specialist, recalls how Salzmann once bent over to touch his toes after shooting a video. When Mason commented on the maneuver, Salzmann cheerfully told her about his daily stretching regimen and the importance of all-around fitness.
“He’s just quirky like that,” Mason says. “I think that personality makes you feel more at ease. You don’t feel like this pressure when you’re in front of your CEO. You can be yourself because he’s being himself.”
Salzmann’s comfort with standing out has informed the broader company culture, often in positive ways. “This is the first place that I’ve worked that I felt truly safe to be open about being gay,” says Kallyn Vandenack, who also works in Acuity’s communications department. “[Ben] almost likes you more if you’re a little different, because those differences in background experience, they create a better whole when they come together.”
“Work-life balance” can often seem like another misleading business-ism forced into the lexicon of everyday life. Does your “life” cease during your time on the job? And since when should it be “balanced” with anything? In that sense, Salzmann and Acuity Insurance may illustrate less about how employers can promote “work-life balance” than what’s wrong with the concept in general. The strange little company’s employees appear to be satisfied not only because their employer makes room for a “life” beyond the workplace, but also because they feel respected and fulfilled even when they’re clocked in.
“You could talk forever about benefits and those tangible things,” says Vandenack. “But at the end of the day, the thing that really matters to me is having the ability to live authentically at work.”
While flexible hours and generous 401(k) contributions are welcome, what allowed a nondescript midwest insurer to balance work and “life” better than any other company last year might simply be a culture that lets employees be themselves, and live while at work—especially as the pandemic has meant that many of us are working where we live, too. “Just relax, let your hair down, enjoy life,” says Salzmann, speaking on the company’s ethos. “Work has to be more than something that you’re responsible to do. It’s something you have to embrace and just celebrate.”