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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

A $1,000 Wellness Stipend is Just One Way This Company Personalizes Employee Benefits

From left: Avis Lewis, Yumei Peterson, and Sofia Dona of Palo Alto Networks
From left: Avis Lewis, Yumei Peterson, and Sofia Dona of Palo Alto Networks.
| Courtesy Palo Alto Networks

Avis Lewis is a fitness enthusiast. She teaches Zumba, pilates, boot camp, and cheer fitness classes, and in recent years, had been wanting to add cycling to her routine. So in November 2020, when her employer—the cybersecurity company Palo Alto Networks—began offering all employees $1,000 to spend on their health and well-being, she bought a mountain bike.

“I probably would never have spent that money out of my pocket,” says Lewis, a professional services program manager who’s been with the company since January 2020.

The annual stipend is part of the company's FLEXBenefits program, and can be used for anything that supports a healthy lifestyle, like gym memberships, concert tickets, spa visits, counseling app memberships, equipment, and travel.

“It’s not one blanketed benefit,” says Lewis, who’s based in Dallas and works remotely. “It gives me the opportunity to look at how I can improve or de-stress myself, or what I need to make sure I have a work-life balance.”

FLEXBenefits is just one perk within the company’s broader FLEXWORK initiative, which is designed to empower employees to decide what they need to thrive both at work and at home. It also includes FLEXLearn, a customizable learning program focused on career development and advancement within the company.

Here’s a closer look at how Palo Alto Networks uses FLEXBenefits and FLEXLearn to support employees in their work and personal lives—and foster a culture of trust in the process.

Empowering employees to take control of their well-being

FLEXBenefits enables employees to splurge on themselves, says Yumei Peterson, a senior business development manager who has used the benefit to buy a treadmill and pay for membership at a pilates studio.

“It’s a time where I just shut everything off and I’m able to just focus,” says Peterson, a mom to two teenagers who’s been with the company for almost six years. “It feels like such a gift.”

Sofia Dona, a safety and security manager at Palo Alto Networks’ Santa Clara, CA, headquarters, says making memories with her three children—ages six, four, and a few months—is her priority. She’s used her FLEXBenefits to take her kids to Disneyland, buy seasonal passes to the local zoo, and purchase an outdoor griddle to host family parties. She also bought a new laptop, noise-canceling headphones, and wellness app subscriptions.

“It’s liberating to know that the company not only cares about the work we produce, but also about us as individuals,” she says. “The benefits build happier, more loyal employees that work harder for a company where they know that they’re appreciated.”

Dona also appreciates that the organization takes employee feedback into account. While Palo Alto Networks offers a list of approved FLEXBenefits, the company asks for suggestions for additional things to cover. She says outdoor grills, pizza ovens, and griddles were added after she and a couple of co-workers suggested it.

Offering opportunities to learn and advance

Through FLEXLearn, Palo Alto Networks provides courses on a variety of topics—including leadership skills, conflict management, and communication—all aimed at giving employees a tangible and customizable way to reach their professional goals. People can also receive certifications in some of the organization's products, and participate in mentoring programs.

Lewis credits FLEXLearn for helping her earn a promotion. She joined the company as a project manager, but after taking leadership development courses and networking with a mentor, she moved up into her current role as program manager.

“It gave me the one-up,” Lewis says, adding that she plans to sign up for more courses and hopes to continue advancing within the organization.

Peterson helped pilot some of the FLEXLearn courses; she trained to be a facilitator, created content, and provided feedback on how it could be improved. “I really appreciated the openness to feedback, the desire to improve the programs, and the company’s agility to act on the suggestions,” says Peterson, who took a course on the neuroscience of being included and belonging, which helped her better understand how people think and act.

“FLEXLearn shows that the leadership within the company truly cares about the individual's growth,” says Dona, who was able to study up on leading under pressure and change management.

Creating a supportive culture that puts employees first

Through programs like FLEXBenefits and FLEXLearn, Palo Alto Networks has doubled down on the idea that employees should have flexibility to address their unique needs as they see fit. And by giving them the opportunity to personalize their benefits, the company has been able to strengthen its culture.

“The company is choosing to empower and trust employees,” Peterson says. “That matters to me. You want to be empowered and trusted to make decisions.”

The programs create a sense of community and a supportive culture, which is crucial as the company continues to grow. “Culture is not something that can be pushed top down,” she says. “It’s being surrounded by people who live those values day in and day out. Every person has to contribute to it.”

Work should be a rewarding experience, Lewis says. Personalized benefits give people the support they need both at work and home, and creates a mutually respectful relationship between the employee and employer.

“It’s a two-way street,” she says. “You trust me enough to choose the benefits I need, and I’m going to do my best for you.”