Good bike access helps score great workers, Portland firms say

January 21, 2013

Michael Andersen

It wasn’t until after he decided to start a business that Ben Waldron learned just how important a good bike commute was becoming to Portland’s creative workers.

July 2008 seemed like “probably the worst time in economic history” to strike out on your own, Waldron recalled. But he and his colleague Levi Patterson had the itch. So they rented a few hundred square feet in central Portland and co-founded Pollinate, an advertising agency that included, in its entirety, two 30-year-olds, two laptops, and lots of ideas for how to do mobile and digital marketing right.

Contracts started coming in, and Pollinate started hiring. That was when they discovered that their workplace’s good bike accessibility was a key asset in recruiting.

“It used to be a perk,” Waldron said. “Now it seems like it’s a right.”

Five years later, 20 of Pollinate’s 30 employees bike to work regularly, Waldron estimates. Ten pedal in every day, rain or shine. Waldron said the company negotiated bike access into their lease two years ago; for their next move, he plans to look for a building with full bike lockers and showers.

Pollinate is one of many growing Portland employers finding that a bike-friendly location — one well-served by protected, separated, or at least comfortable bikeways from all directions — has become an important part of the modern Portland desk job.

Any local company that doesn’t include biking in its fabric ‘is making a mistake’

Jenny Mahmoudi, a user experience researcher for IT automation software developer Puppet Labs who lives in southeast Portland, said she and her husband own a car but are proud when they can go a week without driving it — something they struggled to do at their former home in Austin.

“Almost everything we can do is by walking or biking,” Mahmoudi said. “That’s not an accident. We live here on purpose because of that.”

Local employers who rely the most on top talent are noticing the preferences of workers like Mahmoudi. In 2010, Jay Haladay, owner and CEO of Portland-based construction software firm Coaxis, invested $17 million to redevelop a central-city warehouse so his company could move from the side of a suburban highway to a location on central Portland’s riverside bike loop.

“This is all part of an effort to differentiate ourselves as an employer of choice,” Haladay said. “You can’t just throw benefits at people. You can’t just have pizza at lunch.”

Bicycle access, Haladay said, lets a Portland employer play to its location’s strengths. In this labor market, he’s concluded, “any company that doesn’t include it in its fabric of company culture is making a mistake.”

The Standard, an insurance firm with 2,300 local workers based for generations in downtown Portland, has made its prime biking location more and more central to its identity by improving bike parking and, last year, holding its in-house first recognition event for bike commuters.

“We’re at a hub, right?” said Carrie Hearne, the firm’s sustainability manager. “We have so many employees who say they love working in downtown Portland and they love working at The Standard in part because it’s so easy to access.”

The scramble for talent

Portland employers also said bicycle commuting, like any employee wellness effort, tends to boost productivity — “employees that are in better physical spirits are going to be in better mental spirits,” as Haladay put it. Others noted that documenting physical activity among employees can sometimes slow the growth of health-care premiums.

But more than anything, most agreed, the benefit of a bike-friendly worksite is simply that these days, valuable workers seem to prefer it.

“The development team here has a good set of skills that not only we’re seeking, but a good percentage of the software companies in the city are seeking,” said Jason Burg, a senior copywriter at Coaxis. “There has to be an edge when you’re hiring.”

It can affect a city’s ability to attract talent, too. Burg was one of several who echoed the recent claims of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel that good bike infrastructure attracts skilled workers to local companies, helping them prosper.

“We just hired a marketing director from Cleveland who came here specifically because of biking,” Burg said. “He’s been on the job for two weeks and we’ve had some of the worst weather, and he’s come in every single day.”

Waldron, the ad agency co-founder, said he knows only that, more often than not, the people his young company wants to hire expect to be able to bike to work without a hassle.

“We’re a creative company, whether that’s designers, developers or just people very interested in this field,” Waldron said. “They tend to be those in general who are living, almost all the time, in the city.”

In Portland’s increasingly creative-service-oriented economy, Waldron said, no competitive edge is more important to his business than the team of workers he can offer.

“We help our clients develop ideas and help create and foster them,” Waldron said. “The only thing that does that is the people here. Our only benefit is the people that we have.”

Haladay photo by Coaxis.

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