But the biggest perk may come with the morning commute.
In Silicon Valley, a region known for some of the worst traffic in the nation, Google, the Internet search engine giant and online advertising behemoth, has turned itself into Google, the mass transit operator. Its aim is to make commuting painless for its pampered workers--and keep attracting new recruits in a notoriously competitive market for top engineering talent.
And Google can get a couple of extra hours of work out of employees who would otherwise be behind the wheel of a car.
The company now ferries about 1,200 employees to and from Google daily--nearly one-fourth of its local work force--aboard 32 shuttle buses equipped with comfortable leather seats and wireless Internet access. Bicycles are allowed on exterior racks, and dogs on forward seats, or on their owners' laps if the buses run full.
Riders can sign up to receive alerts on their computers and cell phones when buses run late. They also get to burnish their green credentials, not just for ditching their cars, but because all Google shuttles run on biodiesel. Oh, and the shuttles are free.
But if the specifics sound quintessentially Googley, as insiders call the company's quirky corporate culture, it is the shuttle program's sheer scale that befits Google's oversize ambitions. This is, after all, a company whose stated goal is to organize the world's information--and whose founders' corporate jet is a Boeing 767.
"We are basically running a small municipal transit agency," said Marty Lev, Google's director of security and safety, who oversees the program.
Not that small, really. The shuttles, which carry up to 37 passengers each and display no sign suggesting they carry Googlers, have become a fixture of local freeways. They run 132 trips every day to some 40 pickup and drop-off locations in more than a dozen cities, crisscrossing six counties in the San Francisco Bay Area and logging some 4,400 miles.
They pick up workers as far away as Concord, 54 miles northeast of the Googleplex, as the company's sprawling Mountain View headquarters are known, and Santa Cruz, 38 miles to the south. The system's routes cover in excess of 230 miles of freeways, more than twice the extent of the region's BART commuter train system, which has 104 miles of tracks.
Morning service starts on some routes at 5:05 a.m.--sometimes carrying those Google chefs--and the last pickup is at 10:40 a.m. Evening service runs from 3:40 p.m. to 10:05 p.m. During peak times, pickups can be as frequent as every 15 minutes.
At Google headquarters, a small team of transportation specialists monitors regional traffic patterns, maps out the residences of new hires and plots new routes--sometimes as many as 10 in a three-month period--to keep up with ever surging demand.
Many employers run programs for commuters, including van pools, shuttles to and from transit hubs and subsidies for public transit and alternative modes of transportation, but several transportation experts say Google appears to have built an unparalleled transit network.
"I don't know of any program in the Bay Area or in a metropolitan area nationwide larger than that," said Tad Widby, the project manager for the 511 Regional Rideshare Program, who has studied transportation systems nationwide.
As much as it is a generous fringe benefit or an environmental gesture, the shuttle program is a competitive weapon in Silicon Valley's recruiting wars.
One of the biggest challenges facing the Google juggernaut, with a staff that has been doubling every year, is to continue to attract the best. Many technology workers say that the potential benefit from stock options for new hires is limited, since the company's shares have already surged more than fourfold since its 2004 public offering of $85.
The shuttles may not be able to lift Google's stock price, but they have struck a chord with employees.
"It's the most useful Google fringe benefit," said Wiltse Carpenter, a 45-year-old software engineer. Carpenter has been with Google only a few months, but before that he had commuted from San Francisco to the same Highway 101 exit since 1992, having worked at Silicon Graphics and Microsoft, two Google neighbors. "It's changed my quality of life," he said.
That sentiment is not surprising. Even Googlers have to worry about the area's high real estate prices, which have sent families to the outer confines of the region in search of cheaper housing. And the hopping cultural and social life of San Francisco remains a magnet for young workers, even though the commute to offices in Silicon Valley, some 35 miles to the south, can take well over an hour. A recent survey showed that for the 10th year in a row, traffic was the No. 1 concern for the area's residents.
But on a rainy winter afternoon, as some 20 Google employees hopped onto the 4:40 p.m. back to the Mission and Noe Valley districts of San Francisco, those concerns seemed distant. The shuttle merged onto Highway 101, made its way across three lanes packed with slow-moving vehicles and into the carpool lane, where it began speeding past hundreds of commuters.
Inside, most riders appeared to abide by the shuttle's etiquette rules. Cell phone conversations are allowed if they are work-related and sotto voce. But loud personal calls are definitely out. In fact, except for a couple snuggled together, no one sat on adjacent seats. Many took out iPods or laptops and worked, surfed the Web or watched videos.
"People tend to be quiet and respectful that this is people's downtime," said Diana Alberghini, a 33-year-old program manager.
Google will not discuss the cost of the program, which it operates through Bauer's Limousine, a private transportation company in San Francisco. But the shuttles appear to be having the desired effect on recruiting. Michael Gaiman, a 23-year-old Web applications engineer who lives in San Francisco and was recently hired, said he turned down an offer from Apple before accepting the job at Google. "It definitely was a factor," Gaiman said of the shuttle.
Colin Klingman, 38, who works at Google as an independent software contractor--and hence has to pay a small fee for the shuttle to comply with tax rules--said he waited to apply to Google until there was a stop near his San Francisco house.
Those types of decisions have been noticed around Silicon Valley. Yahoo, a leading competitor to Google, began a shuttle program in 2005 that could be described as the Pepsi to Google's Coke. It shuttles about 350 employees on peak days to and from San Francisco as well as Berkeley, Oakland and other East Bay cities. Yahoo's buses also run on biodiesel and are equipped with Internet access, but the company's commute coordinator, Danielle Bricker, said the program was only "indirectly" inspired by Google's.
Meanwhile eBay recently began a pilot shuttle to five pickup spots in San Francisco. And some high-tech employers are coming up with other approaches. Instead of making it easier for employees to live far from work, Facebook, the social networking site, makes it easier for them to live nearby: it offers a $600 monthly housing subsidy for those who live within a mile of the company's Palo Alto headquarters.
There are signs that Google's shuttles could be affecting--albeit in small ways--the region's housing market.
When Adam Klein, a 24-year-old software engineer, moved to San Francisco in 2005 to take a job at Google, he looked for a rental apartment within a 15-minute walk of a shuttle stop. His walk to the Civic Center stop turned out to be a bit longer. "I didn't take into account the hills," Klein said. Many of his friends are moving close to other shuttle stops. "Those stops have attracted people," he said.
The area surrounding one of the shuttle's Pacific Heights stops had a dozen or so Googlers living nearby in 2005. That number has surged to more than 60.
For all their popularity, the shuttles have yet to earn Google the title of most commuter-friendly employer. The top spot in the Environmental Protection Agency's "Best Workplaces for Commuters" went to Intel, which allows telecommuting, offers transit subsidies to employees, and helps pay for shuttles that bring workers from transit stops, among other benefits. Google tied Oracle for third; Microsoft came in second.
But Googlers hooked on the convenience of the shuttles say nothing tops their commuting perk.
"They could either charge for the food or cut it altogether," said Bent Hagemark, a 44-year-old software engineer who boarded a Google shuttle in Cow Hollow, an upscale neighborhood in the north end of San Francisco. "If they cut the shuttle, it would be a disaster."