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Microsoft brings back the towels

Launches an employee perk program that includes a staff share scheme, and the return of towel laundering.

Two years after it took the ax to a range of employee benefits, Microsoft is introducing new perks for its staff.

The plan, known as MyMicrosoft, was unveiled to the Redmond, Wash., masses this week.

A Microsoft representative said that the human resources team at the software maker "spent a great deal of time over the past year gathering employee feedback from all over the world about their experiences at Microsoft. The feedback was instrumental in helping shape the new MyMicrosoft program."

Among the new incentives are a management development program to boost managers' training, more investment in the staff share plan, and a career model framework to apply to all Microsoft employees globally.

As part of the program, the company is promising employees a greater emphasis on a nicer working environment.

Microsoft introduced other lifestyle services for its geeks, including laundry, dry cleaning and grocery delivery--although it won't actually be paying for the services itself, just giving staff on-site access to them.

It also revealed that "the towels are back," referring to the popular towel-laundering service for sweaty staff washing at work after exercising or cycling in to campus, a perk that was axed in the benefits cull in 2004.

Those cutbacks followed a call by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for the software giant to make $1 billion worth of cuts. At the time, he warned that even Microsoft's free soda policy was under review.

Now, after a series of high-profile defections, including that of Kai-Fu Lee, who founded Microsoft's Chinese Labs, to Google, Microsoft is reversing its earlier stance.

It still has some way to go, though, to rival the alleged charms of the California GooglePlex. The search giant's headquarters has its own doctors, child day care centers and free gourmet meals at one of the four themed dining areas on campus.

Jo Best of Silicon.com reported from London.