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Mike Schmalz, president of Digital Extremes, in the company’s cafeteria in London, Ont. ‘As fun as it looks, it’s a lot of hard work. There are big deadlines. We try to work hard, play hard and ultimately we want to create something that everyone can be proud of,’ he says. (Geoff Robins for the Globe and Mail)
Mike Schmalz, president of Digital Extremes, in the company’s cafeteria in London, Ont. ‘As fun as it looks, it’s a lot of hard work. There are big deadlines. We try to work hard, play hard and ultimately we want to create something that everyone can be proud of,’ he says. (Geoff Robins for the Globe and Mail)

Benefits

At Digital Extremes, free lunch connects workers Add to ...

It’s exactly noon on a Wednesday and dozens of employees at Digital Extremes Ltd., are making a beeline for the lunchroom. Not that any of the video game programmers, artists and designers are brown bagging it. Instead, they’re grabbing plates and filling them with the day’s special: coconut curry chicken and salad.

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It smells divine, and even better, at Digital Extremes there is such a thing as a free lunch. Or breakfast and even dinner if people are burning the midnight oil to meet deadlines for games such as Star Trek, an action game set to launch in conjunction with the next movie, or WARFRAME, a third-person shooter game.

Free meals prepared by three full-time chefs is only one of the reasons why the growing 200-employee company has made the 100 Top Employers list for four consecutive years. It also offers big financial benefits, from matching RRSP contributions, to parental leave top-ups, paid personal days and year-end bonuses. The company’s head office, all 35,000 square feet of it located in a downtown historic building, is designed to nurture staff relationships.

Rebecca Ford, community manager and public relations assistant, looks up from the lunchroom booth she’s sitting in nestled beside huge harvest tables crafted from old barn wood.

“I just love it. Everybody’s here,” she enthuses, nodding to the crowd forming around the buffet table on the other side of the room. “They make things so exciting that you just want to come to work.”

While not all employees eat on-site – about 15 per cent bring their own food or grab a bite down at the food court – most are happy to dig into what’s offered, from meatloaf to vegetable stir-fry and pulled pork, Ms. Ford’s hands-down favourite.

The food isn’t just about convenient nourishment though, says Mike Schmalz, president. It’s also about connecting people so they can connect the dots. He says that in the video game industry, that’s particularly important since it draws two types of people: uber logical programmers and 3D artists who are focused on aesthetics.

“To get these people talking, who otherwise wouldn’t even meet in the same social circles, is important. The better communication we ultimately have between the groups, the better games we put out,” he says.

Pat Kudirka, associate producer, who handles project management, agrees that while the bells and whistles are nice, the company’s focus on communication and its supportive culture are the main reasons he loves coming into work. (That and the lasagna.)

“I can go to anyone at any time and in any office and ask questions. Everyone’s willing to help me,” he says.

Mr. Kudirka admits he never wanted a desk job working in an office, but after going through college to become a tool and die maker, he quickly discovered he’d chosen the wrong profession at the wrong time. It was 2006 and the auto industry had just imploded.

Finally his brother Dave stepped in and told him about a low-level position where he worked at Digital Extremes. It was grunt work, and only a two-month contract, but without any other options, it was also perfect. The job turned into an eight-month gig, which eventually morphed into a full-time job.

“It’s incredible that I’ve gone from tester to associate producer in just five years. It’s mind blowing. There are amazing opportunities here,” says the 26-year-old who now can’t imagine working in any other industry.

Still, the little things the company offers its employees are important when they all add up. Co-op students in particular clean up at mealtime, Mr. Schmalz says.

“They can eat all their meals here. They don’t even have to go grocery shopping,” he says.

In a fast-paced industry with late nights, Digital Extremes tries to keep things fun so employees don’t burn out. The company’s Fun Brigade, a social group, hosts pumpkin carving contests, ping-pong tournaments (and yes, trophies are handed out), paintball and paper airplane contests. Every other Friday afternoon, the company stops work so people can wander over to the bar at the end of the lunch room and grab a couple of drinks.

“As fun as it looks, it’s a lot of hard work. There are big deadlines. We try to work hard, play hard and ultimately we want to create something that everyone can be proud of,” Mr. Schmalz says.

It’s a recipe that works for Mr. Kudirka, who calls his job “a dream” and freely admits that even though job opportunities at other companies have come his way, he turns them down cold.

“This place has treated me like gold. I started at the bottom and now I’m at the top. I wouldn’t dare leave, and if they fired me, I would cry… a lot,” he says.

It’s clear he’s only half joking.

Why they’re tops

The workspace features an in-house theatre and a full-sized commercial kitchen and dining room, with three full-time chefs who prepare healthy (and free) meals.

- Its active employee social committee organizes events throughout the year

- Financial benefits, including year-end bonuses, matching RRSP contributions, referral bonuses, signing bonuses and a profit-sharing plan, are available to all employees.

- There are subsidies for tuition and professional accreditation, in-house and online training programs, and financial bonuses for some course completions.

- It offers maternity and parental leave top-up payments (to 80 per cent of salary for 24 weeks), as well as a short parental leave top-up for new fathers and adoptive parents

- A $300 fitness subsidy helps keep desk-bound employees healthier.

- Employees enjoy personal paid days off, paid time off during the holidays and regular vacation.

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