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California product analyst Hal Thomson spent two months travelling to work in the back of a crowded pick-up truck, with a coconut for his breakfast and a pineapple for lunch.

The 34-year-old former lifeguard swam with fish, studied coral and slept on a slab of foam strategically placed beneath a mosquito net.

No, Mr. Thomson wasn't practising for a role on Survivor.

Instead, he was taking full advantage of an unusual perk offered by his employer, Patagonia Inc., an outdoor gear and clothing company based in Ventura, Calif.

The privately owned company actually pays its full-time employees to leave their job for two months and work for a grassroots, non-profit environmental organization anywhere in the world.

In Mr. Thomson's case, the fanatical outdoorsman travelled last October to Zanzibar, part of Tanzania, where he joined environmentalists who were trying to protect a shallow water coral reef, surrounding an uninhabited island, from development and degradation.

"The experience changed my life. I'm still amazed that the company let me do it," he says. "I couldn't have done this by myself. I would have had to quit my job."

The company sent 70 of its 900 people worldwide on these "internships" last year. Whether the employee is a $10-an-hour salesperson or a $100,000-a-year manager, Patagonia pays his or her salary during the time away.

Such initiatives are about more than good works. In a tight North American labour market, keeping workers loyal and happy is an increasingly important goal, workplace consultants say.

They say younger employees desire more qualitative benefits, such as informal office environments, while baby boomers are starting to look for ways to leave a mark on the workplace before they retire.

"As it becomes even more of an employee's market, people will demand a certain type of work environment, one with flexibility, diversity and social responsibility," says Nora Spinks, president of Work-Life Harmony Enterprises, a Toronto-based consultant firm.

Financial bonuses, stock options and company cars are not the lures they once were, she says.

"If you had the choice to work for a company that cares and one that doesn't, which one would you choose? It's a no-brainer and a great recruitment tool for employers."

But few Canadian companies are imaginative in offering socially conscious programs, aside from paid education sabbaticals.

"I haven't seen a lot of Canadian companies that offer terribly creative perks," says Marsha Harling, an organizational psychologist with KPMG in Toronto.

It is somewhat surprising, she says, given that attitudes about work life are radically changing among highly coveted workers in their 20s and 30s.

"I've found many young workers don't care about titles and money. They want personal growth, autonomy and constant learning. Companies, even the traditional companies, are going to have to adjust."

One Canadian company says it is trying. Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd., based in Bolton, Ont., encourages its 3,000 employees worldwide to be more environmentally and socially responsible by offering them "green shares."

In this seven-month-old program, employees who engage in environmentally friendly behaviour, such as car pooling, receive points that are converted to shares in the public company.

So far, 4,000 shares have been issued and 16 per cent of the employees are participating.

"One of the biggest challenges is retaining and attracting employees," says Valerie Chort, vice-president of environmental health and safety for the company. "Our environmental incentives help attract socially conscious people, who fit in here."

The rewards from such creative incentives can be significant. Patagonia has been named one of the 100 best U.S. companies to work for by Fortune magazine for the past three years.

Not only does Patagonia make environmentally friendly products, such as jackets made from recycled plastic bottles, it also funds environmental organizations by donating 1 per cent of its annual sales, which it calls an "earth tax."

"The internship program is another dimension of activism, and it enhances the employees' commitment to the organization," says Lu Setnicka, a spokeswoman for Patagonia.

As a result, she says, the company sports a low employee attrition rate of just under 5 per cent.

When Patagonia's workers, most of them in their early 30s, leave for their internships, employees from other departments are recruited to fill in and diversify their skill sets.

"The internships lets our employees move around the company learning new jobs, which helps everyone," Ms. Setnicka says.

But on several occasions, employees have quit their jobs and stayed on at the environmental organization. And that is considered a success by Patagonia.

"If employees quit to do something that inspires them, go do it, explore. That's the attitude here," says Mr. Thomson, who has worked at the company for 4½ years.

He says he wants to return to Zanzibar on another environmental internship in about a year, but he has no desire to quit Patagonia.

"People become so busy when they work. Lives get so complicated. But this company gives its employees time -- the time to explore what life has to offer."

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