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Employers are reconsidering workplace benefits for newly remote workers

With no kitchens to stock or in-person classes to offer, some employers are rethinking what perks they offer employees.

Employers are reconsidering workplace benefits for newly remote workers
[Photo: Plateresca/iStock; tiero/iStock]
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Before Teampay was forced to close its Manhattan offices in early March, the company had a lot of the features you’d expect to find at a startup: a healthy snack bar and a much more popular unhealthy snack bar, coffee machines, and comfortable hangout areas where staff would gather for informal conversations.

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Each week the distributed spend management software company invited a guest speaker to host a lunch-and-learn. Every other week they hosted a demos-and-drinks night where the engineering team would show off its latest development over beer and cocktails, and each quarter the team would venture off for a surprise team outing.

So when the coronavirus forced the company to send its staff home, CEO Andrew Hoag says he wanted to do what he could to continue offering a similar work experience from home. “We continued the lunch-and-learn and the demos-and-drinks,” he says. “For example, instead of us bringing a catered lunch into the office, we used our product to give every employee a $20-a-week delivery stipend so they could order lunch.”

Teampay also offered staff a $500 stipend to put toward their home office setup and a more flexible work schedule so they could work around family responsibilities.

Since COVID-19 forced many workers out of their offices, employers have had to choose between delivering traditional perks to employees’ homes, abolishing the in-person parts of their benefits programs, or reconsidering their approach to employee benefits altogether. As the world of employee perks evolves to meet the needs of a rapidly changing workplace arrangement, many of these changes are expected to become yet another part of the “new normal.”

Redefining benefits for the COVID-19 era

In a recent study by talent mobility platform Topia, the majority of respondents indicated that empowerment and trust were the most important factors that contribute to a “great employee experience,” followed by job training opportunities and technology. Only 16% of employees indicated that a “cool” office space, including perks such as free food and games, were a priority.

“The pandemic has highlighted an extreme shift in what we are all looking for from a work experience,” says Jacky Cohen, Topia’s vice president of people and culture. “It’s an opportunity to rethink the term ‘benefits’ in general and really think about what companies offer to their employees in the new world of the distributed workforce.”

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In recent months employers and HR departments have also been turning their attention toward the perks that employees are more likely to need to get through this turbulent period, says Natalie Baumgartner, chief workforce scientist for employee engagement platform Achievers. “It’s definitely forcing organizations to ask the question ‘What’s most important? Where do we put our dollars? And what’s most valuable to our employees?'” she says. “The things that fundamentally support our well-being need to come first.”

Those perks, according to Baumgartner, include mental health resources, flexibility, and monetary incentives.

Shifting priorities—and budgets

“[Employers and HR departments] are changing their behaviors,” says Baumgartner. “What direction they’re changing depends on the financial viability of their company, the strategic direction—do we need to be literally together moving forward—and just their value system, which drives a lot of these decisions.”

Baumgartner adds that in the midst of an economic crisis many companies have had to tighten their belts and eliminate some of the benefits that they previously offered. For example, many are reducing benefits related to continuing education and employee training in the face of an uncertain economic future. “It was something that was offered by organizations as a massive perk—getting a higher education, going to business school. In many cases that’s gone by the wayside,” she says. “It’s something organizations simply can’t justify in this state of financial unpredictability.”

A reminder of simpler times

While employees are seeking more meaningful perks such as mental health resources and greater flexibility, there is still a demand for traditional perks that can offer consistency and comfort in uncertain times.

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, New York-based Stadium provided a service that allowed office workers at a company to order food from several different restaurants on the same order, meaning colleagues didn’t have to agree on a lunch spot. Since the outbreak, cofounder and CEO Shaunak Amin has launched another business, SnackMagic, that allows remote staff to receive personalized snack boxes at their home office anywhere in the country.

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According to Amin, the custom snack delivery company has doubled every two weeks since its launch just over two months ago. “There aren’t many tools or services that are built for the remote setting,” he says. “Based on the initial interest we’ve seen, I think it’s here to stay.”

While Amin admits that snacking isn’t a top priority for most companies in the midst of a global pandemic, the cost of a few treats is minimal compared to what they would otherwise spend on stocking office kitchens, and the gesture goes a long way. “It makes the employee feel like the employer cares, not just for me but also for my family, because often the kids are picking the snacks,” he says.

New Officemates, New Perks

Another major shift in the delivery of workplace benefits is the intended recipient. Prior to the pandemic, perks were primarily targeted toward employees, with family members occasionally added as a secondary recipient to health plans and other benefits.

“The biggest change we’re seeing with COVID is this understanding that no employee operates in isolation,” says Daniel Freedman, the cofounder and co-CEO of BurnAlong, a digital corporate wellness platform. “That’s the biggest shift that we’ve seen; families are central.”

[Photo: courtesy of BurnAlong]
BurnAlong offers a digital platform that allows users to receive one-on-one or group training sessions with hundreds of health and wellness providers, with classes ranging from traditional fitness to mindfulness and meditation to rehabilitation for medical conditions. Freedman says that the platform has doubled its client list since last year, with more than a quarter of all classes now dedicated to emotional support.

“That’s everything from parenting classes, arthritis, diabetes, adaptive workouts for people with disabilities, sleep, anxiety—and this mirrors what you’re seeing with a heightened focus on mental health and loneliness,” he says.

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Some of the most popular options are also geared toward nonworking members of the household, such as virtual summer camp programs for kids. “If your spouse, your partner, your parent, your kids are struggling, that affects your productivity. So when it comes to health and wellness, every company is looking at how to deliver programming and support for families as well,” he says. “We even have pet workouts—workouts that people can do with their dogs. It’s all about meeting people wherever they are and with whoever their loved ones are.”

About the author

Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist and public speaker born, raised and based in Toronto, Canada. Lindzon's writing focuses on the future of work and talent as it relates to technological innovation, as well as entrepreneurship, technology, politics, sports and music.

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