10 new perks of remote work

Companies are giving employees more time, money and flexibility to recognize the new reality of 100% remote work.

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Image: Gmast3r/istockimages

The future of work is a hybrid solution that will include both remote and in-person work, according to Rhiannon Staples, chief marketing officer at the people management platform Hibob.

"There is still value in meeting face to face but we're not going back to the way it was," she said.

SEE: Working from home: The future of business is remote (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature) | Working from home: How to get remote right (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

This means companies have to find new ways to create connections among employees. Leadership, culture and communication skills will all play a part in creating a new normal. One of the first things to rethink is employee perks. Fresh fruit and free coffee in the breakroom don't make sense anymore. 

Carolina Valencia, a director in the Gartner HR practice, said that her research found that:

  • 64% of companies offered a new well-being benefit in response to the COVID-19 pandemic 
  • 85% introduced additional mental health support
  • 87% of businesses provided flexible work hours to employees taking care of children or parents
  • 26% gave employees paid time off (PTO) for childcare and 21% gave PTO for eldercare
  • 18% reimbursed childcare expenses

Valencia said that the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear to employers and employees that work and life cannot be treated as two separate constructs. 

"If we help support employees with all aspects of their health during turbulent times more effectively, not only do they have better lives, but they perform at a higher level as well," she said. 

SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

According to a Gartner 2020 ReimagineHR Survey, when employers develop deeper relationships with their employees, there is a 23% increase in the number of employees reporting better mental health and a 17% increase in the number of employees reporting better physical health. Employers that support their employees more holistically realize a 21% increase in high performers.

Robert Glazer, CEO of global marketing agency Acceleration Partners, said that companies cannot simply shift in-person business to a remote setting, make no other changes, and expect employees to be happy. 

"They need to invest time and resources in giving employees the tools they need to excel, giving them chances to connect with colleagues, and helping employees set healthy boundaries between their work and personal life," he said.

The new benefits fall into three basic buckets: time, money, and physical and mental health benefits. 

Here is a look at the creative ways employers have helped employees cope with remote work during a pandemic. 

1. Flexible work hours

One relatively easy change was to offer flexible work hours. Companies realized that people were suddenly dealing with many more nonwork responsibilities during the day. Staples said she has seen companies place a higher value on outcomes, rather than outputs, to support this shift.

"Just because a job schedule was nine to five historically, could you afford to let employee work hours that are a better fit for their personal circumstances?" she said. "So long as a person is hitting the objectives you've set for her, the hours don't matter so much."

ThinkHR and Mammoth HR's Vice President of People and Talent, Carla Yudhishthu, said the company adopted a new meeting policy to combat Zoom fatigue.

"We also implemented a company standard of shortened meetings—30 minutes are all 25-minutes long, and 60-minute meetings are now 50 minutes," she said.

2. More leave

Employers also recognized the need for more time off. Evangeline Mendiola, Zendesk's director of global benefits, said that internal survey results showed that employees who are parents and caregivers were feeling particularly challenged.

"We introduced a global COVID-19 caregiver leave, which includes up to two weeks of paid time off with an additional option of up to four weeks off unpaid," she said. "This leave can be used to care for a family member(s) due to lack of child care/elder care support."  

Anton Konopliov, founder and CEO of Palma Violets Loan, said that he also has noticed companies offering extended paid leaves up to one month.

Josh Brooks, head of marketing at the online marketplace OnBuy, said his company gave all employees five days of annual leave to encourage team members to take time out to focus on mental well-being.

OnBuy also introduced a new flex-time system that allows team members to choose the working hours that best suit their needs. 

3. Extra support for parents and kids

Cobalt Director of People Sharon Heimowitz said that the pandemic increased communication between employers and employees about work needs and personal needs.

"Employers are recognizing that their employees have a lot going on and they need to support activity costs that they might not normally feel responsible for," she said.

Heimowitz said companies are providing monthly stipends to cover childcare needs, including opportunities for children to be involved in a group activity safely or for the cost of childcare so a parent can work.

KLA Corporation, a global technology company, provided reimbursement for tutoring and child care expenses, and back-up child care through Care.com. Sandra Mahadwar, chief inclusion and diversity officer and senior vice president of talent management, said that in some regions the company also provided extra paid leave so employees can have some time to supervise their children and support their online schooling, or just to recharge.

Eve Melon, head of people and culture at chatbot software company Tidio, said the company introduced an asynchronous communication system and flexible work schedule to allow our employees to integrate work-life balance better, especially parents juggling school schedules.

Okta Chief People Officer Kristina Johnson said that the company helped employees secure technology supplies for kids to use for remote learning. 

"Okta began repurposing company laptops and created a lottery system so Okta parents could receive a free laptop for their child to promote remote learning," she said. 

4. Expanded mental health benefits

Another benefit that many companies started offering in 2020 was more mental resources. Many businesses have recognized that mental fitness is pivotal to business and personal success, Staples said.

Konopliov of Palma Violets Loan said he has seen an increase in telepsychiatry services and access to mental health services virtually through phone call support by an on-call psychiatrist. 

Sandi Kochhar, chief people officer at revenue intelligence platform Gong, said that the company expanded mental health services to include personal coaches and therapists, and meditation. The company has a "mindful Jedi" community that holds bimonthly breathwork sessions and shares resources on mindfulness practices. 

Valencia of Gartner HR said that research shows that nearly half (49%) of employees took advantage of mental well-being programs in 2020 at companies that offered those services.

5. Help with grief

ThinkHR and Mammoth HR's Yudhishthu said that her company found a way to recognize the loss that many people have experienced over the last year.

"Earlier this year, we hosted a grief workshop to make sure that our managers understand, identify, and acknowledge grief they may be feeling and are also prepared to support their team members," she said.

Yudhishthu said the company also gave employees a yearlong subscription to a guided meditation app Headspace.

6. COVID-19 supplies

Drew Zalkind, the COO of airSlate, a Boston-based tech company that provides no-code business automation solutions, said that his company sent employees a COVID care kit.

"We sent COVID survival packages to employees, including a mask, knapsack, phone charger and portable wine cozy–everything needed to outfit them for a walk or a hike," he said.

Konopliov of Palma Violets Loan said that employers are also providing medical assistance to employees and their immediate families in the same household for treatment of and recovery from COVID-19 as well as providing isopropyl alcohol wipes, face masks and face shields to all employees.

7. Stipends for home offices

Staples said that HiBob uses its own platform to survey employees every month to understand how circumstances have changed over the last year. The company uses this data to make business and policy decisions. 

 "That's how we found out that people didn't have a proper desk chair and they needed money to set up a home office," she said. 

Sharon Heimowitz, director of people at the pen testing company Cobalt, said that covering the costs of home office setups has become a common benefit.

"These stipends have been across the board offerings as opposed to employees submitting expenses for reimbursement," she said. "Employees don't need to ask permission for specific items such as an extra monitor or their favorite keyboard."

8. Choose your own benefits

While some companies offered a stipend to cover the costs of building a home office, other leaders took a more open-ended approach. 

Jessica Lim, HR manager at MyPerfectResume, said companies should offer their employees options where they can choose the appropriate activity that fits their lifestyle and personal needs.

"Some employees would benefit from individual coaching sessions, others from regular workouts, some like to work in groups while others prefer to do it independently," Lim said.

ThinkHR and Mammoth created a $50,000 companywide stimulus package. Each employee got a $250 cash bonus to ease the transition into working from home. Yudhishthu said the company asked that they spend the remaining balance to support local businesses in their communities. 

"This turned out to be quite a fun request because we saw our employees give back in some really unique ways such as prepaying for haircuts from their barbers and stylists and starting community gardens with seeds from their local nursery," she said.

9. Protection against identity theft

Now that so many people are working from home, cybercriminals have turned their attention to attacking home networks as a way to access corporate networks. This also means an increased risk of identity theft for employees. Cobalt's Heimowitz said she has seen more employers offer 

identity theft or data security programs such as LifeLock to protect employees from the rash of identity fraud that has taken place since the pandemic started.

10. Online fun

It turns out that most in-person team-building activities can move online, even social events like breakout rooms and painting classes. Joan Alavedra, co-founder of Onsite.fun, a corporate wellness platform of team building activities for remote teams, said that companies are changing calculations about benefits to reflect the shift to decentralized teams.

"We are seeing a swift shift from irrelevant and old corporate perks to updated and curated packages where individuals can choose perks that are relevant for their life habits," she said.  "More practical necessities like child care, mental health, office stipends, team buildings, etc. are eclipsing the cushy office catering and wellness programs." 

Okta also created an online one-stop-shop for employees looking for ways to stay healthy while working from home. The Okta Employee Experience Marketplace provides workout classes, social events, parenting resources, discounts on personal services such as meal delivery, on-demand dry cleaning, on-demand therapy, according to the company's chief people officer, Kristina Johnson.

Jill Sandy, founder & HR manager at Constant Delights, a gardening blog, has replaced in-office perks with subscriptions to Disney+ and Netflix.

Staples said that HiBob has hosted a remote escape room and sent personal care packages to employees.

"These activities are not a huge expense but they do make employees feel seen and cared for," she said.

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