Some companies have added benefits to help employees cope during the pandemic, in one case offering a $300 pet stipend. Photo: eva plevier/
The coronavirus pandemic forced millions of workers to switch from conducting business in an office to working from their homes. Companies adjusted alongside them, attempting to bring new benefits to employees who could no longer enjoy some of the perks that came with working in an office.
Mandatory Time Off
As employees buckled down and outfitted their work-from-home spaces, the lines between work and home increasingly blurred. Without any commute, employees spent 35.3% of that extra time working at their primary job. With nowhere to go on vacation, employees also weren’t taking time off.
These two factors—among many others—have led to some employers instituting mandatory days off. At Chatbooks Inc., a photobook company, employees must now take a week off per quarter, in addition to three “bonus” days, which employees can use at any time.
“We tried to just be more explicit,” said Nate Quigley, chief executive of Chatbooks. “Now you have to take this time off, because that’s how you know we’re going to, as a company, get the very best version of you available.”
Chatbooks employees can also take more than one week at a time, if they want a longer break, he said.
Changes to Benefits Packages
Employees got an intimate look into each other’s lives. Some were juggling child care, some were living in tiny apartments and some were figuring out how to carve out a quiet working area. This insight spurred Ro, a telehealth company, to offer benefits such as Ginger.io Inc., which provides on-demand mental-health services, and Aaptiv Inc., an online fitness platform.
Ro plans on keeping these benefits even as the pandemic changes course, with vaccines rolling out across the U.S. Other perks the company is offering include a $1,000 remote-working stipend for use toward items such as work-from-home equipment, child care or snacks.
E-commerce software company MikMak gave up its office space in New York earlier this year. The company’s chief executive, Rachel Tipograph, chose to reinvest that money into employee benefits and is now fully covering employees’ and their dependents’ health-insurance premiums for most of the plans it offers.
“Employers today have such a huge obligation to their employees,” Ms. Tipograph said. “Workplaces are really these micro communities, and we have to take care of our people.”
Perks for Pet Owners
Some companies, including Mars Inc.’s pet-care division, in recent years invested in pet-friendly office spaces, and others had begun offering pet bereavement leave or “pawternity” leave when an employee gets a new pet.
In 2020, some companies made it easier for employees to adopt a pet.
Insurance-comparison site the Zebra, for instance, announced a new staff benefit: an annual $300 stipend designed to cover the costs of welcoming a dog or cat into the home.
The Zebra said at least 11 staff members have since adopted a pet. Employees have also hosted socially distanced and masked “puppy playdates” for co-workers and their new furry friends at local parks in Austin, Texas, where the company is based, a spokeswoman said.
The free snacks that fuel workers in offices—from coffee to chips—became memories of a pre-pandemic world. Companies are starting to offer them again, whether as holiday gifts or for other occasions throughout the year.
For Toyota Motor Corp.’s virtual field sales national meeting in October, the company used SnackMagic, operated by Kitchen Stadium Inc., to offer about 400 employees a chance to personalize a snack box.
“People just really appreciated the fact that we were able to do something and it was well thought out and they could be part of that experience,” said Tracy Kaiser, national accounts manager in Toyota’s financial services division.
As the year came to a close, Mr. Kaiser used SnackMagic again as the holiday gift offering for the financial services and marketing team of about 900 people.
Betterment LLC, a financial services company, did the same for its employees this year. Part of the allure of offering a product such as SnackMagic is it lets employees decide which snacks to get for themselves and their families, said Laura Craig, employee engagement manager at Betterment.
“We just thought it’d be nice to bring a little piece of the office into everyone’s home during the holiday season,” Ms. Craig said.
Virtual Schooling on Office Culture
Onboarding, the process of introducing new employees to a workplace and its culture, this year became less about leisurely meet-and-greet tours of the office and more about communicating company culture remotely.
Most companies were already using a blended approach to onboarding pre-pandemic, meaning they used a mix of digital and in-person training during an employee’s first days and weeks, said leadership and transformation consultant Alph Keogh. But while basic human-resources processes and compliance training could easily be transferred online, companies struggled most with creating a new starter’s sense of belonging in the virtual workplace, he said.
Some companies have tackled this social dislocation by mailing employees a branded box filled with items such as a welcome note from their boss and corporate swag.
Others have asked newcomers to chat with different managers and teach other new employees what they learned, with the aim of avoiding a conveyor belt of first-day presentations, Mr. Keogh said.
And a number of businesses have taken the concept of online onboarding and used it as a way to refocus all staff members during the pandemic.
“Online capabilities have prompted some companies to bundle their Covid response into a reboarding approach, where all employees, whatever their tenure, are invited to a reboarding session,” he said. The approach “has been a means of re-energizing the workforce and making leaders visible again,” he added.
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