By now, we’ve all heard about (or even experienced first-hand) the generous perks offered by companies like Facebook and Google. Countless articles have been written about their free gourmet meals and healthy snacks, nap rooms (pre-covid), laundry services (again, pre-covid), unlimited paid vacation days, well-decorated office spaces, and on-site gyms, just to name a few. So generous (and some times frivolous) are their perks, that these tech companies have become the “gold standard” when we think and talk about company perks and benefits.

In most countries, “benefits” refer non-wage compensation in addition to the monetary wages workers get in exchange for the work they do. They often include paid vacation and sick days, parental leave, and health insurance or social security contributions, depending on the country. “Perks”, on the other hand, are additional benefits companies choose to offer to improve the overall employee experience. Think free snack vending machines or a bring-your-dog-to-work policy.

And while it might be fun to see your boss pump 10 tons of snow onto your basketball court, is that a perk that will truly bring lasting impact to your employee experience?  

Why do companies offer perks?

Companies have long used perks to level up the employee experience and improve workplace engagement. Gallup defines “employee engagement” as the “involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work and workplace”, and it remains a big priority for HR teams for good reason.

When workers are engaged with their jobs, they’re 18% more productive and 23% more profitable. In the long run, companies have also seen an 81% drop in absenteeism, and high-turnover companies have reported up to an 18% decrease in turnover.

How has COVID changed our workplace perks?

The pandemic has changed our understanding of work for good. More than anything, the past two years have shown us how our personal lives and our professional lives are intertwined and how one impacts the other.

Company perks, especially at tech startups, are no longer about lavish parties or hundred thousand dollar chrome panda statues. Most employees today see past the pool tables and fancy coffee. Instead, they’re looking for holistic benefits that truly support them and the circumstances they’re in.

Now more than before, perks can be a valuable employee engagement tool for companies who are serious about retaining and attracting the best talent in the market. Forward thinking companies have embraced the evolving needs of their workforce, especially over the course of the pandemic and “The Great Resignation”.

Let's take a look at the tangible and intangible perks these companies are choosing to offer their workforce.

Expanding care benefits for the young and elderly

During the pandemic, 1.2 million mothers were pushed out of the workforce due to school closures. The unfortunate reality is that child care continues to fall disproportionately on the shoulders of women. While this means that more women were adversely impacted by the pandemic compared to men, it was also a major hit to the companies that employed them - a hit they are still recovering from.

Apart from child care, care for the elderly has mostly fallen under the radar too. The Sandwich Generation - adults who take care of both children and their aging parents - is growing. In mid 2020, insurance company New York Life reported that Millennials now make up 40% of the Sandwich Generation, and women represent 64% of caregivers when it comes to multigenerational care.

In light of this, companies are stepping up by expanding family care benefits to include support for both children and the elderly. In fact, Tim Allen, CEO of Care.com, reports that 41% of his survey respondents plan to introduce or expand senior care benefits on top of existing child care benefits.

While most companies were focused on on-site day care services pre-pandemic, post-pandemic, 61% of companies are opting for more flexible childcare benefits through paid memberships to online platforms where parents can find and manage family care or in-home child care.

Flexibility for every employee

Brian Elliott, vice-president at Slack and executive leader of Future Forum, noted in an interview that flexibility remains the second-most important perk after compensation, and that employee-specific flexibility is central to the future of workplace perks. While most companies (58%) have adopted some form of hybrid work (an inclusive perk that comes with no added costs to the business), flexible work schedules are a perk that many companies overlook.

At the height of the pandemic, rigid work schedules disproportionately impacted working mothers, with many respondents reporting a lack of work-life balance, the inability to manage stress, and the lack of a sense of belonging. In this report, working mothers note that the greatest benefit of a flexible schedule is “being able to better take care of personal or family obligations during the day”.

That said, 2 out of 3 workers still want a balance between complete flexibility and a predictable work schedule. In this instance, having core team hours, for example from 10am to 4pm, where team members can expect quick responses and can schedule meetings, often strikes a good balance.

Focusing on mental health

Developer burnout was at an all time high during the pandemic, with 81% of respondents reporting burnout due to work stressors. Apart from work, we also experienced trauma from the pandemic, political unrest, violence against minority groups, wildfires and so on, we barely had time to catch our breaths.

All this led to 76% of respondents reporting at least one symptom of a mental health condition in 2021, with C-level and executive respondents more likely to report a symptom.  It also led 50% of workers to leave their roles, though Millennials and Gen Zs reported higher attrition rates due to mental health challenges, at 68% and 81% respectively.

While 91% of workers today believe a company’s culture should support mental health, and another 2 out of 3 workers have talked about mental health at work, only 49% of respondents said to have a positive experience talking about mental health at work. The study also revealed that emotionally draining work, for instance, stressful, overwhelming or monotonous work, most negatively impacted their mental health, followed by the lack of work-life balance.

For the most part, forward thinking companies are doing the best they can by expanding mental health benefits to include paid time off, mental health days, and mental health training. Other day-to-day support included taking time off work to attend therapy appointments, setting clear boundaries at work, and creating better communication habits - especially as we transition to forms of hybrid work.

Don't discount the value of doing good work

Gartner surveyed over 3,500 workers in October 2021 and found that 65% of respondents said the pandemic made them reconsider work within their lives, while approximately half of respondents said the pandemic led them to change their expectations towards their employers. In addition, 56% of respondents said the pandemic made them want to contribute more to society.

Gartner's Chief of Research Chris Howard, sums it up perfectly:

"People want purpose in their lives — and that includes work. The more an employer limits those things, the higher the employee’s intent to leave.

The era of the employment contract, when a worker provided services purely in exchange for monetary compensation, is over. Employees want employers to recognize their value and provide value to them on a human level.

Monetary compensation is important for surviving, but deeper relationships, a strong sense of community and purpose-driven work are essential to thriving. This is the value that employees expect their employers to provide.”

So how do we make work better for people doing the work? How do we foster deeper relationships, provide that sense of belonging, and encourage daily meaningful work?

Workplace perks that positively impact lives

For the most part, human resource experts suggest engaging with and listening to your employees to find out which workplace perks they truly need. An obvious first step would be to run a survey to ask how your team feels about existing perks and get their thoughts and opinions about new benefits and perks you’d like to introduce.

For those who are considering expanding or redesigning their perks program, remember that workplace perks cannot replace culture. While workplace perks can be a tangible manifestation of great company culture, it should not be mistaken for culture itself. To quote Jonathan Johnson, CEO of Overstock, “Ping-pong tables are not culture”. When examining your perks program, ask yourself which perk reinforces your company’s culture and helps your employees do their best work.

Lastly, your perks program should exclude no one. It should support every single member on your team. Consider team members with physical disabilities, members from minority communities or historically marginalized groups, and your teammates who choose to work remotely. To test for inclusivity, examine each perk and check if it is equally beneficial and accessible to everyone on the team.

We’ve come a long way from bouncy castles and free ice cream; some might say we’ve even outgrown them in favor of a more human-centric approach to work. As tech companies continue to grow and mature over time, so should our workplace perks and benefits.

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