Employee Perks: Which Will Stay or Go After COVID?

As the pandemic continues, businesses must prioritize which perks they will continue to offer employees.

Work-from-home perks appear to be here to stay, as the U.S. transitions to a WFH economy

The coronavirus disrupted the workplace in many unforeseeable ways. COVID-19 forced some of the nation’s 30.7 million small and medium-sized businesses to either lay off workers, wait for government help through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to stay solvent, or close down. For some businesses, the pandemic was an opportunity to offer employees perquisites (perks) for help with surviving the crisis. It’s this last group of employers who must decide which perks make sense to continue beyond the pandemic. They must also decide which may become unnecessary once the virus’s spread is under control.

The pandemic led businesses to scale already-in-place perks, like flexible work hours and extended leave. In fact, the highly contagious nature of the virus transformed the work-at-home option from a perk to an essential move. Working remotely is how many organizations are slowing the spread of infection.

If viral cases continue to surge through 2021 as predicted, employers will have the dual task of helping workers stay healthy, while also keeping them engaged and productive through perks. However, scaling back some perks in the post-COVID era may be a wise economic choice for some businesses and necessary for others.

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COVID-19 and workplace culture

The pandemic has created a “we’re all in this together” workplace culture in some companies, a report by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) noted. Supportive employers are helping workers cope with such issues as pandemic-induced anxiety, managing distance learning for children, financial struggles, physical wellness, and isolation from team members. Companies are addressing these issues by offering:

  • Online healthcare services
  • Virtual counseling
  • Extended annual leave
  • Help with food costs
  • Children’s activities

Kayt Leonard, global PR manager at PSI CRO, a global organization specializing in clinical trials, told Workest that her company responded to COVID-19 by offering such perks as:

  • Virtual wellness classes
  • Art contests for employees’ children
  • Cooking classes
  • Virtual contests
  • Team-building programs

Additional PSI offerings range from the opportunity for staff to share photos of pets and wildlife to raise morale, to voting on who has the best home office view.

“Since we’re a global team, we really needed to think of perks that engaged the entire company,” Leonard said. “We found that it’s not just an extra health care benefit, or a monetary benefit that makes the difference — in times of global uncertainty, it’s been the morale and community focused portions that have really made our team push through with resilience.” Leonard added that increasing communication company wide through weekly status updates and other channels has been key in helping employees handle the pandemic.

“We found that it’s not just an extra health care benefit, or a monetary benefit that makes the difference — in times of global uncertainty, it’s been the morale and community focused portions that have really made our team push through with resilience.”

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WFH-related perks

Working from home was once a perk for only senior-level managers and white-collar professionals. In recent years, employers have given more workers the option of working remotely, but since the pandemic took hold, 42% of the labor force is now working full time from home.

A number of WFH perks predate the pandemic, with many offering Wi-Fi services and helping workers set up home offices. Employees also may receive company advice on working safely and ergonomically at home, meeting virtually with team members, and avoiding stress or burnout.

The XYPRO Technology Corporation, a California-based software company, provides its employees with a stipend and monthly reimbursement. They want employees to use these funds to improve their home offices and ensure they have an ergonomic setup.

“Our employee wellness and mental health efforts include virtual yoga and mindful meditation, a virtual psychologist’s presentation on managing through Covid, and benefits information and resources, which [have] been received very well,” Melodie Bond-Hillman, senior manager, HR & Administration at XYPRO, told Workest in an email.

“We have made every effort from the top down to normalize and emphasize the importance of focusing on mental health and wellness, especially during these challenging times.”

SHRM’s report identified other WFH-centered perks, including:

  • Extended vacation balanced with working hours
  • Virtual workout sessions
  • Well-being and performance platforms for managing stress
  • Virtual guest speakers

Miscellaneous perks

Workplaces are offering a range of perks to bolster morale, engagement, teamwork, and a sense of connectedness. These include:

  • Offering gift cards for electronic equipment
  • Providing streaming services
  • Matching employees’ donations to charities
  • Allowing more casual attire at work
  • Conducting more employee surveys for feedback
  • Giving workers a return-to-work option

To help increase engagement, XYPRO offers morning coffee chats and virtual happy hours and trivia events. The company also added a gamification element to its mandatory training program. Virtual team lunches are also delivered to team members’ homes. Bond-Hillman said employees especially appreciate the lunch perk, which has helped bring a sense of normalcy to the workplace.

Perks with staying power

How long the pandemic will continue to endanger the world’s health is a subject of debate among public health experts. But the uncertainty could make alleviating some of the costliest perks risky for some employers. Many companies want to continue keeping employees safe, engaged, and productive.

A research study concluded that with 42% of the U.S. labor force currently working from home, versus the 26% of essential service employees performing their jobs at the worksite, the U.S. is officially a WFH economy.

Labor experts agree that WFH is one of the COVID-driven perks with the greatest staying power. A research study concluded that with 42% of the U.S. labor force currently working from home, versus the 26% of essential service employees performing their jobs at the worksite, the U.S. is officially a WFH economy.

In a policy brief based on the study, Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), wrote that since WFH is clearly part of the post-COVID economy, the sooner business leaders and policymakers consider the significance of a home-based labor force, the better companies and communities will be prepared for the transition into a post-pandemic era.

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Employee wellness

Employee health and well-being is the center of the benefits programs of companies in a Willis Towers Watson study. Since officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention think the virus could have serious long-term effects, perks that support mental health services and financial well-being will likely continue after the pandemic subsides.

Leonard said that her company will continue hosting wellness programs, bringing in outside speakers and consultants to discuss tips for self-care and balance, and having fun-filled competitions to keep employees engaged. “We know that even after COVID, the world will remain different than pre-2020,” she added. “Our mindset isn’t on just [going] back to the same ways of engagement and company culture or community as in the past, but rather to innovate, maintain resilience, and continue to provide the perks and options that really support employees holistically.”

Bond-Hillman said that since XYPRO’s programs are dependent on employee feedback, they’ve been modified as needed based on survey results. “We will continue to run these programs onsite and virtually once we are back in office, [because] we don’t expect all of our employees to return at the same time,” she said, adding that the company will continue modifying and improving perks to make employees’ transition from WFH to the office as smooth and comfortable as possible.”

Perks on the long list

Employers could continue providing some perks as long as COVID-19 drags on. Or, they could keep providing perks as long as they have the resources to do so. But some pre-COVID perks aren’t likely to last because they’re too costly for employers hit hard financially by the virus.

Other pre-pandemic perks like spa services, catered meals, streaming services, free meals, and unlimited vacation time will likely have a short life because businesses consider them impractical or unnecessary.

In fact, employers already are rolling back some of the “do good” perks they offered in COVID-19’s early stages. The list includes:

  • “Thank you” meals for health professionals
  • Temporary forgiveness for unpaid insurance policies
  • Extended broadband or telephone service
  • Risk compensation for frontline workers
  • Pay cuts for executives
  • Moratoriums on credit card payments
  • Pay increases and bonuses for workers

Great Place to Work, a global people analytics and consulting firm, advises companies to rethink the perks they’re currently offering to prepare for a future beyond COVID-19. Based on surveys of workers during the COVID crisis, the firm recommends that employers focus less on perks and more on 4 human interactions that it says employees need now:

  • Mutual trust between leadership and workers
  • A “we’re all in this together” work ethic
  • Mental and emotional wellness, and
  • A commitment to equity, diversity, and belonging
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