Back to the office, but at what cost? The new era of employee perks and benefits

Feb 22, 2024

8 mins

Back to the office, but at what cost? The new era of employee perks and benefits
Kaila Caldwell

Freelance journalist and SEO content writer

Amid the labor market's dynamic shift known to some as the Great Reshuffle, companies found themselves navigating a new, employee-centric era. This period, sparked by the pandemic, led to a greater demand for work-life balance and flexible work arrangements, prompting businesses to reevaluate their operational models and employee benefits to maintain competitiveness, most notably remote schedules.

However, our newfound freedom is dwindling, even in NYC. With an increase in office attendance among Manhattan’s major employers, as reported by The Partnership for New York City, revealing that 58% of office workers were present on an average weekday by late 2023, marking a progressive climb from 52% in late January 2023 and 49% in September 2022. This uptick, reaching 72% of pre-pandemic office attendance levels, signals a nuanced shift back toward traditional office settings.

Adding to this narrative, a survey by ResumeBuilder projects that by the end of 2024, an overwhelming 90% of companies anticipate a total return to the office. This anticipated reversal underscores a desire among leaders to rejuvenate workplace collaboration and culture, perceived to have waned during the height of remote work.

It seems inevitable that some of us are going back to the office. But hope is not lost. With increased employee-centric benefits post-Covid, some companies are upping their game to incentivize workers back to their cubicles. From childcare services to revamped office designs, these perks aim to realign with employees’ evolving expectations. So, what perks and benefits are proving most attractive to employees in the post-COVID landscape, and are these incentives offered merely temporary attractions, or do they signify a lasting shift towards prioritizing employee well-being and flexibility?

Beyond the coffee bar: The new era of workplace perks

Before the pandemic, perks like free lunches or a coffee bar were seen as appealing benefits, but things are changing, explains Jason Greer, the Employee Whisperer and the founder of Greer Consulting, Inc., specializing in employee labor relations and diversity management. “Previously, employees just accepted workplace demands, yet now, workers are asserting their newfound appreciation for a balanced lifestyle,” he adds.

This transition has also been marked by a shift toward more innovative and holistic approaches to employee perks, explains Massella Dukuly, head of workplace strategy and innovation at Charter, reflecting a deeper understanding of changed dynamics in employees’ lives post-pandemic.

So, let’s explore these new holistic approaches, from the truly groundbreaking to the must-haves. Trust us, you’ll be eyeing some of these perks for yourself.

1. $100 to hang out with your colleagues

Ethena’s initiative in NYC offers employees a $100 monthly incentive for socialization, enhancing engagement and satisfaction by fostering personal connections. Melanie Naranjo, VP of people at Ethena, shares, “When the pandemic hit, we had just signed a lease for a large 50-person office in Brooklyn. With the shift to remote work and our recruiting efforts expanding beyond Brooklyn, we began questioning the necessity of such a sizable office.” Eventually, Ethena transitioned to being fully remote, focusing on sustaining team cohesion and dynamics without a physical office.

Naranjo adds, “So, we thought, why not empower our employees to create their own engagement opportunities? We launched a pilot program allowing employees to expense up to $100 for activities with their colleagues, and it took off. Employees organized activities from canoeing adventures to Broadway shows. Ultimately, we observed that while our team valued the idea of an office for occasional gatherings, they preferred the flexibility to meet and work together in various settings.”

2. Total body MRI screening and other health perks

If total well-being is the new foosball table, then Fountain, a global talent platform, has you covered. Hope Weatherford, the company’s global head of people at fountain, explains: “In 2024, Fountain is broadening its benefits coverage to include hormonal health and preventative care. [By partnering] with Prenuvo, a provider of whole body MRI imaging, [we] will now cover one body scan per year for all our global employees.” How cool!

But their health benefits don’t stop there. Fountain also covers fertility and family-forming benefits of up to $20,000 for procedures such as egg freezing, in vitro fertilization, fertility treatments, adoption, and gestational surrogacy arrangements. “We are expanding … to include menopause and low testosterone [support as well]. Fountain employees can connect with menopause or low testosterone specialists … and utilize funds for medications, nutrition counseling, and eligible products.”

3. Free farmers’ market

Tito’s Vodka established a farm at their Texas distillery, Dukuly notes. According to Tito’s, they intend to “create an environment where fresh food is accessible.” From lunch cooked onsite using produce from the farm to weekly farmer’s markets stocked with produce for employees to take home, Tito’s is making sure their employees are eating the rainbows! Dukuly says these types of initiatives boost employees’ lifestyles and make the workplace more appealing.

4. Pet-friendly offices

What if you could bring your furry friend to work with you every day? Well, Greer says this is an increasing perk in some offices. “Companies like Airbnb have ‘bring your pets to work day’ [and] ensure pets [are] well-cared for during work hours,” he says.

Tina Leone, CEO of Ballston Business Improvement District, champions their pet-friendly office, stating, “The dog-friendly office came with signing a new lease in 2016 with a building that allowed it … [and] reflects our commitment to enhancing our employees’ quality of life.” This approach, along with other benefits like gym memberships and flexible hours, is part of a broader strategy to support health, wellness, and work-life balance, which she says is crucial for a happy, productive team.

5. Extended sabbaticals

Feeling a little burned out? Itching to check off your bucket list? Well, Dukuly says incentives like extended sabbaticals are important for workers. Automattic, a technology company known for developing, offers a paid three-month sabbatical every five years, aiming to foster employee well-being and professional growth, believing that time off fuels creativity, productivity, and a zest for professional pursuits. Sounds like a good deal, right?

6. Office spaces that feel like home

Greer says that some organizations are revamping their offices to mirror a more homelike atmosphere. “Employers are incorporating elements like more plants and upgraded furniture to create spaces that resemble cafes rather than formal workspaces, complete with comfortable seating, televisions, and high-speed Wi-Fi,” he says.

This approach caters to many’s preference for a cafe-like atmosphere, which explains the popularity of working from locations like Starbucks. Greer also adds that the influence of social media means companies are more inclined to avoid negative publicity by creating a workspace that feels as welcoming as home.

The must-have workplace benefits for today’s employee

For Greer, certain perks often pitched by companies to entice employees back to the office simply don’t hit the mark. “While ensuring the office is a comfortable and appealing space is good, relying solely on amenities like happy hours or beer on tap can be misguided. Employees can enjoy these leisurely activities at home; they don’t necessarily provide a compelling reason to commute to an office,” Greer notes.

It’s about moving beyond the surface-level perks and addressing the real, day-to-day challenges employees face, he says. “From my perspective, perks that significantly alleviate the challenges of work-life integration tend to be the most effective,” Greer adds.

So, what are some of the top perks we should all be negotiating now for better work-life balance?

1. Childcare assistance: On-site facilities and stipends

One significant trend, both Dukuly and Greer believe, is the provision of childcare benefits, ranging from on-site childcare centers to financial stipends, easing the burden on working parents. “[Childcare] provides emotional support to employees who can visit their children during the day,” Greer adds.

An exemplary model is Molly Moon’s, an ice cream company based in Seattle, which offers a remarkable subsidy of $1000 per month per child for both remote HQ and on-site store employees working over 20 hours a week. Pause for a moment and let that soak in.

For Molly Moon Neitzel, the founder and CEO, “Childcare is a critical component of the social infrastructure that supports any healthy workforce, and without safe, reliable, nurturing childcare, my employees can’t come to work and do a great job for our company and in their own careers.”

2. Commuter benefits

There are also incentives like commuter benefits covering expenses for public transport or rideshare services, explains Greer. He adds, “Rather than just offering a pre-tax deduction for commuting expenses, a direct stipend or subsidy that covers a portion of the commuting costs can make a substantial difference.”

Additionally, exploring flexible solutions like providing access to coworking spaces closer to where employees live can offer a practical alternative to daily commutes to a central office, especially for teams living in the same suburb or area, he says.

3. Mental and emotional well-being

“Companies investing in on-site mental health support, beyond traditional Employee Assistance Programs, through access to therapists are seeing longer employee retention,” Greer notes. This support is crucial in today’s high-stress work environment, acknowledging that everyone benefits from having someone to talk to.

4. Commitment to DE&I initiatives

Employees seek environments where everyone feels part of something larger and more meaningful, says Greer. “Following the heightened awareness after the George Floyd incident, there was a significant push towards creating more inclusive workplaces. Despite some companies scaling back on diversity and inclusion initiatives, the demand for such efforts from employees is clear,” he adds.

5. Flexible schedules

Hybrid work has emerged as a highly valued perk among employees, says Greer and Dukuly. “Despite some management beliefs to the contrary, home-based work did not diminish employee output,” says Greer. And people are glomming on to it. Deloitte’s 2023 survey shows 56% of workers would like remote options for their future work—a 6% increase from 2022. The survey also indicates a preference for hybrid work, emphasizing its flexibility despite the challenges of juggling both in-office and remote work environments. ​

But, we are seeing this sought-after perk diminish, explains Greer. Adding, “Initially, the arrangement often allowed for three days working remotely and two days in the office. However, there’s a growing trend towards spending three days in the office and two days at home.” The challenge arises when workloads for the in-office days are so heavy that employees need to come in an additional day, eventually leading to a full five-day office week, Greer notes.

As the demand for flexible work arrangements that over half of us desire begins to wane, it prompts reflection on the future of our workforce’s employee-centric focus. Are we witnessing a shift towards a dynamic where employers regain greater control?

Rescinding perks: It’s no longer an employee market

During the early stages of the pandemic, there was a significant fight for talent, pushing companies to offer more and more benefits to retain and attract employees. However, as the economic landscape shifts, some companies perceive they have the upper hand, leading to a reduction in benefits.

Dukuly notes, “Many benefits introduced at the start of the pandemic, like remote work supports and childcare, are now being labeled as ‘fringe’ and are being cut. This trend towards reducing holistic benefits, including essentials like dental coverage, is alarming. Cutting these benefits not only undermines employee well-being but also can lead to disengagement and, ultimately, employee exit.”

Greer has also observed a trend among companies he’s consulted with, shifting towards recalibrating salary and benefit offers for new hires, aiming to realign with pre-pandemic levels without disclosing specific names.

“This short-term thinking overlooks the cyclical nature of the job market and the potential long-term costs associated with high turnover, especially among employees with deep institutional knowledge,” says Dukuly. Adding, “The conversation around benefits should not be static; it needs to be ongoing, reflecting the changing needs of the workforce. For example, with new loan forgiveness programs … some employees might prefer benefits to be reallocated elsewhere. Perks like menopausal leave highlight the need to adapt to an aging workforce.”

The future of innovative employee perks

Looking to the future, Dukuly hopes to see a continued shift towards flexibility and hybrid work as standard practices, recognizing their value in attracting and retaining a diverse and talented workforce. She adds, “Ultimately, the push for more flexible work arrangements and the evaluation of perks should be seen within the broader context of advocating for employee well-being.”

Greer says the key isn’t to view these benefits as mere temporary incentives tied to the current job market’s dynamics, but rather, companies should recognize that the desire for a comfortable and supportive work environment remains constant, regardless of economic shifts. Adding, “Rather than forcing a return to the office, the focus should be on creating an environment where employees feel valued, heard, and motivated. For younger generations like Millennials and Gen Z, the emphasis is not just on financial compensation but also on comfort, respect, and feeling valued.”

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