Rethinking Office Perks

People’s needs and expectations are – and are going to be – very different.

You’d be hard-pressed to offer a single, cohesive and comprehensive definition of “office perks.” In practice that term can be used to describe anything from free coffee to ping-pong tables in the break room to artisan baguettes served in the commissary.

One thing they all have in common is that they all more or less require employees to be in an office in order to take advantage of them.

In some companies, especially those in Silicon Valley, Wall Street and other areas of concentrated wealth, those perks were sometimes lavish. Even the most basic perks, though, sometimes became important in the lives of the workers. Free snacks in the kitchen, a benefit offered by an increasing number of companies, can be important to some people because it means one less meal they have to plan and shop for, the money then being saved for housing, education or other needs.

Since the widespread Covid-19 office shutdowns, some 62 percent of Americans who can do so have worked or are working from home, a massive increase over even just a few months prior. That’s meant massive changes as people are drinking more coffee and eating more food at home along with many other new or shifted behaviors.

Office – or rather “employment: – perks are going to have change to adapt to this new reality if companies want to continue using them as a means to both attract new employees and retain those they currently have.

No single issue offers a more clear example of this reality than that of childcare.

As of right now we’re looking at what can realistically be called a second phase of the first wave of Covid-19 cases around the country. New cases are at their highest level, more than what was seen in March or April. Many states are stopping or rolling back plans to reopen their economies. Still, the essential workers who have been clocking in every day regardless of the situation are going to continue to do so. Those workers are often paid less and don’t have the luxury of working from home. Nor are they likely to enjoy the kind of perks those in other professions are able to take advantage of.

Regardless of what kind of job someone has, the odds are good childcare isn’t among the perks offered. That includes not being free to take time off when they need to as well as not have access to subsidized daycare options. The picture gets worse when you consider many daycare facilities have closed during the pandemic and, like schools, the chances of their reopening in the fall seem sketchy at best given the high infection rates being reported around the country.

Parents may have been able to patch something together for a few months, but many now face the very real possibility this will be their new reality for at least the rest of this calendar year if not the entirety of the 2020/21 school year. That or whatever professional childcare facilities are open will be prohibitively expensive given the increased cleaning procedures that need to be followed along with other challenges that will drive up costs.

If a child at home will need full-time care, that responsibility will in most cases fall on the mother, leading to a widening of the gender gap in the workforce.

Companies who are serious about policies that benefit all workers – as well as society as a whole – could play a major role in turning that around by reevaluating the kinds of non-payroll benefits they offer.

Here’s a good rule of thumb. If a perk looks like anything on the list below, get rid of it immediately and put all of that money into helping your employees afford childcare:

  • It’s something people need to be in the office to enjoy.
  • Any part of it looks like something you’d see in SkyMall.
  • It’s something that looks like it originated in a college dorm, and not in a good way.
  • It was recommended in a TED Talk.

That may seem a bit sarcastic, but it’s not.

Aside from all that, it’s vitally important companies decide now whether they will support employees or hang them out to dry. In addition to childcare reimbursements and allowances, consideration has to be given to how workers are balancing their lives. Expectations should be reset so that workers who need to shift their hours to earlier or later in the day, or split up their day a bit more, are made to feel they can do so without fear of being judged poorly for doing so.

This is a world of unknowns we are all operating in. Everyone is making it up as they go along, and companies can do their part by simply not punishing parents scrambling to make childcare and education work.