Silicon Valley companies are rethinking in-office perks for a post-pandemic era

July 3, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC

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Silicon Valley companies pioneered and popularized the “fun” office. From catered meals to on-site acupuncture to “whiskey Fridays,” tech players lured employees—not just to come and work for them but to log long hours (why leave when there’s a free juice bar just a few feet away from your desk?). Now, as the pandemic has forced these same companies to work from home and rethink their in-office culture, some will have to rethink their perks strategy as well. And that might have all sorts of repercussions, good or bad.

“The [new] perks can be more inclusive and easily used by any employee regardless of work location—whether in the same building, a different company office, or working remotely,” says Sara Sutton, the founder and CEO of FlexJobs, a marketplace for remote talent. “This can also help create a more cohesive and consistent culture.”

Some in the industry say that there was already a slow shift away from in-office perks and toward other types of benefits—the kind that are also attractive to those who work remotely or whose lifestyles don’t enable them to stay in the office until 10 p.m. The pandemic, they say, is just accelerating the necessary shift in thinking.

“It was kind of like an arms race where everyone finally got to an end point,” Laszlo Bock, Google’s former head of human resources, says about the competition among tech companies to offer cushier and cushier in-office amenities.

Bock now runs Humu, a startup that uses machine learning to help organizations transform (think A.I.-powered “nudges” that show up as reminders or acclamations in employees’ Slack messages and across other communication channels). But he was instrumental in creating the culture—and perks—at Google. And the longtime tech exec says that, almost from the get-go, many outsiders got it all wrong.

“People confused correlation with causation,” says Bock. “Everyone said, well, if Google is doing this, I want to do it too. And they all designed microkitchens.”

Bock argues that Google’s in-office perks weren’t designed to keep people trapped at the Googleplex. “It was about creating moments of serendipity,” says Bock. The real goal? Not just to offer free gourmet meals but to give employees plenty of opportunities to organically connect and brainstorm new products and features. “Google News famously grew out of two engineers talking in line.”

While a move away from an in-office culture makes it much harder to create those serendipitous moments of creativity, some CEOs are already reframing their physical locations as a place designed only for brainstorming and teamwork, not individual work.  

“We’ve already plowed into our real estate assumptions,” Ginni Rometty, the former CEO and current executive chairman of IBM, told the audience at a recent Fortune virtual event. “What we envision is the office becoming an innovation hub. You’ll come in for a purpose.”

Those rethought real estate assumptions translate to plenty of cost-cutting opportunities for companies. But organizations who are doing away with some or all of their office space also need to think about what benefits will be important to a remote workforce. That’s especially true when workers have been accustomed to a certain level of perks in the office. And it’s even more vital for companies who are turning to a hybrid workforce—you can’t offer free yoga classes for in-office workers and nothing for those working remotely.

What’s more, even those returning to offices likely won’t be able to enjoy all of the perks once offered by their employers. For the foreseeable future, new health and safety rules will likely nix some of the more, um, hands-on benefits.

“Snacks that you have to stick your hands in to get is not gonna happen,” says Robby Kwok, senior vice president of people at collaboration service Slack.

Kwok says that Slack has always focused its perks and benefits on the well-being of employees and their families, not on swanky office amenities. “What matters to people is pay, health, and flexibility,” says Kwok. “I hope to see more companies focus on those things.”

That said, Slack is rethinking some of its benefits in light of the pandemic and expectations that more and more people will opt to work from home even after the crisis subsides. “We are going to be a company that’s more distributed going forward,” says Kwok. “The culture of how we work together has to change.”

Slack is already offering childcare credits to employees with young children and offering caregivers unlimited days off. But the company is also rethinking simple things like what meetings can and should look like in the future. In the past, it was common to have a meeting where eight people were physically in the room and two were dialed in from a remote location, says Kwok. Now, Slack is considering making it mandatory for everyone to dial in from their desk, whether they are in the office or at home. The thinking? It will make it easier for everyone to speak up, putting less pressure and onus on those who opt to work out of the office.

To be sure, going remote has been a massive, forced experiment, and most companies—even the most forward-thinking tech players—were wholly unprepared for it. But now, as reopening plans start to come to fruition, tech companies have an opportunity to rethink perks and benefits in a much more impactful and inclusive way. Hopefully, they will seize that opening and, just as in the past, other sectors will follow in their footsteps.

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