When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, companies stepped in with a host of benefits aimed at helping their workforces navigate unprecedented times. The programs, including expanded sick leave, emergency backup childcare, caregiver days, flexible schedules, and remote work, were born out of necessity. But many have become immensely popular.
More than two years on, companies are shifting from rolling out emergency benefits to implementing permanent support. Today the American workplace is undergoing a seismic shift the likes of which has not been seen since World War II, says Julie Stone, a managing director of WTW’s North American health and benefits group. Back then, with the majority of the male workforce fighting overseas and a wage freeze in place, companies offered new benefits like employer-sponsored health care to attract women to fill the open roles.
The effects of the pandemic and recent social movements have been just as impactful, with many workers reevaluating their priorities. And the so-called Great Resignation and ongoing labor shortages have given them the leverage to demand changes. “Employees are setting boundaries around work time and workplace that’s not going to revert back in six or nine months,” Stone says.
It’s forcing even the best employers to shift from offering benefits borne of emergency circumstances to thoughtfully crafting policies and programs that are designed to aid the total well-being of their employees. The goal: generating a flexible, productive workforce for the long haul.
“What’s happened in 2020, 2021, and 2022 will forever shape what employees will do, our society, and the role of the employer,” Stone says.
A renewed focus on employee well-being
It’s been a popular HR refrain for years: Bring your whole self to work. And many of the companies on the 100 Best Companies to Work For list understand that meaningful benefits and a supportive corporate culture are key to enhancing employees’ ability to fulfill that mandate.
It’s not just Big Tech offering holistic incentives. One of the nation’s largest homebuilders, David Weekley Homes (No. 9), focuses on the financial well-being of its employees, offering a generous 401(k) plan that provides participating full-time employees with a quarterly 100% dollar-for-dollar discretionary company match for contributions of up to 8%. David Weekley Homes also offers an employee stock ownership plan and a profit-sharing program, as well as new-home discounts and a college scholarship program for employees’ children.
Cisco Systems, which claims the top spot on this ranking for the second year in a row, has been working for the past three years to reduce the stigma surrounding discussion of mental health at work. The tech giant has offered free counseling sessions through the company’s employee assistance program for more than 20 years and recently boosted its digital therapy options through a partnership with Vida Health.
But during the pandemic, Cisco heard from employees struggling with anxiety and exhaustion. In response, it launched a companywide Day for Me, essentially an additional paid vacation day in spring 2020 to help workers prioritize self-care. Cisco formally implemented the benefit last year and has offered an extra eight days of paid time off so far, with an additional three planned in 2022.
“Day for Me is a way for the company to say, ‘Hey, everyone step away,’ knowing that it truly gives our people a break,” Fran Katsoudas, Cisco’s chief people, policy, and purpose officer, tells Fortune.
Global law firm Orrick (No. 13) is also encouraging employees to take time off to recharge. The firm started offering staff 40 hours of “unplugged time” in March 2021. To ensure everyone is able to fully disconnect while on vacation, it made the unplugged time bonus-eligible, so partners and associates don’t need to choose between taking time off and reaching their full earning potential.
Additionally, to mitigate the stress of “living at work,” Orrick continues to discourage nonessential internal meetings on Fridays to give employees a chance to catch up so they can avoid working weekends.
Many companies embrace flexibility
Nearly half of workers say one of the top reasons they quit a job in 2021 was a lack of flexibility, according to Pew Research Center. Coming out of the pandemic, workers want the ability to choose where, when, and how they work.
Companies are offering workers what they want. In fact, 58% of knowledge workers have hybrid work arrangements as of January 2022, according to data from the Future Forum Pulse survey. And most workers say they prefer it that way. Flexibility has become a major buzzword in the recruitment and retention game, and Glassdoor reviews mentioning “hybrid” increased by 626% over the past year.
“With people not being present five days a week, or some permanently working from home, new communication and engagement strategies are critical,” Stone says. While this shift is already underway at some of the best companies, others need to dig in to optimize technology, beyond just using Zoom calls for meetings.
Quite simply, it’s about making remote work, well, work. “We put way too much focus on where someone sits, and we have to put more focus on what is the best way for us to get work done,” Katsoudas says.
For Accenture (No. 6), that has meant setting up an internal metaverse for its employees called the Nth Floor in March 2021. Allison Horn, who leads global talent for Accenture, calls the metaverse project an example of the company “bringing human ingenuity and technology together.”
A year in, Accenture is on track to have 150,000 employees using its metaverse, including an onboarding environment called One Accenture Park and digital versions of Accenture’s existing offices.
This digital evolution of work and collaboration is really just beginning. “There are huge implications for the future of work here,” Horn says.
By the numbers
A version of this article appears in the April/May 2022 issue of Fortune with the headline, “The great shift from ’emergency’ to essential.”
See the full list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For in 2022.