This is the problem with office perks

Do you miss your office ping pong table or the free snacks in the break room? What about charitable matching or in-office daycare? Maybe you never used any of those services at all – but now that they’re gone, and everyone is working from home, there’s an empty space filling the void of the lovely treats HR used to impart upon hard-working staff.

In the age of remote work, employees are craving more, and even if there are fewer opportunities for exciting or silly perks, there are plenty of chances to make one’s quality of work-life better. Has your HR department taken this opportunity for innovation, or fallen flat?

Kim McElroy, MSW, the former Senior Director of Behavioral Health at WellCare South Carolina (who recently merged with healthcare giant Centene), sees HR as something a little more than just a place that doles out impersonal benefits.

“HR is so standard across all the industries,” she explains. “You got your healthcare, educational leave is great, holidays, retirements, disability plans, parental leave… especially in the pandemic, we’ve realized caregiver leave is so important. You also have benefits for professional development, but no one really spells that out in their HR packets. Sometimes you have to pay out of your pocket to get CME credits or something – that should definitely be included.”

“But I think HR is so much about benefits and your professional life, and I know looking at potential employers, I think the benefits speak for themselves if they’re around an employee’s personal life and wellbeing.

Interestingly, in Optum’s Annual Wellbeing at Work Study, a reported 75% of companies have some sort of wellness program, from a sample size of 544 – everything from stop-smoking aids to weight loss.

“In Columbia, we have a very small office, but at Shared Services you would have access to a wellness center, which was amazing,” McElroy says.

WellCare also offered easy ways to stay healthy, like being able to work out in the building’s gym on a break in the middle of the workday.

“You’d also get 15% off whatever you ate [at the cafeteria] as long as it was deemed to be a health food choice and a free Apple Watch. As long as you logged in 10,000 steps per day they’d pay your monthly premium for it.”

Pandemic perks

Unfortunately, with employees working from home, they don’t exactly have access to an in-office gym or a discount on lunch. So how do these once helpful perks translate to a work-from-home environment, and are they really what employees want?

At WellCare, they tried to keep up the momentum, McElroy says – “they had step challenges, so even though we were all remote, we were assigned to a team, and try to get a certain amount of steps per week.”

“Within WellCare, they had the EAP program, with lots of benefits in that. But I never took advantage of any of those. When we went remote, they really pushed all that.” But the way in which the information was disseminated tended to be disorganized, and just as they were in the office, many of these programs were not mandatory.

“There was also a life coach,” McElroy adds, who carried over from the in-person days. “You could get a weekly call with a health coach, and talk about both about living a healthy lifestyle, and how things were going day to day. It was invaluable, people don’t like the stigma of a therapist, but you can talk to a life coach about anything.”

Better perks for a hybrid future

In the aforementioned Optum study, 87% of employers note that they are concerned about their employees’ mental health. But services are often few and far between, hidden under piles of HR emails and unpublicized Zoom meetings.

“When we left, I don’t think we did enough for isolation and mental health for people,” McElroy says. These programs being mandated, or sponsored by HR and publicized heavily, would be a perk worth more than any other. “Even just weekly newsletters about taking a mental break from the office setting, getting up for ten minutes and get away from your computer desk, really anything would have been helpful.

“There were bits and pieces of support departmentally, but as a company creating that culture, we negated any progress,” McElroy adds. And while corporate wellness is trending, stigma against mental health is still so prevalent that many employees may not take advantage of these opportunities. Offerings like sponsored educational sessions regarding finding a therapist and navigating the mental health system have proven effective, and mental health-specific HRAs can help provide companies with more data about their employees’ wellbeing.

McElroy also suggests mandated volunteering for employees, but rather than WellCare’s current four hours per year, “really what could be amazing is to say, ‘you know what, you have two days a year to give back to the community’… somethings that’s not forced, it’s personal, and helps people think outside the box.”

McElroy also mentioned hearing about a program that offered a more individualized perk, one that fosters freedom and independence: “thirty minutes of the workweek to be your best self.”

“So many times,” McElroy continues, “especially when you’re not in a leadership position, you get like, two fifteen minutes breaks and a 30-minute lunch break. But having your company say, ‘hey, take some time to take a walk around the pond today,’ that’s really cool.”

“Truly 30 minutes a week is nothing big,” she concludes. “But saying, ‘hey we’re going to give you wellbeing time’ means you value us as an employee, rather than it all just being geared towards work. Having a company that says, ‘we want you to be your best so you can give your best,’ that’s really amazing.”