When Sean Lane founded his health tech startup, Olive, in 2012, he looked to the giants of Silicon Valley for inspiration. Google had a corporate chef, so Olive hired one too. Apple had a gym on its campus, so Olive built one of those. It also added an on-site barbershop and a hand-built arcade room in its headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, where Lane dreamed of one day building an office big enough to be part of the city skyline. “I was looking at other successful companies and trying to do pattern matching,” he says.
Then 2020 happened. The plans to build a bigger headquarters seemed, frankly, ridiculous as Olive’s employees shifted to remote work, and the office arcade sat unused, gathering dust. When Lane checked in on his employees, though, he found that they weren’t all that upset about losing the office perks. Instead, he says, people simply wanted a break. So, using funds it had previously earmarked to build a bigger headquarters, Olive started leasing vacation rentals for its employees to reserve, free of charge, whenever they need a getaway. “We have it roadmapped to open a new getaway every month to two months,” Lane says. “Our first one’s in a beach setting, the next one will be a country setting.”
Workplace perks have long been a way to court talent in white-collar industries. Tech companies, in particular, have relied on them to compete for—and retain—the most highly sought-after people, dazzling recruits with stylish headquarters, free food, and exclusive in-office events. By now, anyone working in tech has come to expect these trappings, along with benefits like employer-funded egg freezing or unlimited PTO. A Glassdoor survey from 2016 found that more than half of respondents said that workplace perks were “among their top considerations before accepting a job.” (Among the best perks listed in that survey: Airbnb’s yearly $2,000 travel stipend.) When choosing where to sign an offer, those perks can make the office feel less like, well, work.
With the pandemic forcing employees to work from home, however, startups like Olive are shifting their workplace incentives out of the office too. Gone are the corporate chefs serving gourmet lunches, replaced with Grubhub credits and free lunch delivery. (Olive no longer feeds its employees, but it does continue to pay its chef, who is now serving meals to a local shelter.) Company-sponsored outings to baseball games or wine country have been replaced with virtual scavenger hunts and magic shows. Recurring Zoom happy hours have become common; the staff at AllTrails, a trail-mapping app, calls theirs “White Claw Wednesday.” The Zebra, an Austin-based insurance startup, offered to cover pet adoption fees for employees who now spend the workday at home.
Others are focused on giving people a break. That unlimited PTO? Now some startups are mandating that their workers take it. “We realized back in May that nobody was taking days off,” says Ryan Denehy, the CEO of Electric, an IT solutions startup. “You might not be able to go to the Bahamas, but we still want you to take days off.” Electric has since deemed the first Friday of every month a bonus vacation day. Slack, similarly, now gives its employees one Friday off every month. It calls the policy “Fri-yays.”
Twitter, which has made new time-off allowances for working parents and mental health days during the pandemic, also started to offer corporate subscriptions to Happify, a mindfulness app. SoFi, the personal finance startup, recently signed its employees up for Modern Health, a teletherapy platform, and offered to pay for six therapy sessions. Blueboard, an employee rewards platform, has seen an uptick in companies asking for incentives focused on mental and physical health rather than the usual adventures (like, say, skydiving or snorkeling). “Companies realize that people are feeling drained—mentally and physically,” says Kevin Yip, Blueboard’s cofounder and COO. “We have a cohort of customers that have created separate programs to give well-being experiences to employees: Pelotons, Mirrors, Chorus meditation sessions, life coaches.”
Right now, these new benefits may be less about recruiting new people and more about keeping existing workers motivated. Job listing sites like Indeed report that the number of open positions in tech is way down compared to last year, and even compared to other sectors during the pandemic. Thousands of employees have lost their jobs at tech startups, and a drought in venture capital has made it harder for new startups to expand. Offering a low-cost incentive, like an extra vacation day or a subscription to a meditation app, might not seem very impressive in a competitive job market. But it could go a long way with people who are feeling stressed, burned out, and exhausted—as more Americans than usual are.
Still, “employers can, and do, design these perks so that they get something back,” says Elizabeth Tippett, who researches behavioral ethics and employment law at the University of Oregon’s School of Law. Tippett describes these perks as a contemporary form of “welfare capitalism,” akin to the company towns of the early 20th century, which offered company-sponsored housing, schools, parks, and sporting events, in tacit exchange for highly productive work. On balance, Tippett says, this kind of arrangement can benefit workers, but it also benefits the employer, in the sense that “it makes it harder for us to leave our jobs.”
Historically, Tippett says, startup perks have largely catered to the needs of young bachelors. Hosting after-work happy hours and offering free dinner buffets is nice, but those perks “catered to the needs of people who were unattached, had no family care obligations, or who had a spouse who took those obligations on.” An arcade room means very little to someone who wants to be in the office exclusively to work, or who cannot stay past dinnertime because they have to pick up kids from daycare. “In a time like this, it’s a good time to stop and think about the equity implications,” says Tippett. “Is the way the company is investing in workers helping some workers over other kinds of workers?”
To that end, the pandemic seems to have refocused some tech companies on what workers actually need to stick around. “What they really need is help with childcare,” says Susan Ashford, who chairs the Management and Organizations Department at the University of Michigan. Companies like Apple—which famously rebuilt its Cupertino headquarters in 2017 with a 100,000-square-foot gym but no daycare—now offer employees extra time off for caregivers. This year, Amazon and Netflix also added employee memberships to services like Care.com, which connects people to childcare providers.
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Some startups are now adding new benefits to give their employees an extra hand at home, with “concierge” services. “Having the ability to offload any household task or errand frees up mind space, reduces stress, and gives back time, and having an employer acknowledge this—especially now—makes a huge difference,” says Jessi Lima Bollin, the VP of communications at Best Upon Request, a concierge service. These services may play into the stereotypes of young startup bachelors who can’t be bothered to clean their own rooms. But they could also help employees with caregiving responsibilities at home, who during the pandemic have had to juggle homeschooling their kids or running errands for grandma, in addition to showing up at work. That balancing act still often falls on women.
If and when startups return to their offices sometime in the future, it’s conceivable that many of these perks will last. And maybe that will create a better, more hospitable workplace environment overall—at least, for the tech workers lucky enough to get them. Lane, who gave up his dream of the monolithic headquarters in Columbus, admitted that his idea of the perfect startup office was mostly driven by his own ego, and his desire to look like other successful tech companies. “Now,” he says, “we’re more focused on being practical for all of the employees.”
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