Companies face an upward battle as they try to compel employees to return to the physical office, after many workers grew accustomed to — and have come to prefer — the improved work-life balance that remote work enables them to have.
Some workers, particularly those whose jobs can be performed as well — or even more effectively — from home, are loath to return to the physical workplace, especially as COVID-19 cases rise again in 13 states across the U.S.
“Companies are trying to answer the question of ‘how do I convince people that office work is adding some value that you wouldn’t have when working remotely?'” said Ben Friedrich, a professor of strategy at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
So how are businesses coaxing workers back to the office?
Pandemic puppies stipend
A number of companies are offering workers pet stipends, a monthly sum they can spend on dog-walking, pet-sitting or some other form of day care for their pets, with whom they’ve grown accustomed to spending the whole day while working from home during the pandemic.
Jeanniey Walden, a human resources expert and chief innovation officer at DailyPay, an on-demand payments platform, said pet stipends are popular, especially given the high number of new pet owners.
“People bought pets when they were quarantined, and it’s hard if you have just spent two years with your puppy to go from being with them 24/7 to leaving them alone for eight hours when you are in the office,” Walden told CBS MoneyWatch.
DailyPay is among the employers that plan to offer workers a pet stipend. “It will be a set amount each month that you can spend however you choose. You can hire a dog walker or cat sitter to come to your house or take your pet to day care,” she said.
More companies with job listings on employment site Adzuna, including Google, Purina and digital media company Refinery 29 describe their offices as “dog-friendly,” according to Adzuna’s chief marketing officer Paul Lewis.
In all, 1,300 job listings across the site describe offices where workers can bring their pups.
“Big brands are trying to get you into the office, are making sure you can bring your loved one with you, given purchase of pets during the pandemic have gone up hugely,” Lewis told CBS MoneyWatch.
Nearly 400 employers advertising open roles with Adzuna offer paid time off for new pet parents, a perk dubbed “pawternity leave.”
“We’ve seen a number of companies introduce this as a new benefit,” Lewis said. “This way when you get a new pet, you can bond with them and make sure they are OK before you eventually have to bring them into the office.”
Some companies are even starting to experiment with true four-day workweeks, so that employees are more inclined to spend at least a couple days of the week in the office.
“While it’s not common in the U.S., some companies are starting to experiment with this so maybe people are more willing to come into the office some days, if they have more flexibility to do what they want on the other days,” Professor Friedrich said.
Crowdfunding company Kickstarter is among those employers piloting a truncated workweek.
Tech companies were ahead of the curve in embracing remote work. But when other industries went remote during the pandemic, it became the norm — not a work perk.
“One of the big reasons we’re seeing companies attracted to introducing four day work weeks is because in a lot of sectors remote work has become a minimum expectation,” said Joe O’Connor, CEO of 4 Day Week Global, a nonprofit that helps companies run four-day workweek pilot programs.
“It is no longer a competitive advantage when everyone is doing it, and they are looking at new things that give them an edge,” O’Connor said.
These days, there is such a thing as free lunch — another perk companies are offering workers to commute to their physical workplaces. In addition to catered meals, some employers are offering free booze and cappuccino, too.
One department at the Kellogg School of Management has introduced free lunches for employees two times a week, Professor Friedrich said.
“They introduced free lunch to help coordinate faculty to come into the office and there are positive spillovers like discussing new ideas, feedback and teaching that happens randomly as part of casual conversation. Facilitating that makes people realize what they are missing,” he said.
In general, companies are trying to create more social work environments.
“Companies are doing everything they can think of the make the office more fun and social,” Walden of DailyPay said. “A lot of companies are offering yoga and meditation during the day to help with the mindset shift that comes from going to the home environment to the work environment.”
But, at the end of the day incentives have “to be more than free beer,” Friedrich said.
Peter Schnall, an epidemiologist and founder of Unhealthy Work, which examines how work environments affect individuals’ health and well-being, said corporate happy hours are a bad idea anyhow, given that we are still in the midst of the pandemic, and drinking requires workers to drop their masks.
“Obviously, they want people to go back to the office, but under the conditions of waves of the epidemic, it’s simply premature,” he said, adding, “Unless you don’t care whether or not employees get sick, or you believe if they get sick they won’t die because they are younger — but that all forgets about transmission to other people.”
Schnall claims forcing workers back to the office part-time won’t achieve the goal of better collaboration or improved morale, anyhow.
“The notion of people coming into the office one day a week — what is the argument in favor of that? You’ll develop camaraderie because now people are coming into work because they are forced to, even though they don’t want to. And now they are worried about getting infected? I don’t think so,” he said.
“Dropping the tie”
Formal wear was already going out of favor with the professional class, with workers over the past decade drifting away from restrictive office accoutrements like ties and high heels, opting for crisp shirts and flat shoes instead. The pandemic accelerated the rise of casual wear at work, allowing employees out of their bosses’ view to do their jobs in sweatpants and sports bras.
To help ease the transition back to the workplace, a number of employers are relaxing their dress codes, according to human resources experts.
“People lost their dress code completely at home and some companies are trying to embrace that,” Friedrich said. “Some people may appreciate they can wear their nice clothes again, but they also got used to being less formal, so companies are definitely dropping the tie.”
What do workers really want?
But what workers really want is flexibility.
“I can’t think of any perks that are working other than offering employees the flexibility to choose when they are in the office and when they are not,” said Jaemi Taylor, a human resources executive at Allegis Partners, a global recruiting firm. “Even cash isn’t working anymore. People have adjusted their lifestyles and how the dynamic of their families works and they are not willing to give up ‘that flexibility to go back into the office.”
Taylor calls perks like onsite barbers and chefs, “tricks of the past.” “They are not desirable,” she said. “Now it is all about time and choice.”