Remember when the answer to “What’s it like to work for your company?” was a laundry list of “cool” office perks? “Oh it’s so great! We have ping pong tables, rooftop bars, free lunches, and beers on tap.”
Looking back on those pre-pandemic conversations seems almost comical today. These types of enticing office perks were everywhere in the B.C. (before-COVID) world, but now that we’ve had a year to refocus our priorities, let me ask you– were they really worth it?
In-office culture, topped with the hottest happy hour trends, comped meals, and break room games, used to be a way for companies to differentiate themselves and stay attractive to a new generation of workers. But these trendy perks were more for vanity than real value. It was fueled by a race to be cool and veiled by superficiality.
But once the pandemic hit, it brought us back to ground zero. We were no longer able to access these in-office perks– or the office in general– and were forced to focus on what mattered the most to us and our overall wellbeing. Mental health and workforce wellness became a real issue and a critical priority.
The year 2020 brought more challenges and changes than any of us could imagine. For many, it was the most stressful year ever with COVID-19 negatively impacting the mental health of 78 percent of the global workforce. What was once a taboo topic has now become a mainstream conversation.
The stigma around mental health is finally breaking down. Celebrities like Meghan Markle, Demi Lovato, and Michael Phelps are stepping up to champion change around mental health, prioritize self-care, and reinforce the value of wellbeing. With so many people dealing with increased levels of anxiety during the pandemic, navigating boundary-less lives with remote work and virtual schooling, and many struggling to juggle both professional and personal responsibilities, everybody can relate to the desire to want help: Help to deal with anxiety. Help to manage new workloads. Help to support their children and family. And help to find a balance.
These are the issues that people care about today– not whether they’ll get free beer in the office.
And this change is not a short-term fad. I believe the pandemic has permanently shifted our priorities towards finding meaningful value in workforce wellness. If there’s one good thing that COVID-19 brought, it was the opportunity to reprioritize what matters most. For me, I’ve loved the time at home that I spent with my family. We were able to bond and create quality time doing things like raising our chickens, starting a garden, and getting outside together. And that is not something that will slip away no matter what our next “normal” looks like.
As we continue to see progress in vaccine distribution, and companies develop return-to-work plans, we have to realize that we’re not going “back to normal.” As many as 60 percent of workers will choose to stay remote at least some of the time if their companies allow, most companies will adopt a type of hybrid model, and in-office floor plans will look vastly different.
Just because offices may reopen does not mean we will celebrate in-office perks as we did B.C. We can now expect people to prioritize stress support overstocked pantries, parental assistance over ping pong tables, and flexible hours over free lunches. Despite varying remote, flex, and in-office schedules, workforce wellness will be a priority for everybody. And as many as 76 percent of workers worldwide believe their company should be doing more to protect their mental health. It’s time for organizations to step up, redefine what employee benefits really mean to their teams, and provide perks that matter.
As we return to the office and navigate the post-pandemic workplace, employers will need to take a close look at the type of employee experiences they deliver. Understanding and addressing new employee priorities doesn’t have to come in the form of massive wellness stipends or in-house therapists – though many would likely appreciate those benefits. It can be as simple as providing flexible hours for working parents or encouraging time off for people to disconnect and reset.
One thing I started doing with my teams is beginning every call with a few minutes of non-work conversation. I make a point to ask them “How are you doing?” or “How are things at home?” This not only gives us all a mental break from back-to-back zoom meetings, but also allows me to understand how I can best support and relate to my team.
The key is taking inventory of what matters the most to your workforce, identifying support that delivers true value, and tailoring the employee experience accordingly. In addition to things like childcare assistance, technology can also aid the pressures of working remotely. Things like digital assistants can provide quick answers to questions, instantly deliver wellness advice like tips to deal with anxiety or offer resources to get professional help as needed. Organizations can even leverage new technology like AI to create step-by-step journeys that walk employees through the tasks needed to prioritize wellness in their unique workplace. Tools and services like this, that foster support and community in a virtual world, will make a more meaningful difference than vanity perks.
While many organizations may have already started to implement some of these wellness initiatives, the test will be how we continue and expand the focus in a post-pandemic world. Often, especially in Silicon Valley, we see a lot of “group think” happen: once a few of the ‘cool kids’ started offering rooftop bars, everybody jumped on that trend. Right now, we’re seeing more experimentation as organizations are figuring out what our future is going to look like– but we will see a bigger shift as companies solidify their strategies. Perhaps if enough people prioritize workforce wellness in this “new normal” it will be seen as the next “cool” thing do it. It certainly is the right thing to do.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.