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Virtual pizza parties, pet adoption fees and on-demand babysitters: How the pandemic changed employee perks

Employers are investing more in digital perks as remote work gets prolonged

Companies are getting creative with digital perks to motivate staff during the pandemic. (Gustaf Öhrnell Hjalmars for The Washington Post)
11 min

Mohit Asthana says his life as an employee working from home over the course of 18 months has included some unexpected perks.

One day, he received in the mail a kitchen-themed care package that contained a cutting board, apron, coffee mug and pink Himalayan salt. He also got an Alexa speaker to celebrate his company’s rebrand in June this year, an annual $500 stipend for his home office and memberships to digital mental health service Ginger and meditation app Headspace, which he says he uses to fall asleep every night.

Like many other office employees, Asthana, a sales representative at Momentive, formerly known as SurveyMonkey, was sent to work from home in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Not only did working from home mean Asthana would have to do his job differently, it also meant the end of regularly catered meals, unlimited snacks, a stipend for travel and various team outings and events that were reserved for in-office workers. But he has enjoyed the new digital perks that he has been getting for more than a year now.

“It definitely helps,” he said, as the perks are a nice gesture in a work from home environment.

As companies across many industries navigate the future of work — with some employees working permanently at home and others slowly returning to the office — they’re experimenting with how best to offer their scattered workforces perks to help keep employees motivated. The days of endlessly flowing kombucha and cold brew, meditation rooms and Friday massages may be on hold as companies tweak their budgets for a new style of work. But they are getting creative with digital perks, from wellness services to subscription snack boxes and virtual events to keep employees engaged using technology.

Help Desk: What perks should employers offer to motivate staff working remotely?

In the past, such perks were largely reserved for big companies with large budgets: venture capital-backed start-ups, Silicon Valley tech giants and big financial institutions. But the pandemic has created demand for remote-work perks across industries, and perks providers say their businesses are thriving. Workers appreciate the gesture and note the shiny little benefits could help lure new employees.

“We’re seeing a lot of new companies creating products and services built for the future of work,” said Dominik Pantelides, co-founder and chief executive of Los Angeles-based employee support service Perks, which has been “inundated” with requests from new perks providers that want to be featured on the service’s benefits marketplace.

To be sure, many workers are not eligible for digital perks as some companies are not offering them, while other employees have been working on the front lines during the pandemic. But many companies are beginning to think more holistically about their employees’ families, their home lives and their quality of life. One perk that The Zebra, an Austin-based billion-dollar insurance comparison marketplace start-up, is offering employees is money to cover the cost of adopting pets.

“We offered to cover pet adoption fees … not knowing the desire would blow up,” said Keith Melnick, chief executive of the The Zebra. “As you would imagine, we saw a huge increase of people using that benefit.”

Daniel Kujanek, The Zebra’s performance marketing director, was grateful for the perk as he and his wife added a new husky mix named Romy to the family as a result.

“I felt very thought of as an employee,” he said. “I can’t imagine what our household would be without [Romy].”

That’s far from the only perk offered by The Zebra during the pandemic, Kujanek said. He has taken advantage of a $100 monthly wellness stipend, which the company had also provided before the coronavirus hit, for workout equipment such as dumbbells, floor mats and resistance bands. During the pandemic, The Zebra’s employees also have been able to separately expense a curated list of subscriptions, including aromatherapy candles and House Plant Box, which sends people a new houseplant every month.

Rebecca Li, product designer at home service management software company Jobber, said she has gotten everything from baked goodies and snack boxes to branded towels, fleece blankets and foam beverage sleeves while working from home. But some of her favorite perks have been virtual events her company has hosted, including a trivia night, desk yoga sessions and a silent auction in which people could bid to win items their co-workers donated.

“As someone who’s at home sitting around all day, it’s good to actually have a break … and also connect with others to build camaraderie,” she said.

The challenge of creating a sense of togetherness when everyone is apart is something Chris Toy, co-founder and chief executive of digital marketing talent platform MarketerHire, thinks about often. And when he’s helping his team develop perks for his all-remote employee base, he’s thinking about the experience they will provide.

“There’s a cadence and momentum to relationship-building in-person, but when it’s remote it won’t just happen,” he said. “The danger of remote work is if you don’t put in the effort, it becomes a little like [the movie] ‘Groundhog Day.’”

In addition to virtual pizza parties, MarketerHire employees have participated in virtual cooking classes and solved puzzles together to get out of a virtual panic room. Toy said he thinks digital perks probably won’t be the first thing on employees’ minds when considering a job, but could be “shiny things” that may initially attract them or seal the deal in the end.

For New York-based Pizzatime, which delivers pizza to remote workers who receive an online link to order and receive their pies from nearby pizzerias, the pandemic provided an unexpected opportunity. The pizza delivery experiment founded in 2019 had little success when it first launched, according to Josh Gross, its chief executive and founder. He thought about winding down the business and took down his website, but when the pandemic hit, he was inundated with emails asking how people could submit orders for their workers, who were now all working from home.

“We had next to no orders in 2019. By the end of last year, we had over 1,500 orders in a day. It’s been gangbusters,” Gross said.

Pizzatime has since grown its workforce from 12 to 20 part-time workers and expects to have a total employee count of 27 by the end of the year. It now also offers coffee and alcoholic beverages, as well as virtual experiences such as group yoga, trivia or a set from a stand-up comedian. It’s currently working on debuting lunch delivery.

For Annie Wiggins, senior director of New York-based Small Girls PR, Pizzatime was a big hit. The public-relations firm opted to try the service for its annual virtual retreat for employees last year.

“In the middle of our virtual conference, people were saying, ‘Be right back! Someone is at my door,’ ” she said, adding that her cheese pizza arrived within the same 30-minute window as all her colleagues’ pies. “It cultivated this experience that we’re all doing this same thing at the same time even though we’re not in person.”

Between snacks and shared meals, food is a culture for many office workers. Once they were sent home, many employers were wondering if and how they might be able to replicate the experience.

“As we were assessing how we wanted to respond and best support our entire workforce, snacks was the number one most-requested perk,” said Makenzie LaBare, people experience programs manager at San Francisco-based software company Amplitude. “The challenge of working from home is carving out time to prepare a lunch, so having grab-and-go snacks is super helpful for me.”

Amplitude turned to New-York based online delivery service SnackMagic to provide its workers with monthly snack boxes they could customize to their liking with items such as cookies, popcorn, candy, granola and jerky. It also offers beverages and personal care products such as lotions, bath salts and even goodies for pets.

SnackMagic also offers another service called SwagMagic, in which it adds company logos to water bottles, notebooks and sweats. Companies can include their custom swag in the SnackMagic boxes. And most recently, it launched a service called the Department of Superior Dishes, which allows businesses to send corporate gifts from popular hot spots such as New York cheesecake maker Junior’s and Chicago deep-dish pizza restaurant Giordano’s.

Before the pandemic, SnackMagic was Stadium, a New York-based start-up that delivered restaurant food to companies. As one business died, another was born.

“We thought it would be cool if employers could send out a link and everyone could build their own snack box,” said Shaunak Amin, co-founder and chief executive of SnackMagic. “Well, that took off.”

In just eight months, SnackMagic’s revenue went from zero dollars to $20 million.

Online food delivery apps such as Uber Eats and DoorDash say they’re also benefiting from employers’ shift to digital perks.

A pandemic surge in food delivery has made ghost kitchens and virtual eateries one of the only growth areas in the restaurant industry

The total number of companies using DoorDash for Work, the company’s offering for corporate customers, has risen 52 percent from the beginning of the year through September. And the average number of weekly orders per company has jumped 10 percent during that time, DoorDash said.

Meanwhile, in the first half of the year, Eats on Uber for Business grew more than six times the amount it did in the same period last year, the company said, without providing specific numbers. The company partially credits the growth to perk programs that are now focused on working from home. Susan Anderson, the global head of Uber for Business, said food delivery and ride vouchers have also become perks as companies aim to feed remote workers and incentivize workers to come into the office when needed.

“It started because of the shift to remote work,” Anderson said. “But we’re seeing people are believing they need to do this in the future, too.”

As the pandemic led workers to feel increasingly stressed, depressed and burned-out, digital services that could address employees’ fitness, mental health and child-care needs became even more important.

UrbanSitter, a service that connects people to child care, eldercare, and pet care, said its corporate customers have doubled in the past 18 months, though it did not provide specific numbers. Lynn Perkins, chief executive of UrbanSitter, said she’s seeing the kinds of companies interested in the perk widen.

“Some companies were previously less progressive,” she said, about how employers previously thought about perks and benefits. “But now they’re seeing kids running around in the background.”

Modern Health, a mental health and wellness app that offers workforces customized care in the form of digital programs, therapy and coaching, said the number of people it covers has increased fivefold during the pandemic. Growth has come not only from tech start-ups, which tend to be more progressive, but also from manufacturing companies, nonprofits and even retailers, the company said.

“Mental health is one of those spaces in which the pandemic affected everyone,” said Hannah Willson, senior vice president of sales for Modern Health.

The pandemic also accelerated employers’ interest in supporting physical fitness needs, said Cesar Carvalho, co-founder and chief executive of Gympass, which offers memberships to in-person and virtual wellness services across fitness, nutrition, sleep and mental health. Gympass’s revenue is up 10 percent month over month since it raised $220 million in funding in June, it said.

“What we’re seeing now is that every single company is realizing they have to play a role in their employees’ well-being,” he said. “That feeling of duty wasn’t as strong before.”

As for Asthana, the Momentive sales representative, he says he values his compensation package and retirement benefits beyond all else. But a good perk could tilt the scale.

“If there were more perks at a company and salaries were equivalent, perks would be a factor,” he said. “Right now, employees wouldn’t have any trouble scooping up another job.”

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