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Massages, buffets and buses in limbo: Will tech’s perks ever be the same?

Coronavirus could reshape expectations at the office. Bring on the remote-work stipends and single-serve snacks.

A woman on a climbing wall at Google

When Google opened a new office in Washington in 2009, it showed off amenities like a climbing wall, a gym and a soda fountain. But the coronavirus pandemic may reshape the tech industry's famed workplace perks.

Photo: Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

For the past decade, Christy Lake has been on the front lines of Silicon Valley's ever-escalating war over job perks. As an HR executive at companies like Box and HP, Lake watched companies like hers roll out free meals and commuter buses, private concerts and lavish parties, gym memberships or actual gyms — extras meant to entice in-demand technical workers who paid attention not only to the cash value of the benefits but what they signaled about an employer's culture.

That all seemed like a relic of a different time when, last month, she started a new job as Twilio's chief people officer in the middle of a pandemic. Suddenly, more practical necessities — child care, mental health support, a chair that won't break your back — eclipsed cushy office catering and wellness programs. The very definition of a corporate perk was changing.

"We don't even know what the next 12 months hold for the world," Lake said. "Do you want someone in the office giving you a chair massage, putting your face in that thing? No, you do not."

As Lake and her colleagues roll out new benefits, like stipends for home-office furnishings and flexible remote work schedules, they're preparing for a future that looks like the inverse of insular Silicon Valley campuses where workers are incentivized to work long, in-person hours. At Twilio, some employees will work remote "in perpetuity," she said. Others are asking about relocating or permanently dropping to three days a week in the office. These trends, combined with mass layoffs and belt-tightening, could reshape workplace culture in ways not yet understood.

"People have really reconnected with family, flexibility, integration, whatever you want to call it," Lake said. "I think they're going to look for companies that have that sort of new contract."

Many tech companies, including Twilio, are still solidifying plans to bring some workers back this summer or fall, which will dictate what happens to contracts for existing onsite services that cater to employees. Those that have already made definitive long-term moves will be early indicators for the symbiotic professions — corporate shuttle drivers, office micro-kitchen suppliers, onsite acupuncturists — that have sprouted from Silicon Valley's obsession with perks.

In recent years, sites like Reddit, Blind and perks.guide have offered a window into these bonuses, with workers at top companies competing over who has the best setup, sometimes focusing on nice-to-have entertainment or wellness programs and sometimes serious financial benefits.

According to these crowdsourced catalogs, Google offers three free meals a day and a $6,000-a-year match on donations to employees' favorite charities. Airbnb gives employees a $2,000-a-year global travel stipend. Facebook will chip in $10,000 toward adoption fees or $20,000 for surrogacy, plus the usual daytime entertainment: "Ping-Pong tables, arcades, etc."

Depending on the vantage point, these perks have become either a routine expectation for some of the world's most in-demand talent or a symbol of excess and inequality. With the uncertainty of COVID-19 forcing companies to cut the cord and allow remote work, the question is how much infrastructure businesses will maintain, and what employees will most value when they return.

Twitter announced this week that it will allow employees able to work remotely to do so permanently. The company is allowing both hourly and full-time "tweeps" to expense home office supplies, a spokesperson told Protocol, while declining to comment on long-term plans for shuttle service, as well as the shuttle drivers and other service contractors who are on paid leave during shutdowns.

"I'm worried about the industry just in general," said Stacy Murphy, business representative for Teamsters Local 853, which represents about 1,000 contract shuttle drivers for tech companies like Tesla, Apple and Facebook. "We don't know yet what the ridership will be coming back to these companies. Will people be driving themselves? It's really too early to tell."

If companies scale back in-office perks, employees may push for higher salaries or other ways to level their compensation. Then again, the math may look different if workers ask to relocate or work remote from farther-flung locations, since most companies index salaries to local costs of living.

At developer hiring site HackerRank, CEO Vivek Ravisankar is still deciding what to do about his 230-person company's offices in "basically the three most expensive places in the world": Mountain View, London and Bangalore. He's already seen clients become more open to hiring talent outside major tech hubs. The shift to decentralized teams should accelerate, he said, changing the calculations companies make about benefits.

"It just opens up your talent pool like crazy," Ravisankar said. "You can be sitting in the Bay Area and hire someone in Ohio or New York or anywhere."

He doesn't think hiring will be any less competitive, but he envisions less emphasis on high-profile extras like free food and more focus on career planning and skill-building in an uncertain world. "What is going to make you stay longer?" Ravisankar asked, noting that many companies contend with high attrition rates after about two years and that developers' prospects often stagnate mid-career.

Still, even as these conversations intensify, there's no shortage of companies looking to reposition themselves to deliver new forms of employee perks, especially those that workers can receive at home.

Though Google made headlines for cracking down on employees expensing food at home, San Francisco upstart Snacks n Chill is hoping companies will pay $17 per snack box or $35 to $139 for "safely chill" kits with respirator masks and hand sanitizer (discounts available for big orders, of course). Food startup Freshly, which sells consumer and office meal delivery services, is banking on a COVID-19 aversion to buffets fueling demand for pre-portioned single meals as people go back to the office.

People sitting in Twilio's cafe Twilio is still solidifying plans to bring some workers back this summer or fall, which will dictate what happens to contracts for existing onsite services that cater to employees.Photo: Courtesy of Twilio

Dick Black likes to eat clean, so the developer and Twilio software engineering manager has always brought his own meals to the company's well-stocked Denver office. More important of late, at least to him, was that his bosses signed off on his request to relocate and manage his team remotely after he and his wife have their first child this summer. They plan to move to the Atlanta area to be closer to family — a transition that may have been more problematic before COVID-19 severed daily office routines.

"What will change is just how I value some of our other perks," Black said. "Managing a team remotely was a big question mark, and the flexible schedule was like, 'Maybe?' This made the conversation easier to have.'"

Black has also taken advantage of more immediate new perks: home office stipends. First, he upgraded an old monitor and bought a new webcam, "kind of optimizing for that Zoom experience," he said. More recently, he secured a proper chair and footrest.

For Lake, doling out $1,500 apiece for employees like Black — $500 after initial office closures, $1,000 more when the company announced that offices will open in late summer at the earliest — was well worth it.

"I thought of it as like the Herman Miller stipend," Lake said of the latest cash infusion. "Now it's time to buy yourself a nice chair. You're going to be here a while."

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