Danielle Brown is the Chief People Officer at Gusto.
For years, companies across industries have created generous perks programs to attract and support employees. They've offered in-office lunches, gym reimbursements and dog-friendly spaces as a cherry on top of salary and benefits, customized to the company's culture and values.
Many employees appreciate these bonus benefits, but the perks aren't perfect. Most perks programs were designed for a pre-pandemic workforce, and many were built on assumptions about employees' circumstances — be it socio-economic, geographic or otherwise — that may be false or exclusionary. Now, as leaders rethink where, when and how employees work, it's an ideal moment to redesign perks with equity at the center.
Rather than organizations dictating which perks employees use, companies can offer a range of options that serve varying needs and circumstances. As leaders contemplate the future of work, they can develop thoughtful perks programs to support a workforce that's more diverse and distributed than ever.
Which perks are best? Ask employees.
Companies are facing a moment of major transition. A quarter of Americans are considering changing jobs, and more than half of people who worked remotely during the pandemic want to keep doing so. To adapt, companies are embracing flexibility, and in doing so, they're able to tap into a much broader talent pool.
Now there's an opportunity to make perks more flexible, too, as some perks don't apply as broadly anymore. For example, employees who will continue working remotely can't take advantage of food provided in the office.
To ensure offerings are equitable for all employees, it's crucial to collaborate with internal diversity, equity and inclusion leaders, and listen to employees from a wide range of backgrounds to understand what they find most valuable. There are many ways to collect this input, including via regular organizational health or employee pulse surveys to understand utilization rates and patterns of a company's current offerings, conducting listening sessions with affinity groups and external benchmarking.
Don't dictate, direct
Because employees have a variety of needs and life circumstances, perks shouldn't be one-size-fits-all – but they shouldn't be a free-for-all, either. Organizations can draw the lines and let employees color them in by directing, not dictating, which perks they use.
To start, it's important for companies to be transparent about which core benefits will always be available, such as health, vision and dental insurance, and paid time off. For other perks, they can offer options "a la carte" from a variety of categories and provide options for employees to choose from.
Consider an organization that has adopted a hybrid work setup and has employees of all different ages. Its "a la carte" perks might include traditional ones like commuter reimbursement and a wellness stipend – but also options like a stipend to set up their home office, meal delivery for new parents or student loan repayment assistance.
Employees can take the reins on deciding which of those perks to use and how. At Gusto, we used to offer a travel reimbursement to help employees celebrate significant career milestones. It worked well for some employees but not for others. Many early-career employees couldn't afford to pay up front and be reimbursed, for example. Others couldn't travel or wanted to commemorate milestones in a different way, like by paying off a student loan or attending a cultural experience. With that feedback in mind, we updated the perk: Now, employees can choose from many different ways to celebrate using funds preloaded into their accounts.
Design perks and benefits that meet the moment we're living in
The pandemic will continue to have long-term effects on people's physical, mental and financial health. A thoughtfully redesigned perks program will reflect those effects.
For example, about a third of American adults say they or someone in their household lost a job during the pandemic. Perks should not add to financial stress, but rather help alleviate it. Writer Stacy-Marie Ishmael recently shared how charging corporate expenses to her personal card did long-term damage to her finances – an experience that many people share. Companies can ease that burden by getting rid of expense reports. As an alternative, tools like Twic offer accounts with funds employees can draw from any time and apply to their perks.
Navigating the last year and a half has also been an exceptional mental and emotional challenge for many employees. Companies can help them manage by expanding mental health benefits and offering paid leave to care for oneself or others, sessions with a therapist and access to a hotline to reach trained professionals. Tools like these became incredibly valuable during the pandemic and will remain so in the future.
Organizations should also double down on supporting parents. More than 2 million women left the workforce during the pandemic, largely because they didn't have adequate childcare. As companies try to attract new talent, generous and flexible offerings for parents are a must. These could include flexible in-person/remote schedules to accommodate parents caring for kids at home or returnships with training to ease the transition back into the workforce.
Pre-pandemic perks were built for workplaces and workforces that no longer exist. To support employees now, equity and flexibility must be companies' North Star. Equitable perks programs will enable employees' well-being both at work and outside of it — and employees should be the ones who help decide how.