What workers want: Companies now finding benefits requests reflect time working from home

Work schedule flexibility that allows someone to coach a kid’s soccer team isn’t what attorney Melissa Salimbene calls a textbook benefit.

But, still, the employment litigator and adviser at Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi P.C. said, employees learned it was one while the peaks and valleys of COVID-19 cases had them working remotely. And those are the sorts of perks they’re looking to hold onto as businesses finalize their corralling of workers back into offices.

“We’re seeing a lot of benefits align with trying to get people to get comfortable in the workplace again,” she said. “And there’s no ‘one size fits all.’ Depending on the size of the organization, you might want to give people time easing back into the workplace and have to offer certain benefits to make sure it’s a more enjoyable experience.”

The accommodations businesses are making run the gamut, according to experts in employment issues and benefits. They all agree that the introduction of these side bonuses, such as a less formal dress code, have been the main trend in the benefits space for the past year.

Another easy one? Giving out the sort of food and drinks an employee’s pantry would have working at home, Salimbene said.

But, that doesn’t entail dusting off the break room’s expired Keurig cups.

“Free food and free drinks — preferably good coffee — is a real motivator,” Salimbene said. “Again, depending on the size of the organization, you can consider catered lunches or having your own sort of food truck festival. That also serves the purpose of getting talent back together to collaborate and catch up with one another. Or it could be keeping snacks stocked in break rooms.”

Direct financial benefits still reign supreme in the eyes of employees, considering inflation and cost-of-living woes, she added. So, retirement plan matching and health insurance plans benefits remain some of a company’s best options for keeping employees from taking part in the much-discussed talent migration narrative today.

However, it’s not just traditional benefits that increasingly millennial-aged talent looks for.

“One of the more unusual ones we’re seeing a lot of now is pet insurance,” Salimbene said. “Because, well, who didn’t adopt a dog during the pandemic?”

Meanwhile, the return-to-work push is happening as the cost of commuting in gas-powered vehicles has become another much-discussed trend.

Kelly Bird. (Gibbons P.C.)

Attorney Kelly Bird, interviewed just after watching the dollar figure creep close to $100 at a gas station stop herself, said employers have recognized that, too.

“It’s really an issue for employees that work hourly,” she said. “So, companies are offering gas stipends. Those can be gas station gift cards or pre-loaded debit cards for fuel. Even for employees who don’t drive, everyone can get benefits from train passes or bicycle repair bonuses.”

Bird, director in the Employment & Labor Law Group at Gibbons P.C., adds that it’s not uncommon now for big companies to offer paid-for days of community service, such as participating in house-building programs or soup kitchens, as a result of what employees might have had time for sans commute.

“With the stay-at-home orders, people appreciated the time they might have had to devote to other things, perhaps activities more community-oriented, whether it was bringing groceries to neighbors, community gardening, going to places of worship,” she said. “So, one compliant we’ve been hearing now is that there’s not enough time for those things as work picks up in a normal way and people start to commute to work again.”

It’s not the time for opting out of new takes on employer benefits, Bird said, given that companies face serious human capital shortages. There also might be a competitor, one that’s hiring, that’s not asking employees to come back into the workplace at all and continuing to stay all-remote.

In her view of the New Jersey business landscape, Bird said she’s seeing a majority of companies complete transitions into a hybrid work schedule this year. And, although certain roles might be better equipped to work remotely than others, she said it’s important to keep fairness in mind when doing so.

“Companies don’t want workers upset that they have to go in five days a week, while looking down the hall, asking why those in a more corporate role don’t have to come in as often — or maybe at all,” she said.

That fairness might extend to also ensuring employers aren’t leaving benefits off the table that existed pre-pandemic. Gym memberships, yoga classes and weight loss programs perhaps suspended during the pandemic might be included in that.

David Pearson. (ExtensisHR)

David Pearson, senior vice president of people and culture at ExtensisHR, a Woodbridge-based human resources outsourcing business, said the expectation from employees during what he referred to as the “great reshuffle” of talent in the region is all the standard benefits of a Fortune 500 company.

Outside of that, Pearson argues, what kept his company on lists of top workplaces by publications such as Crain’s and NJ.com during the pandemic is transparency.

“We’re very forthcoming,” he said. “As an example, we have an anonymous suggestion box … employees have asked for a gym on the work premises, but the building we’re in won’t allow us to do that and we’re clear about that not being a solution we can provide.”

Peter Eschmann. (ExtensisHR)

Peter Eschmann, vice president of benefits at ExtensisHR, said employee satisfaction, as well as happiness with an employer’s benefits, isn’t always the easiest to measure.

But there’s no secret: A lot of peoples’ requests in that area are driven by the pandemic, and the hours they spent working outside of the office.

“And, ultimately, the most requested of those for continued choices for how they’re working, especially flexibility for paid time off and flexible work arrangements,” he said. “Employees largely feel just as productive remotely, and so it’s up to us as employers to make sure in everything that we’re listening to the mood of employees and developing programs specifically to cater to what their needs are.”