When Sean Lane founded his health tech startup, Olive, in 2012, he looked to the giants of Silicon Valley for inspiration. Google had a corporate chef, so Olive hired one too. Apple had a gym on its campus, so Olive built one of those. It also added an on-site barbershop and a hand-built arcade room in its headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, where Lane dreamed of one day building an office big enough to be part of the city skyline. “I was looking at other successful companies and trying to do pattern matching,” he says.
Then 2020 happened. The plans to build a bigger headquarters seemed, frankly, ridiculous as Olive’s employees shifted to remote work, and the office arcade sat unused, gathering dust. When Lane checked in on his employees, though, he found that they weren’t all that upset about losing the office perks. Instead, he says, people simply wanted a break. So, using funds it had previously earmarked to build a bigger headquarters, Olive started leasing vacation rentals for its employees to reserve, free of charge, whenever they need a getaway. “We have it roadmapped to open a new getaway every month to two months,” Lane says. “Our first one’s in a beach setting, the next one will be a country setting.”
Workplace perks have long been a way to court talent in white-collar industries. Tech companies, in particular, have relied on them to compete for—and retain—the most highly sought-after people, dazzling recruits with stylish headquarters, free food, and exclusive in-office events. By now, anyone working in tech has come to expect these trappings, along with benefits like employer-funded egg freezing or unlimited PTO. A Glassdoor survey from 2016 found that more than half of respondents said that workplace perks were “among their top considerations before accepting a job.” (Among the best perks listed in that survey: Airbnb’s yearly $2,000 travel stipend.) When choosing where to sign an offer, those perks can make the office feel less like, well, work.
With the pandemic forcing employees to work from home, however, startups like Olive are shifting their workplace incentives out of the office too. Gone are the corporate chefs serving gourmet lunches, replaced with Grubhub credits and free lunch delivery. (Olive no longer feeds its employees, but it does continue to pay its chef, who is now serving meals to a local shelter.) Company-sponsored outings to baseball games or wine country have been replaced with virtual scavenger hunts and magic shows. Recurring Zoom happy hours have become common; the staff at AllTrails, a trail-mapping app, calls theirs “White Claw Wednesday.” The Zebra, an Austin-based insurance startup, offered to cover pet adoption fees for employees who now spend the workday at home.
Others are focused on giving people a break. That unlimited PTO? Now some startups are mandating that their workers take it. “We realized back in May that nobody was taking days off,” says Ryan Denehy, the CEO of Electric, an IT solutions startup. “You might not be able to go to the Bahamas, but we still want you to take days off.” Electric has since deemed the first Friday of every month a bonus vacation day. Slack, similarly, now gives its employees one Friday off every month. It calls the policy “Fri-yays.”
Twitter, which has made new time-off allowances for working parents and mental health days during the pandemic, also started to offer corporate subscriptions to Happify, a mindfulness app. SoFi, the personal finance startup, recently signed its employees up for Modern Health, a teletherapy platform, and offered to pay for six therapy sessions. Blueboard, an employee rewards platform, has seen an uptick in companies asking for incentives focused on mental and physical health rather than the usual adventures (like, say, skydiving or snorkeling). “Companies realize that people are feeling drained—mentally and physically,” says Kevin Yip, Blueboard’s cofounder and COO. “We have a cohort of customers that have created separate programs to give well-being experiences to employees: Pelotons, Mirrors, Chorus meditation sessions, life coaches.”
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