Will Wellness Programs Adapt to The Age of Remote Work?

I accepted a tempting job offer from a start-up with beautiful offices just a few minutes’ walk from my home. After a decade of remote working (usually while blasting music on my home stereo) I embraced the challenge of working in an actual office. Yet within a few months, despite a great team, two friendly office dogs and many on-site benefits and health programs, I realized that neither my wellbeing nor effectiveness were actually benefitting from life in the office. I was irritated about the many small adjustments I had to make to my daily life to fit in at this new job.

After scanning my network of contacts around the world for new opportunities, I quickly found a similar role where I could go back to remote working, with a distributed team. My ability to seek out a better job in a global marketplace is not unusual. Any knowledge worker can now work remotely for anyone, anywhere. Employers will need to focus on adapting their wellness programs, benefits and working conditions to attract and retain key talent, now that remote work and highly personalized working conditions are becoming the new norm.

Not Even the Tech Giants Can Enjoy Employee Loyalty

Prior to 2020, my experience was not unusual. According to 2018 data from LinkedIn 1, annual employee turnover in California's Bay Area had averaged between 10% and 13% per year. A tight labor market encouraged talent to shop around for better opportunities, and made employers receptive to trying almost anything from on-site dieticians to nap rooms to retain them 2.

Despite a massive number of layoffs in the first half of 2020, the work-from-home policies of Facebook and Google have shown that remote work has some benefits, and a key psychological barrier for both employers and on-site employees has been brought into question [3-5]. By the end of July 2020, just 9% of workers had returned to work in midtown Manhattan, indicating that remote work is increasingly the norm 6.

In the red-hot labor market up to 2020, employers typically sought to attract and retain staff in a variety of ways. My previous tech employer offered the usual free coffee and snacks, organized company movie nights, provided an on-site gym and served cold beer on Fridays. 

Google, Airbnb, Facebook and other tech giants went even further by matching employee donations to charities, travel stipends and free transportation to and from work 7. But even Uber, at the height of its power in 2018 – with a market valuation of USD 72 billion and nearly unlimited resources to retain workers – saw an average employee tenure of just 1.8 years 2. The problem that drove away talent at Uber wasn’t its wellness programs, but an internal company culture that left many employees feeling unsafe and in no control of their working life 8.

Obviously, a meteoric rise in salaries in the tech sector is one reason for such employee attrition 9. Remote work opportunities have rapidly widened the number of options and employees are now more able to focus on finding a good ‘fit’ with potential employers.

Make Sure Your Wellness Program Has a Clearly Stated Goal

According to Laszlo Bock, Google’s former head of human resources, one goal of employee amenity and wellness programs (such as gourmet lunches at Google's campuses) is to create ‘moments of serendipity’ that give employees plenty of opportunities to connect and share ideas 10.

Clear goal-setting is one of the keys to Google's success, so another key takeaway from Lazlo Bock is that employees should always understand why their employer is offering a particular amenity or program and the purpose of their wellness plan 11 12.

Offer Employees a Safe, Pleasant Environment

In a 2019 study about what employees most want from their workspaces, Harvard Business Review (HBR) learned that office perks, such as a gym or free coffee, are not particularly valuable to talent. Instead, employees stated that the air quality, comfortable light, water quality and comfortable temperatures were most important to ensuring their day-to-day happiness 13.

Many office spaces can feature stale, recycled air. Female employees typically reported being too cold at work 14. The HBR study found that employees linked the environmental quality of the office directly to their own productivity. While stuffy ventilation may simply feel like an uncomfortable aspect of the environment, the real problem is that employees develop a feeling that they are not in control of their day-to-day surroundings and lack of autonomy, in turn, impacts productivity 13.

Fundamentally, according to HBR, employers must allow employees to personalize their working environment to their own comfort in order to maintain and improve engagement, wellness and productivity. Working from home, employees have a lot more control over their environment, including the thermostat, the lights and being able to turn the stereo up to 11.

Allowing Employees to Personalize Their Working Environment

After mid-2020, when many employees are working from home already, and are increasingly able to look for remote work, facilitating the personalization of work will be critical for employers.

Even before the dramatic changes, flexible schedules had been identified as a top priority for many employees, according to a 2015 study from EY 15 and a similar survey by CompTIA 16. Over the course of 2020, many employees have become used to work patterns that take account of their home and family life. To manage the various demands of career, family and homeschooling for example, we work when we feel most productive and least distracted, and adapt our schedule to meet other requirements.

While our kids may return to school, this change in work culture, where we balance home and work life throughout the day, is likely here to stay.

Is Your Wellness Program Remotely Effective?

In the coming era when businesses will likely employ more and more workers remotely, thanks to a change in thinking and work culture triggered by COVID-19, the entire concept of office perks may need to be rethought 2. Free snacks and an on-site gym are not particularly useful for an employee who works remotely.

However, even in scenarios where all employees work in a traditional office, no wellness program will meet the needs of all employees. Ultimately, what employees may want instead of yoga classes or gourmet lunches is an ability to exercise autonomy over their working conditions. As part of your wellness program, give up traditional 9-to-5 (or later) working hours. Allow parents to leave early to pick up kids, and then continue working from home. Adapt.

For example, in the case of the tech company where I worked briefly, the free beer was tasty, but it was only offered at 5 o'clock on Friday afternoons, when I wanted to get back home and make dinner for my family. More than anything else, I wanted to work in a quiet space, away from interruptions, where I could concentrate, think and get things done. So, I jumped at the chance to work remotely again. And now I can go back to blasting music on my home stereo whenever I want to.

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Nevin Thompson

Nevin Thompson is a copywriter, digital-marketing specialist, and Japanese-English translator who frequently writes on Japan, technology, and internet culture. He contributes a regular weekly column to online news site Global Voices, and has appeared in Quartz, Fast Company, PRI International, Japan Times and other publications. He lives on Vancouver Island with his family.

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