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Why novelty perks won't attract people back to offices

A woman looking bored in the office
In March, a survey of more than 3,000 workers found that fewer than one in ten wants to return to the office full-time when Covid-19 restrictions are eased. A woman looking bored in the office. Photo: Getty (bernardbodo via Getty Images)

Prior to Covid-19, many companies showered their staff with flashy in-office perks. But since the pandemic turned our lives upside down, catered meals, Prosecco on tap and yoga lessons – aimed to energise and motivate staff – have suddenly become less important to workers.

Around 60% of people report that benefits are a major factor in considering whether to accept a job offer, according to research by the recruitment firm Glassdoor. However, what employees want in the way of benefits has changed.

Not only are we spending less time in offices – therefore rendering flashy, in-office perks redundant – employees are more interested in core benefits such as flexible working, wellbeing support and more paid time off. In fact, 80% of employees said they would choose these additional benefits over a pay raise.

Watch: How to advocate to work from home

“The past 18 months have led workers to reassess what they want from life and what they value,” says career coach Valerie O'Hanlon, of Clarence Consulting. “Workers who were time-poor before the pandemic have realised that they can be more productive and have more time to do other things since they have been working at home.

“Many have realised how short life really is – do we really want to spend our time commuting to an office, where the highlight of the day is a quick swing in a hammock or a game of table tennis with your boss?” asks O’Hanlon. “Workers have begun to realise what they value and novelty perks are not high on their list.”

Read more: Is being bored at work as damaging as burnout?

Since being given the taste of remote work, many employees are keen to continue working from home in the future. In March, a survey of more than 3,000 workers found that fewer than one in ten wants to return to the office full-time when Covid-19 restrictions are eased. More than three-quarters (78%) said they would prefer to work in the office for two days or less.

Employees are also willing to hand in their notices over the issue of flexible work. Of a poll of 1,000 UK employees, nearly half (47%) said they would consider leaving their job if they are not afforded some form of flexibility after the pandemic.

And as people have become accustomed to working from home, flexible working is no longer being viewed as the ultimate employee perk. Instead, it has become a default policy in many businesses around the world.

“There are a myriad of reasons why people want to continue working from home,” says O’Hanlon. “No more long commute, saving on time and travel expenses, flexibility to drop the kids off to school or pick them up. People are saving on childcare and having more quality time with their children, as well as gaining more autonomy and control over how and when they work.” Many employees have reported feeling happier without the distractions of office life, too.

As well as flexible or hybrid working, many companies are focusing on mental health and wellbeing as part of their core benefits offered to staff. The travel company Skyscanner, which previously offered perks such as free food and table football, is now focusing on providing benefits such as access to the meditation app Headspace. Other companies, including the dating app Bumble, are offering staff more paid time off.

Read more: How the psychological risks of remote working can impact belonging and inclusivity

It’s also important that any perks offered by employers don’t mask underlying systemic problems, such as overstretched and directionless staff. While on-site catering may seem ideal, it can often mean people spend even longer at work – to the detriment of their mental wellbeing.

“Spending longer at work, to be seen to be busy or because it's the culture, can lead to a toxic culture. Free pizzas for those working later just doesn't cut it if the employees would prefer to be out with their friends or home with their family. No amount of novelty or in-vogue perks will make up for a toxic or demanding culture,” says O’Hanlon.

“A lesson to be learned from the last 18 months is that employees welcome autonomy and an ability to control how they work. A good idea is for employers to ask their employees what they value – depending on the demographics, employees will value different things,” she adds.

“Extra days off, more flexible work schedules, personal development opportunities may be nearer the top of the list of perks and benefits than the free coffee or the in-office bar.”

Watch: How to negotiate a pay rise