How employers can make work from home better

As workers shifted to remote work, the spirit of in-person events and company culture needed to be re-created at home. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

(BLOOMBERG) - When it comes to helping employees balance work hours with relaxation, Acuity Insurance chief executive officer Ben Salzmann has an unusual tool at his disposal: a 20m Ferris wheel.

Before the pandemic struck, he would regularly fire up the amusement-park staple inside the company's headquarters in Wisconsin.

About twice a month, employees and their families could take a ride or two while drinks and child-friendly food were served.

After-work social events like these have been hallmarks of companies looking to boost employee morale and foster a sense of community.

But those days are over for now and companies interested in keeping workers content and productive face an unprecedented challenge. Even among those employers that workers say handle work-life balance best, adapting to the work-from-home world has been a struggle.

Some of the best companies for work-life balance have great paid-time-off policies, flexible working schedules, good parental leave, sabbaticals and gym credits. But as workers shifted to remote work, the spirit of in-person events and company culture needed to be re-created at home.

Some companies are taking very different approaches to maintaining their worker-friendly reputation, but a consistent theme has been making sure employees take time off.

Whether because they cannot go on a real vacation due to coronavirus infection fears or they simply fear losing their job, many employees just won't stop working at a time when stress and burnout are likely off the charts.

Human resource managers said schedule flexibility and supporting working parents have been popular solutions. Extending time-off policies and helping employees better manage workloads were less common approaches.

Some companies said they are even contemplating permanent shifts away from full-time office work. Mental health has become more important. California-based SurveyMonkey has said that it added internal programming for social isolation, potential burnout and anxiety.

The company said it also provides confidential mental health services as well as "employee assistance programmes" that provide family support, legal and financial assistance.

The firm played to its strength, designing questionnaires for its own employees that ask how they are adapting to working remotely. The company has encouraged workers to take breaks to prevent video-conferencing fatigue and provided a US$500 (S$685) stipend for setting up a home office.

The stipend can also cover subscriptions to childcare service platforms, childcare services and other dependant care support such as home nurses and academic subscriptions for in-home schooling, the company said.

SurveyMonkey also has an unlimited leave policy called "responsible paid time off", where employees decide how many vacation days they should take. Such policies, however, can sometimes cause workers not to take time off, rather than risk being seen as taking too much. The company sought to alleviate this issue somewhat by giving employees a few "care flex days" to use in June.

Some 70 per cent of employees took advantage of the policy, said Ms Janelle Lopez, senior director of people at SurveyMonkey.

Since April, all of San Francisco-based Slack's employees have been getting a Friday off together once per month - a change that the company said it is keeping until the end of the year.

When the company CEO took a week off, he encouraged those under him to do the same, said Mr Robby Kwok, senior vice-president for people at Slack. "If your leaders are not taking time off, it does not matter how much you say to the company. They're going to model that behaviour."

Mr Kwok's definition of work-life balance boils down to employees having the flexibility they need to make room for both. These days, it means things like being able to spend time with your children in the morning, and then working into the early evening to make up hours.

Slack also created "emergency time off" so employees can deal with issues that come up during the pandemic without using up their vacation days, he said.

One of the traditional ways of viewing work-life balance is how cleanly employees are able to disconnect - an especially difficult proposition in the work-from-home environment.

At Slack, that means telling every new employee that they should use the communication platform's "Do Not Disturb" function to let others know they are unavailable - and not be ashamed of it. "Culturally, we made that very acceptable," Mr Kwok said.

When the pandemic eventually recedes, he expects employees will want to retain their new flexibility, further integrating work-from-home options into everyday, post-pandemic employment.

At Acuity, those Ferris wheel rides have been replaced by gift cards for restaurants and local and online shopping. Fitness centre services have now become virtual classes, the company said. Productivity and mentoring have actually improved since remote work began, Acuity contends - so much so that Mr Salzmann recently told employees they could keep doing it permanently if they wanted.

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