Silicon Valley has long been known for its lavish employee perks, like on-site fitness classes and free meals.
But as the coronavirus crisis continues to keep workers at home, many tech companies are shifting from fun perks to accommodating benefits — particularly for working parents.
Tech companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Salesforce have started offering benefits like free back-up childcare, extra paid caregiver leave, and subsidized memberships to childcare and tutoring services.
Experts say the emphasis on helping working parents may have been spurred by the pandemic, but will stick around even after life begins to return to normal.
When much of corporate America shifted to remote work six months ago, it initially seemed like it could be to the advantage of working parents. But working from home came with a new slew of challenges, challenges that have forced companies, particularly those in Silicon Valley, to reevaluate how they reward and cater to employees
Lavish perks were once a staple of Silicon Valley, a way to entice workers to put in long hours and hustle harder. But with most major tech companies working remotely until summer 2021, employees haven't been able to reap the free meals, laundry rooms, and on-site fitness classes.
Rather than relying on perks to incentivize hard work, tech firms are beginning to invest in meaningful benefits in order to care for, and hopefully retain, their existing employees — particularly those with children. These include subsidized back-up childcare, increased paid family leave, and flexible work schedules.
It's a shift that experts say is a long time coming, but one spurred by the new reality for working parents in high-demand roles like those in the tech industry. The types of perks that Silicon Valley has become famous for don't currently serve workers the way they used to, especially as they get older. While the current era of Silicon Valley has been a young person's game for the last 20 years, those same young techies are growing up and starting families of their own.
"It is unprecedented what parents are being asked to wrestle with," said Steve Pemberton, global human resources officer at HR management software company Workhuman. "So it should be no surprise, and certainly not an accident, that employers are going to be offering stipends or flexibility to simply fill the void."
New perks for parents
Last month, anonymous workplace chat app Blind surveyed over 6,100 employees from companies including Google, Salesforce, Lyft, and Facebook about being a working parent amid the coronavirus crisis. The survey found the 61% of parents were working three or more extra hours per day to complete normal tasks, and that more than 50% of working parents were worried about their performance compared to employees without children.
Tracy Brower, a sociologist and principal in the applied research and consulting group at furniture manufacturer Steelcase, told Business Insider that a big misconception about working from home is how much flexibility it offers, especially for parents.
"So much of our normal routines have been taken away," Brower said. "Like, yes, I can work in a flexible way — if my child is at school. Yes, I can work in a flexible way — if I have daycare available to me. Yes, I can work in a flexible way — if I can go out for dinner now and then, and I'm not spending all my hours making dinner at home."
The pressure felt by working parents appears to be leading to real change in the tech industry. Companies like Amazon, Uber, Google, and Salesforce have all instituted new perks like childcare stipends and benefits like extended caregiver leave to make life easier for their employees with children.
Facebook has started offering 10 weeks of paid leave for employees who unexpectedly need to care for a child or relative. The company also plans to give all employees high marks on their performance reviews in 2020, which typically results in bonuses, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Google, too, added eight extra weeks to its similar Carers leave policy. Google employees now get 14 weeks total, which can be broken up hourly. Microsoft began offering 12 weeks of paid leave to parents when the virus shut down schools back in April. And Uber has pledged to adopt flexible work hours as part of its new Global Caregiver Enhanced Flexibility Policy and will allow employees to skip low-priority meetings, according to CNET.
Google has also been making full-company decisions with its working parents in mind, most notably extending employee work-from-home to summer 2021 in part to help out employees who may be facing an uncertain school year, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Companies like Amazon and Salesforce have gone even further, with Amazon subsidizing tutoring and backup childcare for full- and part-time Amazon and Whole Foods employees. Salesforce adopted a similar policy, offering six weeks of paid time off for parents and a back-up childcare reimbursement of $100 per day for five days each month.
But not all tech employees are happy with the shift toward prioritizing parenting benefits over traditional tech perks. At Facebook, employees without children are beginning to feel that the company's new offerings unfairly cater to parents, according to a recent report from The New York Times' Daisuke Wakabayashi and Sheera Frenkel.
In response, Chelsey Glasson, a Facebook employee and mother, issued a plea via a Medium post: Cut working parents some slack. Glasson wrote that when she took emergency leave this past spring when her children's daycare was shut down, it wasn't some sort of vacation or mental break, and that offering these types of benefits is a way "of keeping parents employed and children cared for."
"Inferring otherwise communicates that parents are being given an unfair advantage over others at Facebook, which subjects parents to unconscious bias in performance reviews and downplays the type of support and benefits parents so desperately need in the midst of COVID-19," Glasson wrote.
'It's becoming mandatory'
The childcare issue has become particularly important as school starts up again. Tim Allen, CEO of caregiver marketplace Care.com, said he has experienced the challenges of remote learning himself: Allen is the father of two young boys, and said getting them to sit on a Zoom call for more than a few minutes at a time was almost impossible, especially while trying to work. He said having someone help keep his kids engaged while he's working has been a game-changer, and something he thinks about as a CEO.
"What this has highlighted for employers is the infrastructure of childcare is so fragile that any small thing can set off a domino effect that impacts not only productivity, but the ability to show up to work," Allen said. "Ideally, post-COVID, they will say, 'Look, this is one of those must-have benefits that we offer in order to attract and keep the talent we brought in.'"
Pemberton, the Workhuman HR officer, said tech companies looking to add these types of perks should be striving for what he calls "work-life harmony": changes that better allow employees, and especially parents, to more easily juggle their jobs and their personal lives.
At Workhuman, the company made the decision to start recording Zoom meetings — that way, if someone couldn't participate for whatever reason, they could catch-up on what happened in their own time. It's part of a broader company push to let employees know that they won't be penalized for adopting a flexible work schedule.
"I think you have to define what it means, not just say that you're flexible," Pemberton said. "Then you have to create a culture where there is no loss of value or perceived contribution because you're listening to the call a little bit later, as an example. Those are things that might seem small, but they're actually pretty big to working parents."
Both Pemberton and Allen said that the last six months have put parents in a crucible. What may have already been a strain on work-life balance has exacerbated as childcare options dried up, schools closed or changed their schedules, and parents ended up taking on additional roles on top of full-time jobs. While employers could get away with offering the bare minimum of parenting benefits in the past, that may no longer be the case.
"If there was a steady beat of a need for additional childcare before COVID, now it's become just an overwhelming drum," Allen said. "What we've seen and a lot of parents are saying is, look, childcare has become not just a nice-to-have benefit by the employer, but it's becoming a necessity. It's becoming mandatory. It's becoming, I would say, akin to healthcare benefits."
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