How companies are preparing employees for long-term work-from-home

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In March, millions of U.S. office workers hurriedly packed their desks to set up shop and work from home, thinking they would be back within a few weeks. As the coronavirus pandemic leapt from a handful of outbreak zones to the rest of the country, weeks stretched into months of unprecedented health, economic and mental devastation.

By summer, big tech companies were officially in competition to be the last ones back in the office. First, the likes of Facebook and Google extended their remote leave until the end of the year; Twitter and Square then went above and beyond to say workers could stay home "forever." More recently, Facebook, Google and many others have since extended work-from-home options well into 2021.

Now, nearly six months after the coronavirus upended daily life and work, companies large and small are scrambling to turn their temporary fixes — ad hoc schedule adjustments, a spontaneous free lunch delivery to boost team morale — into more sustained benefits to support their workers at home.

For some, that means launching new wellness programs. More than half of the 256 employers surveyed by the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, including Target and Starbucks, are providing special emotional and mental health programs for their workforce due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

At Square, one of the first major companies to announce permanent work-from-home, the company's benefits team partnered with employee resource groups to distribute shared documents to help people adjust to remote work, a spokesperson tells CNBC Make It. Some include tips for working parents to learn how to homeschool their kids, while others offer mental health resources for those feeling socially isolated.

Monthly allowances provide ongoing support and flexibility

Monetary compensation can also help workers make the transition. Earlier in the spring, many organizations provided employees stipends to buy new home-office equipment. At Google, workers were told in May they could expense up to $1,000 worth of work-from-home gear. The move followed previous announcements that remote workers, who discussed missing the perks culture of being on campus, were not allowed to expense meals and snacks or repurpose unused budgets from canceled events for individual use, such as on fitness memberships or charitable donations.

Elsewhere, organizations are seeing the value of moving dollars intended for the office to the pockets of workers at home.

Zach Ragland, 29, is the head of people at Feather, a furniture rental company. When employees at the company's New York City headquarters were sent home in mid-March, Ragland says the team quickly reallocated budgets previously used to fund office-wide free lunches and gave employees a $25 weekly credit to pay for food while at home.

"Flexibility is a main part of what we offer customers, and it's a core value that we apply to our internal employee experience," Ragland says.

In June, the 90-person company announced employees could work from home permanently. The company intends to keep its physical office for those who want to go back in voluntarily, though some workers are taking advantage of the flexibility to move away entirely.

"Since we decided to open up employment anywhere with permanent work-from-home, we've seen people go all over," Ragland says. "We're officially registered to employ people in six different states, and we intend to increase that to 10 by the end of the year."

To sustain employees' decisions to continue remote work, Feather has since broadened their weekly food credit to a flat $100 monthly stipend that can be used on food as well as office supplies, up to 25% of a Wi-Fi bill or additional computer hardware, such as a keyboard, mouse or headphones. Ragland says he intends to use the credit toward his internet bill: "It's a huge help to have a monthly expense reduced, especially since other bills at home have gone up because we are home so much more."

For the roughly 40% of Feather employees who work onsite fulfilling furniture orders and making deliveries, they will retain a monthly $100 credit that can be used toward lunches.

For working parents, child-care assistance is top of mind

While money is one simple way companies can offer support, many parents are finding child-care assistance is what they need most.

Over the summer, Emily Kiely, a mom of four, found solace in a free virtual summer camp put on by her employer, PepsiCo.

Kiely, 41, of Frisco, Texas, works for the company as the head of e-commerce grocery sales. When her family was sent to work and attend school from home in the spring, Kiely was grateful her husband was transitioning jobs and could take over all teaching responsibilities for their kids ages 12, 10, 6 and 3. The arrangement lasted until he started his new job from home in July, which left both parents working full-time during the day while their children mostly looked after themselves.

Teachers offer homeschooling advice during coronavirus
Teachers offer homeschooling advice during coronavirus

So when a colleague mentioned a virtual summer camp partnership with Varsity Tutors available to PepsiCo employees, Kiely quickly enrolled her kids. The educational programming spanning from science to cooking to theater would occupy her older kids for an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon throughout the week. 

"It's been helpful in having something to point their attention toward throughout the summer," Kiely says of the employer-sponsored program. "A hard part of this is figuring out how to keep every day interesting for them while they're at home and we're both busy locked away in our offices doing work. We felt good about them going to spend an hour or two a day [in virtual classes], and they were excited because they could have that interaction and learning."

The summer program lasted through August, though now Kiely and her family must figure out arrangements for the new school year. A college-aged neighbor who previously agreed to help with remote learning ended up landing an internship and moving away.

For now, Kiely will take a few days of paid time off to help her school-aged kids start the new year online for a few weeks, and the district will evaluate whether in-person classes can resume after Labor Day. Meanwhile, she's been told her office will remain closed until January 2021.

"It's good that I have clarity on when I'll be back to work in the office, but everything else I still have to figure out," Kiely says. "Every bit of certainty you get, you clutch on to it tightly and figure out the rest as it goes."

But child-care needs are shifting with the start of the new school year

This month, school systems and day-care facilities navigate a new world of distance learning, in-person instruction under social-distancing guidelines, or a hybrid of the two.

Parents caught in the crosshairs of schools opening and closing may be able to take advantage of paid leave offered through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which provides eligible parents up to 12 weeks of partially paid leave to care for a child at home. Others who need to leave the workplace entirely may qualify for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, available through the end of 2020.

Employers could also play a large role in retaining working parents by extending leave allowances while work-from-home and care needs change by the day.

In April, Google increased its paid caregiving leave policy from six weeks to a total of 14 weeks in response to the pandemic. The tech giant became the first major company to extend work-from-home into summer 2021, but CEO Sundar Pichai has said Google won't go permanently remote in the future. 

In Seattle, Cat Neilson is grateful for the peace of mind that her job can remain remote forever if she wants. The 36-year-old mom of two toddlers, ages 5 and 2, works as a senior manager of employee brand at Zillow, the real estate marketplace.

The company sent employees home in early March as Seattle became one of the first U.S. cities to be hit with the coronavirus. By April, leadership told staff they wouldn't be back for the remainder of the year, and by August, the company established an indefinite work-from-home option for the majority of its 5,200-person organization.

Neilson says she feels very supported by the company's commitment to early and clear communication, as well as flexibility as people balance their home responsibilities during the pandemic.

"Even before Zillow announced indefinite work-from-home, they've been extremely open to flexible schedules," Neilson says, adding that she and her husband trade off earlier mornings or later evenings between child care and their day jobs. 

In May, Zillow introduced 10 fully paid days of caregiver leave. Neilson says she's used a day or two intermittently over several weeks throughout the summer, especially when her family's reopened day care center closed following a positive coronavirus case linked to the facility.

"I'm so happy to have it as an option because it's a stressful time to be a parent," Neilson says of the paid leave option. "You're worried about your family's health, but I didn't have to worry about my job on top of that. I felt seen by my company as a working mom, and I know the benefits team is thinking about that group of employees. I haven't felt like I've had to choose between my job and my family, and not everyone has that choice."

Zillow's 10 paid days of caregiving leave can be used at any time in 2020 in addition to regular PTO, sick leave and 15 days of backup care provided by Bright Horizons. Starting September 1, workers who've exhausted their caregiver leave can apply for a three-month period of reduced hours and pay while maintaining all other employee benefits.

For her part, Neilson says a combination of Zillow's employee support, co-parenting with her husband and allowing herself grace is helping her take the new routine day by day.

"Some days are fine and some days you feel like you're failing both your family and your boss," Neilson says, "so you just have to try and make it through."

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