Working at home, alone in his Brooklyn apartment, was not what Andrew Matsumoto signed up for. The 33-year-old product designer had just started his job at mortgage lender Better.com when the pandemic hit and he was sent to work from home.
“It was unsettling,” he said.
Matsumoto missed out on spending time with his new co-workers while brainstorming on the office’s cozy couches, grabbing fresh fruit, chips and other snacks, and chatting over lunch. With 5,000 employees at the company’s World Trade Center headquarters, there were plenty of people to meet and spend time with.
Matsumoto was hardly the only one who felt this way. “Our first survey [after the pandemic began] showed that employees felt disconnected,” said Arthur Matuszewski, vice president of talent at the company.
Better.com’s CEO Vishal Garg has an edict of maintaining a thriving company culture and doing right by people. That left Matuszewski and his team scrambling to provide workers with everything they had at the office at home. That translated to stipends for things like stand-up desks, lunches and dinners and delivering team-building activities such as virtual talent shows and singalongs. The company also created Better Birds, a virtual day care program that entertains kids with activities and games until 8 p.m.
Sound like a bit much? Not according to the experts.
“Working at home, away from your office and co-workers isn’t natural,” workplace expert and author Mark C. Crowley told the New York Post. “Workers need to feel employers saying, ‘I care about you.’ ”
Lorraine Hack, a headhunter at Midtown executive search firm Korn Ferry agreed, noting that continuously showing appreciation and empathy for your employees proactively is critical. “You don’t want to start doing this as people are leaving,” she said.
This wisdom isn’t lost on Lauren Sobel, vice president of human resources at PuppySpot.com, a service that helps responsible breeders place their puppies with caring individuals and families. Sobel, often referred to as the company Santa, sends surprise gifts to the Jersey City, NJ-based company’s team of at-home workers.
Alisha Randy, a 35-year-old Jersey City resident, is PuppySpot.com’s recruiting manager. She recalls receiving her first surprise. “The doorbell rang, and a pizza no one had ordered arrived at the door,” she said. At about the same time, messages from her co-workers kept popping up on her screen: “I just got a pizza,” they said.
The event “really brought the amazing office culture and vibes right into our homes, and was such a great surprise,” said Randy. “It was awesome to see that we were all able to come together during this unprecedented time and really flourish as a company overall.”
On Cinco de Mayo, PuppySpotters received deliveries of salsa and chips. More recently they shipped out baseball caps with the company logo on them. Randy has also joined in a company-sponsored, home-based Paint and Sip, where canvases, paint and brushes were sent to participants in advance. An instructor then virtually taught them how to paint corgis.
“It had to be a puppy, of course,” said Randy.
Crowley gives high marks to employers who are keeping workers engaged in this way.
“People are lonely as hell,” he said. “They’ve spent the past seven months seeing no one but their spouse and their family.” He added that meetings on Zoom don’t help people make meaningful connections in the way that shared experiences and having fun do.
Feather, a subscription furniture provider based in Soho, said that it would allow employees to work from anywhere to “remove the burden of wondering when we’d start working from the office again,” said Zach Ragland, head of people at the startup.
They brought out $ 100 monthly lunch stipends to replace the three catered office lunches that Feather employees enjoyed. Plus, each week, the company uses a service called Donut, which randomly pairs three employees together for meals or chats.
“The idea is to replace the water-cooler experience they would have had in the office,” said Ragland. Feather has also created a virtual “safe room,” where workers can gather for unmonitored, off-the-record conversations. Feather also offers 30-minute virtual fitness classes four times per week, which include meditation, cardio, strength training and yoga.
Even so, Feather has employees who crave to go back to the office, so the company opened its doors to them “for now,” said Ragland.
That’s something that part of Better.com’s workforce would also like to do. “We’re beginning to feel the pressure,” said Matuszewski.
Meanwhile, employers need to do all that they can to show their workers, “I’m thinking of you,” said Crowley. “The heart plays a greater part in the employer/employee relationship than we think.”