Israeli high-tech employees have been working mostly since the start of the coronavirus pandemic nearly a year ago, but that doesn’t mean they have had to sacrifice the workplace perks the industry is so famous for.
In the relentless drive to cope with a chronic shortage of skilled workers and star performers, Israeli tech companies have long been big spenders on benefits such as open kitchens, on-premises rec rooms and private concerts.
The pandemic has made employers more anxious about getting and keeping staff at a time when workers are at home and not in face-to-face contact with their managers. Companies are now offering everything from summer day camp for employees’ children, some of them featuring celebrities from children’s television to chocolate-making workshops and free therapy. Isolated at home, many employers and employees see perks as a way of maintaining solidarity.
Yaheli, who works in development at the taxi hailing app company Gett, said that throughout the crisis the company has been sending employees (by Gett’s delivery service, of course) treats such as gourmet chocolate, wine and gadgets to improve their home office environment. “They’re always offering us presentations and arranging activities, such as playing bingo and a joint New Year’s toast with staff from Russia. They do everything they can to make us feel like part of the group even though we’re working from home,” said Yaheli, who did not want his last name published.
They don’t take all the attention lavished on them for granted. “At some of my previous jobs, they would bring in chefs to cook food for us in the office, but we were kind of blase about it. But now, during the coronavirus, people get excited. They’ve actually made us feel content,” Yaheli said.
Ma’or, a software expert at Microsoft Israel, recalled that during Israel’s second lockdown, last fall, he came to realize that he wasn’t seeing his colleagues in-person, only by video conference and even then not everyone. The gifts he got from work and the virtual activities that Microsoft sponsored helped ease his loneliness, he says.
In addition to paying for computer equipment for his home office, Ma’or said, Microsoft sent him, during the first lockdown, last spring, a gift basket of fruits, vegetables, tehina, halva and baklava from Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda open-air market. The second lockdown was “calmer,” without presents, but in the third the pampering resumed.
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On Tu B’Shvat, Microsoft sent employees plants, seeds and instructions on growing them hydroponically. On Valentine’s Day, there was a chocolate workshop: Employees received all the things they needed at home and then got lessons on how to prepare it. Twice, it sent champagne kits, with a bottle, glasses and all kinds of sweets and cheeses to go with the champagne,” he said.
At the start of the winter, Ma’or said he got a small heated blanket and sports equipment. “On Family Day, an annual Israeli holiday, Microsoft sent us a pizza-making kit, with prepared dough that you only needed to roll out and all kinds of toppings. There was a competition, with people sending in pictures of the pizzas they made with their families,” Ma’or recalled.
He said the presents helped him feel connected with the company, but practically speaking what was more important was the extra vacation days he got. “Parents of young children got up to 12 weeks vacation a year during the period when the schools were closed. ... I got two weeks during the third lockdown, and management encouraged us to take time off so it’s made life significantly easier for me, much more than all the treats. Even when there was a crisis at work, I was told not to deal with it while I was on vacation.”
At a time when many companies are laying people off, Atera, which develops and maintains management systems, has recruited Shani Singer as an employee experience specialist. Her boss, Altera human resources chief Avital Slutsky, said Singer was hired to help with the sudden problem of supporting employees working at home and making them feel part of the company.
“I have tons of work,” said Singer. “Our goal is to maintain employee morale while they’re working at home. I want them to feel part of the team and that the lockdown doesn’t affect them for the worse emotionally.”
She organizes activities and sends employees gifts periodically to “pamper them.” Among other things, they were invited to a remote stand-up performance and received champagne. But it’s not all gifts and good times: Employees helped clean Palmachim Beach last week, after the big oil spill, and during the first lockdown they could attend a Zoom class on coping with children at home.
“We are a family kind of startup,” said Slutsky. “We don’t just send out gifts, we put a lot of thought into suiting them to the recipients; a young, single worker won’t get the same box as an older person with children. Vegans, people who keep kosher or have allergies, everyone received customized treats.”
Providing employee perks can be big business. Mor Koral, for example, was a Tel Aviv bar manager who began offering courses on how to make cocktails, including online, about a year ago. She has run workshops for employees at 30 companies.
“My business partner and I started the workshops during Passover, when companies were looking for ways to pamper their employees. I didn’t market the workshops, it simply began due to demand. People in the business who knew me approached me and only later did I start advertising on social networks and it started to take off. That’s been my source of income over the last few months,” she said.
A one-hour cocktail workshop costs from 1,000-2,000 shekels ($830-$1,660). Students buy kits for 120-150 shekels that include ingredients, a shaker, two glasses and garnishes.
“I don’t know anything about high-tech. I come from the world of low-tech, of bars and restaurants. It’s been a funny glimpse into a different world,” Koral said. “At the start of each workshop, people are a little hesitant to join in, but after their first drink something opens up. A lot of them aren’t big drinkers, so they get a little drunk and open up more than they had planned,” she said.
“As if life weren’t complicated enough, now I have to choose a Pesach gift,” quipped Michal Halamish, director of engineering at MicroFocus, on the Facebook humor page Hitechproblems. MicroFocus, which helps big organizations upgrade their information systems, ordered employees to work from home a year ago.
The company placed gift coffee mugs on the desks of the absent workers, thinking they’d be returning to the office soon. The mugs are still there. Now the gifts are sent to employees’ homes, and they’ve gotten fancier.
Halamish, 42, said employees have received kits for making jelly donuts and a gift certificate to a nearby nursery, as well as online cooking courses and visits to escape rooms. The company also covers five visits with a psychotherapist, which can be extended if the employee wants.
All this pampering has its critics, most notably Noam Bardin. The outgoing CEO of Waze recently complained that Google, which bought the navigation app developer, is too generous with its perks.
A Waze employee who requested anonymity disagrees. “We got a $1,000 budget to buy office equipment for home at the start of the crisis, as well as a blanket, sweets and things like that. They were pretty conservative about it,” he said.
“The most important thing we got was [additional] vacation days during the lockdown. In the first two weeks of the first lockdown (in spring 2020), they told us, ‘Work as much as you can.’ Later, too, when the schools closed, they gave us vacation time. We got something like 60 [additional] days all told,” said the employee, who added that he’s very happy with Google and isn’t looking to work elsewhere.
For her part, Halamish of MicroFocus said that while the corporate generosity has raised her team’s productivity, it’s been hard to create cohesion in virtual meetings. Many participants put their Zoom on mute or disable their webcam.
“I brief them on our accomplishments, but it's hard to celebrate when everyone's at home,” she said. “I think they’re happy with the treats, but when we were working in the office it was more exciting when surprises were waiting for them on the desk.”