Companies look to attract and retain new employees while commercial real estate firms develop office spaces that improve workplace experiences
By Shane Snider | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Workplace dynamics have forever shifted since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, creating a mobile workforce eager for new opportunities and no longer bound by geography. That’s left many companies searching for ways to recruit and retain workers with beefed-up incentives, perks, benefits, attractive workplace cultures, policies and other lures. The technology industry, which added positions at a feverish pace during the pandemic lockdown days to cope with remote work demand, is now starting to soften. Big-name companies are reducing head count, including Google, Amazon and Meta.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that the balance of power shifts toward the employer if the national economy appears headed in the direction of a recession. But the “great resignation” has changed that dynamic – putting power back into workers’ hands as they have more flexibility with career choices. Durham and the Triangle at large have a rich depth of career choices for workers and a large roster of major employers.
Despite mounting fears about a global economic recession, employment statistics remain strong. The state’s unemployment rate was about 3.8% in October, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Durham and Chapel Hill’s unemployment rate in September was about 2.7%. That said, the technology sector is showing signs of slowing, with companies either cutting back or freezing hiring.
Even with a fluid economic backdrop, the job market may be forever changed. While some companies take a harder line stance on the hybrid office – with at least partial in-office presence required – experts say the appetite for remote work and the need for employers to get creative with incentives will continue.
Gleb Tsipursky, a cognitive scientist and CEO of hybrid and remote work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, believes the demand for hybrid work is no passing fad – it’s simply the future of the workplace.
“In surveys, two-thirds of employees would rather quit than return to the office full time,” he said. “In order to retain people, we’re seeing more employers choosing to offer remote work. Leaders are choosing to offer remote work as an incentive rather than salary. The best workers will flock to those companies.”
Aside from hybrid work policies, employers are getting creative with perks to keep workers happy. Chris Geiss, co-founder and CEO at Seguno Software, which offers automated email marketing software, is on board with the remote work needs of his 13 employees, but he tries to make sure the office is an attractive option as well.
“We’re rising to meet expectations for prospective and current employees – trying to rise to the occasion of the times we’re living in,” Geiss said. “Ultimately, these have been positive changes. We started growing the team during the pandemic, so we already had a remote-first type of mentality. We had to be very flexible. The challenge is to make the remote employee feel just as welcome as one coming into the office.”
Seguno offers perks like doughnuts on Wednesdays, which has turned into a fun way for workers to get face time with one another. “A doughnut becomes this way to grab some one-on-one time with someone just to have a chat and relax,” Geiss said. “It just gives you another way to connect with your co-workers.”
The company also does a “meal-of-fortune” on Fridays, a business-paid lunch where a random employee is chosen to offer a teachable moment while co-workers are treated to a DoorDash meal. “We still leverage the office as a great place to come together,” Geiss said.
And then there are the tacos. Not the kind you eat. These are golden statue tacos earned through Slack. Employees can give one another up to five virtual “tacos” a day as a way to show appreciation for work-related achievements, and at the end of the month, the employee with the most tacos gets a trophy to hold on to until the next month. “It’s just a fun way to recognize people and another way to connect,” Geiss said. “And that’s something both people in the office and remote employees can participate in.”
Christina Blackwell-Albright, a customer service representative at Seguno, enjoys the company’s mix of hybrid opportunities, which gives her the chance to spend quality time with her young daughter or come into the office when needed. “I definitely look forward to going into the office … when I do,” she said. “They really try to make it a place people want to be.”
That said, the option for remote work was extremely important to Blackwell-Albright, who worked in retail before the pandemic. “It’s incredibly flexible,” she said. “I can go in if I want and be home when I want, and I don’t have to check in with anyone about it. We are able to put our families first – that’s something the company does a really good job with.”
Focus on the Human Aspect
It’s not just employers who have to think about ways to make things interesting for the new workforce. Commercial real estate companies are rethinking how office spaces are used. Longfellow Real Estate Partners, which focuses on lab space in the life sciences field, had to ensure the office was still attractive for employees who can’t accomplish work tasks in a home setting.
“Life sciences have flourished in collaborative environments – our team understands this fundamentally by helping curate experiences that allow our clients to engage with one another, creating unexpected connections and unique opportunities,” said Greg Capps, Longfellow’s managing director. “This collaboration helps a workplace go beyond the typical 9-to-5 and will help to continue to drive the future.”
Commercial real estate companies like Longfellow learned to take a creative approach to building a more home-like experience for employees, offering amenities like gym access, day care, food trucks and more. “Longfellow has pioneered a hospitality level approach to the client experience that goes beyond amenities,” Capps said. “More than ever, this is important, with a renewed focus during and after the pandemic.”
Offering those amenities has allowed Longfellow to forge new partnerships with local businesses. “Our team is committed to connecting our clients to the communities they work within – integrating local businesses like coffee shops and breweries into our spaces.” For instance, 321 Coffee, a Raleigh-based coffee shop and roaster that focuses on employing individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, is slated to open within a 1,200-square-foot space inside Longfellow’s Durham ID location at 300 Morris St. in December.
Seguno’s Geiss said perks and amenities are great, but companies are going to need to think outside the box to stay competitive and retain talent. It’s not just about rewards. Employers are going to have to dig deeper.
Seguno tried to address the mental stress of the pandemic on employees, creating an “employee assistance program” that gave workers access to mental health professionals, financial professionals and other life resources that went beyond the standard employer-worker obligations. “Going through that experience of the pandemic together, we just saw the mental health aspect as really important – we spent money on that program before we even bought logo T-shirts for the company,” Geiss said. “That was just more important to us.”