Many companies used to boast about their modern offices with gyms, fully-stocked kitchens and even bowling alleys.

But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, sharing a meal or treadmill with a colleague became a lot less attractive to workers, who could suddenly work from anywhere and thus, for anyone. The shift toward remote work means competition for talent has never been fiercer in some industries, such as the technology sector, and Canadian companies and startups say they’re going to great lengths to find new staff and keep their star workers from leaving.

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Unlimited vacation policies, stipends for daycare and office furniture, as well as extensive health and wellness benefits are all being offered right now, say industry executives and observers. “Many companies have had to abandon what used to be the attraction pieces for bringing people into the workplace, whether it’s dogs at the office, ping-pong and foosball tables, big-screen TVs, open bars,” says Bill Tam, co-founder of Digital Technology Supercluster, an organization accelerating investment in innovation. “Perks are now really much more around employee wellness and benefits that are comprehensive and supporting what [workers] need.”

This shift is reflected on job website Indeed, which saw a 102 per cent increase in mentions of unlimited vacation or open paid time off between September 2020 and September 2021. The number of postings in the sector including the word “stipend” jumped by 189 per cent over the same time period.

Indeed attributed some of that growth to an increase in tech jobs, but company economist Brendon Bernard thinks plenty of it also comes from remote work “pushing the envelope” and “creating room for experimentation. When attracting talent might be difficult, it’s incumbent on employers to be creative on the types of benefits they are offering.”

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Rich Emrich knows this strategy well. His Toronto-based education tech company Altus Assessments already offered unlimited vacation and a professional development stipend, so he went further during the public heath crisis. He began giving all staff the first Friday of every month off, waived the three-month probationary period for benefits and stock options and subscribed to a virtual wellness service employees can use for therapy, fitness and nutrition.

Prospective employees were hooked. “We see people say, ‘Wow, I was interested in you guys because of your values and your purpose and your mission,” says Emrich. “But then I see what you are doing on personal and professional development. . . . That’s pretty cool.”

Existing employees liked the new perks too, giving Emrich hope that some of the high performers will stick around, even as tech companies are in hiring mode and looking farther afield for talent. Inc., Google, Microsoft Corp., Netflix Inc., Pinterest Inc., Reddit Inc. and Twitter Inc. all announced Canadian hiring plans this year, while homegrown firms Shopify Inc. and Wattpad Corp. planned to add 2,201 technical staff and 100 workers, respectively.

Read: How Willful is using benefits, flexibility and perks to attract top talent in tight labour market

Competing with such companies can be tough for newer or smaller businesses without the budgets or revenues to dig deeper in their coffers to keep staff around or poach talent. But some workers are willing to accept a lower salary if they are given other perks. Hired, an employment platform publishing average annual salaries, found 27 per cent of tech workers would take lower pay in exchange for stock in a public company, 18 per cent for stock in a private company, 12 per cent for flexible work options and eight per cent for a performance bonus.

They rated a work schedule they desire, paid time off and health benefits as the most desirable perks, while childcare services, wellness stipends and tuition reimbursements ranked lower. Tam thinks this re-evaluation of perks is giving startups and smaller tech companies a chance to use their nimbleness to come out on top. “Many of the global companies struggle with policies around coming into the office and for how long. . . . They are struggling a bit with how to do that balance and I think it’s going to be, in some respects, easier for startups and early-stage companies.”

Montreal-based Mako Fintech’s hoping Tam’s right. The company behind tools for automating administrative and compliance tasks began offering staff unlimited vacation days during the pandemic. It also started giving employees in their first year $1,000 to be spent on their home offices and workers in subsequent years get $300 annually.

Read: Amazon open to more remote work post-pandemic

Staff like the perks, but Rachael Bouskila, Mako’s chief executive officer, doesn’t think they’re a deciding factor. “People join a company or stay at a company to meet a number of their goals like having a good work environment, working on interesting work, having good colleagues, having good career progression and making good money,” he says.

He feels one of the biggest perks that startups and smaller tech companies offer is responsibility and experience. He highlights this to candidates who interview at Mako with a job offer in hand from a big rival. “We say, ‘You can join this company, but you’re going to be a small cog in a very large machine and what’s the chance that your stock options 10 times or 100 times compared to a company at a much earlier stage?’ It’s a question of what’s right for them at their stage in their career.”