While many organizations had to press pause on their hiring plans at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Willful, a Canadian online estate planning company, had to ramp up its hiring efforts during this time.

Before the pandemic, all new employees at Willful received a variety of perks, including a $500 annual education budget, summer hours on Fridays in July and August, a week off over the Christmas holidays at the end of the year, a comprehensive benefits plan and vacation days. However, the company expanded on those perks during the public health crisis, said Erin Bury, Willful’s co-founder and chief executive officer, in an email to Benefits Canada.

Read: Number of employees retiring, quitting could rise as pandemic recedes: report

Indeed, even as the country hopes to be beginning to turn the corner on the pandemic, employers are confronting another crisis — a more competitive attraction and retention landscape that’s moving the employee experience to centre stage. As a result, companies are re-thinking their benefits offerings in order to turn the talent management dial in their favour.

“Some of the things we’ve seen really stem across the total rewards portfolio,” says Toyin Akin-Johnson, principal of career with Mercer Canada. “Every industry is different. Many people have had a lot of time to think about their careers from just being furloughed and out of work. The pandemic has also allowed a number of people to seek early retirement. So there is definitely a labour shortage, which has led to a battle for talent.”

Willful has expanded its benefits offerings to include $500 to put toward either a registered retirement savings plan matching program or a health-care spending account, which can be used toward traditional benefits like therapy or even lifestyle items such as Uber Eats. The company also added access to virtual therapy sessions at a discounted rate and expanded its personal/sick days from five to 10, knowing employees might need more days off to accommodate family schedules, said Bury.

Read: Health-care spending, use of virtual care increasing in U.S. amid pandemic: report

“There’s never been a more employee-centric workforce,” says Andrea Bartlett, director of human resources at Humi, an HR, benefits and payroll solutions company. “What I mean by that is employees really have the say because it is a candidate-driven market. The pandemic has taught employers and companies of all sizes that [they] need to be employee-centric in [their] decision-making in order to stay competitive moving forward.”

Among Humi’s clients, there’s general curiosity around how other companies are growing, how their people operations teams and HR departments are structured and what they’re re-evaluating in their group benefits plans, she says.

But Akin-Johnson notes the different perks offered comes down to the organization. “It has to be rooted in the organization’s strategy [and] financial feasibility. I’ve seen organizations implement furloughs, sabbaticals, bonuses — particularly with retail or frontline workers. It’s hard to deploy some of these tools if the company is having challenges.”

Right now, there’s a strong emphasis on mental health because people are feeling burned out, he says, noting employers should deploy listening programs to understand what employees are going through and find the right tools to alleviate those concerns.

Read: Siemens Canada paying out $3.4M in year-end, one-time bonuses to employees

One common perk Humi is seeing among its plan sponsor clients during the pandemic is enhanced top-up of parental leave benefits, says Bartlett. “On average, it was generally accepted that a six-week top-up at 80 per cent of the salary is the norm, but we’re seeing more companies offering three to four months top-up at between 60 to 100 per cent of salary.”

For Akin-Johnson, another change throughout the pandemic has been the allocation of allowances to employees for home office supplies. “As you can imagine, with people working from home, everyone has a different living situation, so employers are making sure there’s an equitable playing field and that everyone has the tools they need to be successful in their jobs — from office supplies like printers, ergonomic chairs — anything they need to be able to get their work done safely and effectively.”

Willful offers home office setups, including a standing desk, for anyone who wants them, said Bury. The company has also added one afternoon a week of “flow time” in which employees don’t schedule meetings, providing them with “heads-down” time to focus, as well as flexible working hours for anyone juggling remote working and their personal schedules.

Read: How are employers supporting the big shift to remote work?

The two biggest changes right now that can make the difference for employers looking to recruit or retain talent are transparency and flexibility, says Akin-Johnson, noting employers need to ensure their employees understand their organization’s return-to-office plan so they can adjust to those expectations.

Willful’s remote-first approach to returning to the office has been the most popular perk in its hiring strategy, said Bury. The company, which has offices in Toronto and Montreal, has taken a hybrid optional return to office, with some employees working a couple days in the office per week, while others are working fully remote. The organization also recently hired remote employees in British Columbia, Alberta and Windsor, Ont. As well, Bury and her husband, who’s also a co-founder of the company, are relocating to Prince Edward County about two hours away from its downtown Toronto office, so they’ll also be remote employees.

“These additional perks have helped us to attract and retain talent during a really challenging time and they’ve helped us to redefine our total compensation plan to be more focused on what post-COVID employees care about: flexibility, access to mental-health resources and a solid compensation package that includes salary, employee stock options and benefits.”

Read: Half of Canadians would leave job if flexibility isn’t extended post-pandemic: survey