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ERNAKULAM: On Onam, Kerala’s major festival, consulting firm EY let employees upload recorded songs and photos in an internal forum to virtually celebrate the occasion. Now, it plans to celebrate Diwali in a similar fashion across other offices.

“We are planning some online contests for Diwali. Likewise, as team outings have become impossible, there are forums such as ‘quarantine and chill’ where we can virtually spend time together," said an employee at EY, requesting anonymity.

“There are online stress management workshops and policy tweaks too. Every employee is now permitted and actively encouraged to take at least two leaves a month, rather than saving all leaves for the end of the year. Earlier, it was tough to get leaves every month. These (leaves) are linked to busting stress," the person said.

These are vignettes from a new trend of remote perks emerging as companies are heading into their seventh month of lockdown due to the pandemic, with no clear plan for reopening offices. For stressed remote workers, employers are trying new ways to compensate for the loss of perks tied to the office.

For many, especially in metros like Bengaluru, these included free lunches, in-house gyms and corporate chefs. The new remote perks might look at compensating some of these. “Companies that used to give such benefits doing it in other ways—eg even outside gym is not possible due to controls, but they give employees food order vouchers, personal smart devices to monitor health, etc," said Tony Thomas, an IT industry veteran and former chief information officer of Nissan Motor Corp.

Compensating existing perks is not the only trend. Some fresh perks have emerged, mostly to address some of the things remote employees are struggling with during the pandemic. IT majors like Google and Cisco are providing sums in the range of $300-$1000 to help employees get comfortable infrastructural support like office desks and swivel chairs. "WFH enablement is important— ergonomic chairs (bye, bye back pains), quality headphones (I can hear you) and wireless router power backups (no more disconnections!) are essential. To help Ixigo remote first policy till December we’ve just allowed everyone a WFH Enablement Fund !" tweeted Aloke Bajpai, chief executive officer and co-founder of travel startup Ixigo.

Corporates are also offering fitness classes to support the mental and physical health of employees, to help people unplug after work was relocated to home. Several Yoga studios in cities like Bengaluru have tied up with resorts and OYO townhouses that are left without guests in the pandemic to offer fitness training sessions.

Some others, like Chennai-based startup CrayonData, are doing it remotely. They are offering online Zumba lessons and craft-coaching to their remote employees. “The virus pushed us into an entirely new work environment—our fitness centers remain inaccessible while working for long hours inside homes has created physical and mental issues for many," said Vishnupriya Poduval, a dance trainer and employee at the startup.

“We used to have a weekend Zumba practice group in the office to unplug which I led. From September onwards, upon the request of HR, we restarted it online. We have also started some bottle art decoupage and origami sessions on the weekends that help us to destress," she said.

Pandemic or not, employers also want the workers to be connected with each other. At UST Global, the annual foundation day celebrations, usually celebrated in November-December is a key event. About 4,500 workers in the firm’s Bengaluru office, despite the remote work challenge, are afoot with plans to celebrate the day, albeit online.

"Employees look out for it every year. We don't want to cancel it," said an employee, requesting anonymity. “Every year, it is a mega event filled with cultural activities, DJ party and so on. We will not be able to replicate the atmosphere fully. But we are trying to use a mix of live and recorded programmes. It is a core part of what makes the company employee-friendly and cultivates a cordial relation between employees," the person said.

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