As Australian businesses fight to fill job vacancies, workers are demanding much more than a pay rise and a ping pong table when it comes to work perks.

A combination of plummeting unemployment, closed borders, record government support and bumper business growth has created an extraordinary labour market that has put workers and applicants firmly in the driver’s seat.

There’s certainly no shortage of them. Around half of all Australian employees are currently looking to switch jobs, according to advisory firm Gartner, which refers to it as “The Great Exodus of Talent”.

“The pandemic has really caused a lot of people to reevaluate their priorities,” HR advisor Neal Woolrich said.

“People haven’t been able to travel, but they have been fully employed for the last 18 months and quite often are in a very good position financially.”

“But also, in some circumstances, people have been working well above capacity for a long time.

"Some of them are tapping the mat now looking to see if the grass is greener somewhere else. All of those things are adding up and it’s become a real challenge for employers to hang onto talent.”

In the tech sector where closed borders have cut off a crucial source of developers, some businesses are forking out six-figure raises in addition to work perks just to keep staff from being poached.

Across a whole range of professions, recruiters report that negotiating power is now in the hands of applicants. Beyond the realm of remuneration, the pandemic has promoted Australians to rethink their relationship with work.

According to Woolrich, the biggest behavioural shift has been putting staff at the centre of the business, in an age where the lines between work and home lives have bled together.

“Employers are now starting to think more holistically about their employees and their personal lives, their family lives and their community lives and really tailoring the benefits of the employer employee relationship more holistically around that,” he said.

Let's get flexible

As is often the case, the pandemic didn’t create the trend so much as accelerate it.

Working from home (WFH) has become even more ubiquitous, with flexible work arrangements now “an expectation rather than a privilege”, Woolrich said.

The Australian arm of tech conglomerate Cisco, just named the ‘best pace to work in Australia’ for the second year in a row, is a prime example.

“We encourage people to think about how they can be the most successful and the most productive ,”ANZ vice-president Ben Dawson said.

“Then we let them decide for themselves where they want to work from and how they work.”

It is this ‘perk’ of flexibility that may make the biggest impression on most workers and inform where they take jobs, above and beyond what they may pay, Dawson said.

Canva, another workplace frequently named as among the best in the country, shares a similar thesis.

“We’ve always intentionally built that culture around flexibility,” Amy Schultz said.

“Mel our CEO has this philosophy that, ‘what works for you, works for us’.”

While it’s hardly a revolutionary idea, it is an effective one.

Let staff do what they need to do and try to stay out of the way.

And yet while plenty of companies pay lip service to the idea of flexibility, many have had to step up when they were given no other choice.

Cutting down on office space and commuting time, at the same as productivity and worker happiness improves, working from home arrangements have proven a winner.

“Personally, I think the idea of mandated days in the office is a mistake if you want to create a destination where top talent wants to work,” Dawson said.

“The idea used to be that we built our personal lives around work. Now there’s an expectation that people integrate their work into their personal lives.”

Work perks

But while flexibility ranks as one of the most popular benefits now being offered, it is one example of a changing work culture in Australia.

Those workplaces doing it right are ones Woolrich describes as ‘human-centric’.

They focus and nurture the personal growth and wellbeing of their people beyond professional development and providing a salary.

It’s about taking a genuine stand on social and environmental issues and understanding their personal situation.

It may sound abstract, but it goes to the heart of contemporary work.

At a time when Australians have traded desks for dining room tables and face-to-face meetings with Zoom calls, work lives are no longer anchored in a physical space.

Schultz says Canva has converted all of its well-known work perks into ‘location-agnostic’ ones, turning catered lunches into daily stipends so staff can buy their lunch from their local.

But she adds that while things like free food are all well and good, they have become “table stakes” in the tech sector.

Canva employees can certainly expect a whole lot more work perks, from volunteer days, to Zoom yoga and cooking classes. As a result of the pandemic, the $19 billion startup introduced a ‘Vibe and Thrive’ allowance for all workers.

“[It] can be used on everything from gym memberships, to home office setups, to social celebrations, to wellbeing and education,” Schultz said.

“It is really about going beyond that now to create impactful experiences for our teams.”

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

According to Canva, it has received more than 160,000 job applications in the last 12 months.

Even accounting for the rapid growth trajectory of the design platform – it has created around 800 jobs in that time roughly doubling its headcount – it is a ringing endorsement of Canva’s culture and work perks.

“We really listen to employees and are constantly seeking their feedback. We make all of our decisions with their wellbeing in mind,” Schultz said.

“We see benefits as an investment in things like social connection, wellness and sustainability.”

Those things ultimately need to be driven by the workforce itself, both Canva and Cisco agree.

“If you need to create an environment that people love being a part of, then you need to ask them what that looks like. That answer may look very different in six months to what it looks like now,” Dawson said.

Craving Connection

In a world where relationship with colleagues and bosses is digital and increasingly emotional, it seems the best workplaces are the ones that can create and maintain meaningful connections.

The need for social interaction at work has only increased in a socially distanced world.

Canva’s 400 social clubs have simply moved online along with the company’s other activities.

“The past year, I think, has shown us that more than ever both employees and also candidates really want social connection and meaning in the work that they do,” Schultz said.

“Tonight we have got trivia, last week we had a magic show, and every week the Vibe team keep upping the ante.”

And while ping pong tables may be considered a bit of a startup trope, there may still be a place for them.

“When people come back into the office now, it’s for different things, not just to do their day job. They want an environment that allows them to socialise with their peers, collaborate with them [and] work on some interesting things,” Dawson said.

“And maybe play a game of table tennis.”