Visual creative and filmmaker Jameson Smith stands on the rooftop deck at the Westbrook ad agency Ethos on Friday Oct. 29, 2021, where he's the new video content director. Smith's first day of work was Oct. 1. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Jameson Smith began searching for a new job about nine months ago, when the pandemic curtailed business and dampened morale at his former employer.

The filmmaker and visual storyteller said earning enough to live on was important, but he had additional conditions for a new job, including good benefits and a company culture that fit him. His new company is employee-owned, meaning workers share accountability for the business.

“Most companies are looking to hire anyone from anywhere,” said Smith, the video content director at Westbrook ad agency Ethos, who started his new job on Oct. 1. “But I wanted something that was long term and good for me and my family, the family that I’m building in Maine.”

For Tyler Averill, who became a supervisor at Medicare service company Devoted Health in New Gloucester six months ago, the draw was moving from a former insurance company that had a lot of red tape to the faster paced new employer, where he felt he could make a difference.

Janice Gray joined promotional distribution company Geiger in Lewiston as human resources director a month ago because of its family approach, focus on work-life balance and good treatment of employees.

The non-monetary expectations of the three workers reflect a fundamental, pandemic-induced workforce change that is expected to be permanent. Employees in short supply across all types of jobs are newly empowered to make demands they previously would not. Companies are scrambling to figure out which perks work best to attract and keep workers.

Hybrid work between office and home is one of the main requests from employees, as are benefits that improve work-life balance, such as more flexible work hours and more paid time off, including for mental health days.

Some companies are already making major changes. WEX Inc., a Portland-based financial services company, in July scrapped its plan to move 1,000 employees to a new, $50 million operations center at The Downs in Scarborough, with its CEO citing employee preferences for hybrid work as a key part of the decision.

“The companies that will make it through will be the ones who are the most flexible,” Peter DelGreco, president of Maine & Co., a company that attracts businesses to Maine. “It’s a global competition for talent, and we’ll see companies experimenting.”

The worker shortage showed in recent hiring numbers in Maine, which remained relatively flat over this summer while job openings increased. The state had 46,000 job openings in August 2021 compared with 26,000 hires, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The end of a $300 per week government unemployment benefit after the Labor Day weekend and financial perks by employers and the state are not driving up hires. A program by the Maine Department of Labor to provide up to $1,500 grants for businesses to attract workers fell far short of the $10 million in federal funding available to reach 7,500 workers. Skills mismatches and the ongoing pandemic continue to keep workers sidelined, a September labor department survey found.

“Because we were all stuck on a hamster wheel before, we didn’t necessarily take that step back that we needed to and really assess when we looked at employers,” said Gray at Geiger.

Employers have been taking stock as well. At Strainrite Companies, a filtration equipment maker in Auburn, hourly employees can now work any time from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m., as long as they put in 40 hours a week. If they have perfect attendance, they make another 50 cents on top of hourly pay that starts at $16 with no experience. The flexibility helps people juggle daycare or doctor visits, said Alan Lapoint, the company’s owner.

“The money they make has to be competitive, but I think it’s about the flexibility and the acknowledgement that their personal life is important as well,” he said.

Devoted Health is remaining hybrid as it plans to hire 40 people in Maine in the next six months and another 80 the following year. The company has focused on treating people like family, and looks for personal characteristics when it hires, such as people who are problem solvers, compassionate with customers and team-oriented.

“We know we’re competing for every person we bring in, not just in the interview process, but every day that they’re here,” Larry Henry, senior vice president of health plan operations at the company, said. “That means that we’ve got to make sure that we do not let up for a second on creating an environment in which people feel respected.”

Averill said that shows in some of the benefits, such as all employees getting a free mental health day in May, which was mental health awareness month.

Apart from raising its minimum wage by $2 to $18 per hour in October, Bangor Savings Bank is offering bonuses to employees who successfully refer new employees who work 90 days and a $500 cash bonus to new hires who provide proof of a COVID-19 vaccination. It gave hourly employees who worked in a physical location from March 2020 until May 2021 time-and-a-half pay and eligible salaried workers a stipend of $50 a day, spokesperson Jaclyn Fish said.

Ethos, which maintains a hybrid office, has tried to mesh the experience of a videoconference at home with one in the office, putting screens in all of its conference room areas so people at the office and at home can chat. It also has allowed some at-home activities to take place at certain times in the office, such as letting parents with children block off time to focus on their kid’s education and asking others in the office to respect that time.

“Our organization relies a lot on personal responsibility, so people are more connected and work together to come up with solutions,” Robyn Dionne, director of operations and human resources at Ethos, said. “A strong work culture with people who care about their work and each other are factors for attraction and retention of workers.”

Correction: Devoted Health is planning to hire 40 people in Maine in the next six months. A previous figure was incorrect.