How HR Professionals Can Manage Employee Benefits in a Post-Pandemic World
Most HR professionals understand the critical role benefits play in employer-employee relationships—how employees perceive (and use) benefits impacts both their performance and engagement in their current jobs as well as how they evaluate any new opportunity.
But in a post-pandemic world of remote and hybrid work arrangements, traditional benefits can fall short of the evolving needs of employees. And with 85 percent of employees saying they have new expectations of their employers following the pandemic, HR professionals need to understand what those unique employee expectations are and rethink their benefit offering accordingly.
Not sure where to start? In this post, we’ll take a look at some tools and strategies to help you identify, measure, and prioritize the benefit expectations of your current and future workforce.
How Have Employee Needs Shifted During the Pandemic?
Change isn’t coming; it’s already here. The pre-COVID-19 workplace is a thing of the past, and a new workplace reality appears to have settled in.
So, what’s changed?
Employees have spent the pandemic balancing work performance with additional personal responsibilities, including looking after vulnerable family members, finding childcare for younger children, assessing health risk tolerance, and other items on a very long must-do list.
What started as short-term solutions have become long-term routines, and people are seeking support.
In response, organizations are doing what they can to reshape benefit plans in a way that accommodates this new reality. But it’s a challenge that requires HR professionals to:
- Know what their employees’ needs really are
- Prioritize the benefits their organizations can realistically offer
The Long-Term Effects of Remote Work
Let’s start with one of the biggest workplace shifts we’ve seen since the start of the pandemic: remote work.
If you’re one of the thousands of HR professionals still operating in a hybrid or remote environment, you may already be familiar with the effects of telecommuting on the employee experience. Key findings from our in-depth COVID-19 and Careers survey reveal the staggering impact of COVID-19 on remote employee morale and career development:
- 78% of remote workers think their career progression has been negatively affected over the past year, with the top factors being burnout (25%) and having to balance home and family life (25%).
- 39% of remote workers experienced pay raise or promotion freezes during the last year.
- On average, remote workers in the U.S. estimate they lost out on over $9,000 due to pay and promotion freezes during the last year.
Willis Towers Watson, an insurance firm, also cites financial security as one of the top employee concerns during the pandemic, and a stalled career progression is one way that can significantly reduce opportunities for pay increases and upward mobility.
…And the Long-Term Effects of Everything Else
Aside from the changes in remote work, the pandemic has impacted employee satisfaction through the benefits they’re receiving (or not receiving) from their employer. That’s because benefits—even seemingly small ones—affect employees’ lives in very real ways that can influence how they show up to work.
One survey by Prudential Financial found 75 percent of respondents agreed that, post-pandemic, employer benefits are more important than ever before. Some of the benefits employees are beginning to expect include:
- Access to free mental health services
- Work-life integration policies
- Dedicated paid time off for caregiving
- 401(k) stability
Our main takeaway is this: A shift in what people consider critical and valuable both at work and at home is fueling the benefits transformation. Employees want to have more stability and greater autonomy, and the idea that you can fill the gaps with perks is getting harder and harder to sell. Not only are employees not as interested in things like free food and game rooms, but they may not even be in the office to experience them.
Planning Benefits for Your Current (and Future) Workforce
As employee needs shift, your company’s benefits should evolve alongside them. Any type of benefit consideration, from a renewed focus on employee mental health to increasing the role of employee assistance programs (EAPs), can mitigate some of the COVID-19 drawbacks. The key is to listen and be proactive.
Tim Allen, CEO of Care.com, believes expanding benefits alone may not entirely prevent drawbacks like burnout. But it may create a bridge to the work-culture changes that employees are coming to expect. In a benefits op-ed for HBR, Allen says, “Visionary companies need not wait for long-overdue policies to be passed. They can act quickly to support their employees’ ability to care for themselves and others, and in so doing, improve their workplace performance.”
Top 5 Benefits to Consider For Your Employees
Do you work well when you’re panicking about healthcare costs? Or concerned about budgeting enough for this month’s credit card bills? Or burned out with constant worries about your family or dependents? Neither do we, and neither do your people.
In 2021, 74% of employers increased work/life opportunities. Source: SHRM
No matter how much we try not to let the personal mix with the professional, it’s nearly impossible to keep life out of work and vice-versa. As the line between home and work has become more blurred than ever, employees have (rightly, it could be said) begun to demand that benefits incorporate both aspects of their lives.
Health and Wellness (But Really, Health Insurance)
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Employees want health insurance more than any other benefit. Year over year, comprehensive health insurance—which includes medical, dental, and vision—consistently makes its way to the top of the “What’s Your #1 Employer Benefit?” wishlist.
Even before the pandemic occurred, Glassdoor found that 40 percent of employees value better health benefits over a pay raise. The pandemic has only exacerbated this need, and companies are taking note. Telehealth is another area where companies have expanded benefits, giving employees greater flexibility and access to healthcare options.
Flexible Working Arrangements
Through the pandemic, employees learned that flexible working hours can have a huge positive impact on both productivity and wellbeing.
Employers appear to support this trend. In 2021, SHRM found that 74 percent of employers increased work-life opportunities, with 69 percent adding new leave options or expanding their leave benefits during the pandemic. Plus, with school arrangements changing for children and working parents trying to balance it all, COVID-19 conditions encouraged experimentation with hybrid models combining in-person and at-home time.
Beyond remote work opportunities, employers with a hybrid or remote-first work strategy should also consider offering reimbursement for home-office furniture and supply expenses.
Mental Health and Emotional Wellbeing
The pandemic’s effect on the labor force has increased mental health struggles such as anxiety and depression. Thankfully, employers seem to be moving in the right direction by offering mental and emotional health services to alleviate some of the burdens.
In the same SHRM survey, 92 percent of employer respondents reported expanding their support for programs addressing stress management, sleep improvement, and resiliency.
Leaves of absence, when needed, are another way companies are giving their people a much-needed break.
Feelings of uncertainty, especially regarding finances, are to be expected even in a normal economy. At BambooHR, we encourage (and even pay for) our people to participate in Financial Peace University. It’s a class where employees learn how to manage money and tackle debt with confidence.
Other companies seem to be following suit, with 83 percent saying they have or will provide programs to support emergency savings, debt management, and budgeting.
Relationship-building and fostering a sense of togetherness can be done, even through a time of volatility. Food culture, for example, used to be a shared experience for in-office employees who traded snacks and stories at the watercooler. Companies are now using food delivery services or mailable snack boxes to replicate the experience.
Pets are another source of comfort for employees, and many pet owners consider their pets to be family members—just like children. Recognizing this, one perk that some employers are offering is pet insurance. The Zebra, an Austin-based insurance start-up, is even offering employees money to cover the cost of adopting pets.
Post-Pandemic Benefit Priorities
We understand how much you care about employees (because we do, too!), but we also know that it’s not feasible to provide every benefit your employees ask for. As you approach your next benefit review, use the following outline to help your company prioritize which benefits are most important:
- Know your organization, and understand where employees are struggling and where employees are thriving.
- Identify the gaps in your benefits offerings and the reasons why.
- Understand the motivators of your employees’ current benefit expectations.
- Educate your employees about what benefits you can realistically provide.
- Be deliberate when building a benefits offering tied to your culture and brand.
There’s a huge opportunity for benefit providers and employers alike to differentiate themselves in this new world of work.
What kind of unique perks will set you apart from your peers?
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Rob de Luca has written extensively on culture and best practices in the HR field, combining original research and input from HR experts with his own perspective as a manager, creative executive, and veteran of industries ranging from hospitality to consumer electronics. He believes culture is critical to organizational success and that HR holds the keys to defining the employee experience.