Benefit Leaders Foresee Greater Employee Choices

Would 50 benefit plan options be too many?

Stephen Miller, CEBS By Stephen Miller, CEBS December 7, 2017
Benefit Leaders Foresee Greater Employee Choices

​Left to right: Kevin Avery, Jennifer Graham-Johnson, Fred Thiele and Tom Sondergeld

Workers' ability to create a personalized benefit package—with greater flexibility to alter their selections outside of an annual open enrollment period—is coming, corporate benefit leaders predict.

They shared their forecasts during a panel discussion at the American Benefits Council's 50th Anniversary Symposium, held recently in Washington, D.C.

"To enhance shareholder value, employers need to hire the best people for every job," said Kevin Avery, manager of federal government affairs for energy firm ConocoPhillips. "To hire the best people possible, we have to meet their needs" for paid-leave policies, flexible scheduling and work/life balance, he noted. That can range from providing student loan assistance to helping employees care for aging parents.

"It's becoming more important for employers to fill gaps left by common or mandatory benefits such as time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)," he noted. "Our employees are turning to us because they need paid time off—how many of you can go 12 weeks without being paid?" he asked, referring to the amount of unpaid leave provided under the FMLA.

Rise of the Gig Economy

As the definition of an employee changes, so too will workers' benefit needs, said Jennifer Graham-Johnson, SHRM-SCP, chief HR officer at WestRock Co., a manufacturer of paper and packaging products.

"As the gig economy expands, people will be dropping in and doing work as a contractor and then moving on," she said. For many of these workers, forgoing full-time employment will be "a choice made for flexibility and freedom." Also expect shorter tenures among full-time employees, she advised, saying, "It's not a failure if someone leaves after three to five years to seek a new experience." However, "you still, need to train these employees to take full advantage of their contributions while they're with you."

Employees will increasingly expect to be able to customize their work schedules, pay periods and benefit packages, Graham-Johnson said. "People want more 'life' in the work-life equation," she noted.

"Employers should empower all employees to be creative," said Fred Thiele, general manager of global benefits at Microsoft. "We're looking at how over the next three to five years we can adapt our compensation and benefit plans to meet the needs of those who choose to participate in the gig economy, so the company can continue to thrive in the future."

Thiele advised HR leaders to "seek to be an employer of choice and 'gig' of choice," by determining which jobs can be parsed out to gig workers, such as customer support, and offering full-time employees gig opportunities to do different jobs within the company.

Rethinking Rewards for a Contingent Workforce

Roughly half of U.S. employers (51 percent) believe they will require fewer employees in the next three years as a result of automation, a November 2017 survey by consultancy Willis Towers Watson shows. Nearly half (49 percent) of employers are taking action to reconfigure total rewards and benefits to fit a radically different workforce.

More than half of global human capital leaders expect to transfer one-third of their permanent positions to contingent roles in the near future, according to the Q4 2017 Talent Trends report by Randstad Sourceright. Based on a survey of more than 700 global HR leaders, the survey found that 61 percent of employers plan to replace up to 30 percent of their permanent positions with freelancers, gig workers and independent contractors to become more agile and flexible in the changing economy.

A 2016 Randstad survey found that 11 percent of the workforce was made up of agile workers (in a temporary, contract, consultant or freelance capacity). However, 68 percent of employers said that by 2025 they expect a majority of the workforce will be employed in an agile arrangement.

SHRM Online reported earlier this year on innovative ways to provide benefits to employees working on a freelance, gig or on-demand basis.

Customized Options

Tom Sondergeld, vice president for global benefits and mobility at Walgreens Boots Alliance, explained how Walgreens was an early adopter, in the fall of 2013, of the private exchange model for providing health and other employee benefits.

"Employers can no longer just offer one or two health plan options," he said, noting that Walgreens employees can choose from around 50 health and voluntary benefit options on the private exchange platform—a selection appropriate for a highly diversified workforce with a wide range of needs.

"It takes them on average about 45 minutes to choose benefits, which we don't think is too much once a year for so important a decision," he said.

Thiele sounded a cautious note about giving employees too much choice, noting that Microsoft has narrowed the available benefit options to those it believes are the best fit for its workforce, "tailored to our people and their unique needs." Employees "want to be able to choose benefits in five minutes," he said.

Sondergeld responded that if employees are able to choose among 50 TV brands when they go into a store or shop online, "they can be consumers when it comes to making choices about benefit coverage" when given benefit comparison and self-assessment tools.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Designing and Managing Flexible Benefits (Cafeteria) Plans]

Looking Ahead

"Employees tell us they want even more benefit choices, and greater flexibility around benefit selection, not just at fall open enrollment," Sondergeld said. If an employee decided in February to try to have a baby, "they want to be able to change health coverage and paid time off plans. That flexibility is the next avenue for employers to go down," he noted.

But to have medical benefits flexible enough to allow employees to buy up and buy down throughout the year, "tax law would need to change, as would Department of Labor rules," he said. "And insurance carriers would need to adopt new approaches to working with employers."

He added, "This would require radically changing the way we do traditional benefits, because traditional benefits won't hold up in the new gig economy."

When it comes to meeting the needs of gig workers, "we're stuck with many of the same old rules" that prevent employers from providing more-flexible benefit options, Avery said.

Employers will still need to provide the basics—health care, retirement, family leave—"but employees are increasingly looking for more, such as paid time off to go do volunteer activities, or the ability to swap shifts," said Graham-Johnson. "They're also looking for employers to provide continuous training, to invest in their ability to do their jobs better."

Employees "are looking for employers to differentiate themselves," she said.

Related SHRM Articles:

Labor Secretary Acosta Talks About Deregulation, Gig Economy, SHRM Online Employment Law, November 2017

Use Voluntary Benefits to Attract and Keep Part-Time Workers, SHRM Online Benefits, August 2017

How Senior HR Leaders Achieved Success, Overcame Adversity, SHRM Online Benefits, June 2017

What Benefits Can Companies Offer Gig Workers?, SHRM Online Benefits, March 2017


Was this article useful? SHRM offers thousands of tools, templates and other exclusive member benefits, including compliance updates, sample policies, HR expert advice, education discounts, a growing online member community and much more. Join/Renew Now and let SHRM help you work smarter.



Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.


Find your peers in SHRM's online community.

Find your peers in SHRM's online community.

Join SHRM Connect


HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.