If communicating the ins and outs of employee benefits was difficult before the COVID-19 pandemic, it's even more so now, as employees are often far-flung and struggling with new work/life challenges.
A Changed Benefits Landscape
Since the pandemic began, Michele Lodin, vice president of total rewards with Los Angeles-based HR services firm Enspira, has seen companies add more mental health services "to diversify the types of treatment options available and to expand the network of providers."
Other benefits that Lodin has seen become more prevalent include flexible-leave accommodations, family-building (fertility and adoption) services, paid employee sabbaticals, greater learning and development opportunities, and student loan relief.
Kara Hoogensen, senior vice president of specialty benefits at the Principal Financial Group, said employee assistance programs (EAPs), telehealth and mental health programs are among the top benefits that employers plan to increase this year "to attract and retain employees, and to improve satisfaction and employee experience." Child care support has also emerged as an important benefit for recruitment, she noted.
Lodin pointed to unlimited paid time off (PTO) as an example of a benefit that is now viewed through a different frame of reference. Before the pandemic, she said, unlimited PTO had a "reputation of reducing the actual amount of time employees took away from work." Now, though, to help employees deal with the stress that's driving many to quit, employers are focusing on how unlimited PTO "can help support leadership messaging to employees about taking time off, even if it's for a staycation to rest and refresh."
Similarly, Amy O'Neill, vice president and director of health and well-being strategy at Liberty Mutual Insurance, points to a significant increase in the use of EAPs, noting that "3 out of 4 people who used our EAP program in 2020 did so for the first time."
Employees' Needs and Preferences
Employee needs and preferences have shifted during the pandemic and are likely to continue to do so. Some perks are no longer highly valued or even relevant. For instance, Lodin said, in-office services that many employers provided pre-pandemic—such as coffee bars and free snacks—are less in demand given the increase in remote work. Employers are pivoting here, she said, and instead are more likely to offer perks such as home delivery of lunches.
Liberty Mutual has been checking in with employees through regular surveys and virtual focus groups. These inputs, according to O'Neill, have led to new benefits and resources such as free access to Care.com for child care and elder care support, extra time off that employees can use to care for themselves or family members, and other programs "to make employees feel cared for and supported during these difficult times."
Kimberly Jones, people experience leader at consultancy PwC, has put feedback mechanisms in place to "keep an eye on the health of our organization and culture." PwC, she said, leans "heavily on our culture of flexibility, [offering] benefits that are constantly evolving to meet the needs of our people."
The firm, she added, has "thrown the 'one-size-fits-all' benefits approach out the window" and, as others have done, expanded its benefits menu to include mental health services and backup child care reimbursement and support.
To increase workplace flexibility, PwC has instituted a number of new offerings, including:
- Protected time—empowering staff to block time during the day for personal reasons.
- Efficient meetings—working to shorten meetings by 25 percent.
- Reduced schedules—allowing additional time for employees to take care of personal priorities.
- Job sharing—allowing two employees to share the responsibilities of one full-time position.
The idea that benefits will be valued differently by different workforce segments is something that Evive, a digital engagement and communication technology firm, discovered through its annual National Employee Journey survey, said Elisabeth Duncan, vice president of HR at the firm. The survey received responses from 500 full-time employees and 500 HR representatives and senior leaders across the U.S.
When employers asked employees to rank the benefits they don't yet have but would most like to receive, Duncan said, responses differed across generations, with the most-desired benefits as follows:
- Baby Boomers. Four-day workweek, identity theft protection, flexible hours, financial planning and fitness perks.
- Generation X. Four-day workweek, flexible hours, fitness perks, student loan assistance and financial planning.
- Millennials. Four-day workweek, flexible hours, fitness perks, student loan assistance and tuition reimbursement.
- Generation Z. Four-day workweek, student loan assistance, financial planning and EAPs.
The only commonality across the four generations was a desire for a four-day workweek. While financial planning was the least commonly offered benefit (cited by 15 percent of HR respondents), it was one of the most desired benefits at companies not providing it (cited by 25 percent of employees).
These results point to the importance of seeking input from employees about what they value and recognizing the variation that exists among generations, length of service, income level and gender.
Communicating Benefits' Value
Employers should not assume that employees appreciate or even are fully aware of all the benefits available to them. Ongoing communications and assessing both usage and employee sentiment can help ensure that workers understand and value the benefits they're being offered.
"Without being able to hold the annual benefits fair, where employees can meet with vendors and get questions answered directly, benefits teams are spending more time responding to employee questions," Lodin said, often by holding online office hours and virtual education sessions.
In addition, she noted, "more regular communications through multiple approaches, including e-mail messages, home mailings, Slack/chat discussions and ad hoc benefits questions being asked at quarterly all-hands meetings are trends we are seeing."
Hoogensen said it's important to keep things simple—"both the way we talk about benefits and the processes in place to make them available."
Lin Grensing-Pophal, SHRM-SCP, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience.