Sudden shifts in employees' benefits needs and preferences since the onset of the pandemic have pushed many employers to reconsider their offerings to ensure they are providing options that will appeal to all kinds of employees.
One big reason for the changing preferences? More employees are working remotely. Employers now have to accommodate onsite and offsite workers alike with various offerings.
Offsite employees, for instance, can't avail themselves of benefits accessible solely through the physical work environment. Conversely, onsite employees may not have the flexibility that offsite employees are able to enjoy.
Considering the needs of both sets of workers and offering options that are varied, flexible and accessible can help employers attract and retain talent. From specific types of perks to broader strategies, here's a look at how employers are modifying benefits for both onsite and offsite workers.
High-Quality Tech Matters
When employers sent many staff members home to work three years ago this month, they quickly found that employees had differing technology needs. Rather than trusting in employees' personal devices, employers have stepped up to invest in better technology and equipment to support remote workers, said Walter Sabrin, senior vice president of recruiting services at Vensure, a Chandler, Ariz.-based professional employer organization. This investment can be especially economical when employers are also saving on office rent and supplies, he said.
Employers' hardware investments include computers, smartphones, and cameras and lighting for video calls, while software and app investments include Slack, Zoom and SharePoint.
Virtual Learning and Career Development Grows
A 2022 LinkedIn report indicates learning and career development opportunities are the top factors that employees identify as characterizing an exceptional work environment.
These offerings have been adjusted to accommodate remote workers, Sabrin said. Offering better virtual learning and career development programs in addition to in-person training ensures that all employees have equal access to these opportunities.
Many Workers Want Flexibility
One benefit that appeals to many employees—whether working remotely, in a hybrid model or entirely onsite—is flexibility, according to research from Gusto, a San Francisco-based payroll and benefits platform for small and medium-sized businesses. Flexibility is a main factor both in deciding whether to stay with an employer and in considering whether to accept a job offer. According to Gusto's research:
- Among workers who declined their last job offer, 45 percent said flexibility or work/life balance was the most important factor in their decision.
- Among all respondents, 48 percent said being able to work from home some or all of the time would be either the most important or a major factor in deciding whether to accept a future offer.
Research by New York City-based consulting firm Buck supports these findings, said Tom Kelly, a principal in Buck's health practice. However, he noted a significant difference between generations: 41 percent of Millennials said they want more job flexibility, compared to only 26 percent of Baby Boomers, according to Buck's 2022 Well-being and Voluntary Benefits Survey.
Retirement Benefits May Improve Retention
Some traditional benefits remain important to both remote and onsite employees—health and retirement benefits in particular. Gusto's data indicates that 401(k) plans have a major positive impact on retention: On average, workers are 40 percent less likely to leave a job during their first year when they are offered retirement benefits. The number is even higher for industries that don't traditionally offer retirement benefits, such as retail and food and beverage.
Employers Have a Range of Creative Options
Employers are looking beyond the typical offerings to ensure that both onsite and offsite employees are receiving benefits that meet their needs.
- Buck's Kelly shared some ideas based on the offerings he's seen:Access to discounts, financing options and subsidies through lifestyle savings accounts.
- Caregiver benefits.
- In-home fitness and wellness benefits.
- Mental and physical wellness perks, including subscriptions to mental health apps such as Calm, Headspace and Ginger.
- In-home meal delivery.
- Identity-theft protection programs.
Other popular options include grocery delivery services; Amazon Prime memberships; streaming music services; books or movie memberships; in-home yoga; child at-home education tools and support; pet supply delivery; and meal discounts and delivery, Kelly said.
Ensure Equity for All
Employers need to give equal weight to both remote and onsite employees when considering offerings, said Jeri Hawthorne, who leads the HR function for all corporate support areas at insurance provider Aflac.
"While we know the needs of onsite workers may differ from those who are fully remote, it's important to remember that anyone could become a remote employee—or vice versa—at any moment in time, so your benefits offerings should be equitable throughout the organization," Hawthorne said. "For example, if you have an onsite fitness center, offer a health club benefit for remote employees."
It's also important to ensure that any differential benefit system is implemented with objective and transparent standards, said Robert Bird, a professor of business law at the University of Connecticut. "A system that is unclear or without clear criteria may inadvertently impose a disproportionate burden on a protected class of people, such as women or persons of color," he explained.
In addition, maintaining a differential system "requires not only frequent assessment of its metrics, but also a periodic review to ensure that such a system is equitable and fair for both remote and onsite workers," Bird said.
Clear Communication Is Key
The best, most varied benefits options in the world won't meet employees' needs if they're not aware of the options or if they don't understand the value of the benefits or how to best leverage them.
Experts agreed that ongoing communication is critical.
"In 2023, you must listen to your team, trust your managers and put together a cohesive strategy from the top down for your entire workforce," Vensure's Sabrin said. "Then communicate it openly so there's no misunderstanding, which will help manage expectations and achieve buy-in from remote and onsite employees alike."
It's also important to stay progressive and make sure there is a culture of full transparency around benefit offerings, Sabrin said, as employees today simply won't tolerate a rigid working environment that doesn't adapt to their needs.
Aflac's Hawthorne agreed. "How employees are made aware of and educated around benefit offerings is key to enabling them to make informed choices," she said. "For example, it is easier for an onsite employee to meet with their manager or benefit specialist in person if they have a question about offerings, but a remote employee may find it difficult to get the information they need."
Employers can address this by being intentional about reaching remote employees, Hawthorne said: "Maybe you set up a remote workers' benefits learning group or digestible benefits literature that answers frequently asked questions, housing it in an easily accessible location on your intranet, making the benefits process simpler for everyone."
Ultimately, the big advantage for employers is the ability to reimagine their benefits offerings along with their employees, Hawthorne said. Leaders have the opportunity to listen to their employees—whether they're remote, onsite or hybrid—and to keep paying attention. As the environment continues to change, so will benefits preferences. To remain competitive in a tight employee economy, it pays to be alert to these shifts.
Lin Grensing-Pophal, SHRM-SCP, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.