When we look back on the COVID-19-era workplace, video calls will loom large. It isn’t only the ubiquity of these calls that will be memorable, but also what they revealed.
“With school disrupted, it wasn’t unusual to be on a video meeting and see or hear kids in the background asking for help with schoolwork,” recalls Jennifer Weber, chief human resources officer at Archer Daniels Midland Co. in Chicago.
Pets, including those newly adopted during the pandemic, also made sudden appearances in the frame.
Employees have spent the pandemic caring for their immediate and extended families, including older relatives, as well as their friends, neighbors and colleagues. When there’s a minute left over, they also try to care for themselves.
As employees juggled their personal responsibilities in plain view of their managers and colleagues, many employers adjusted employee benefits plans to accommodate this new reality. HR professionals preparing for a post-pandemic world must determine what benefits their future workforce will want and need. Fortunately, the clues are right in front of them.
“Employees are caregivers,” says Luke Prettol, health and well-being benefits manager with ChampionX, an oil field technology company based in The Woodlands, Texas. “The time has come to be more explicit in support of this.”
The guiding light of post-pandemic employee benefits is likely to be flexibility. Even as the pandemic recedes, challenges could still emerge from localized outbreaks that close schools or create new restrictions in communities. Employers that offer flexibility in how, when and where work gets done are likely to be viewed more favorably by current and potential employees.
This flexibility includes providing an array of benefits that meet employees’ needs, and then modifying those benefits when workers’ needs change. The modifications can be as simple as replacing an onsite gym with an annual stipend that employees can use to buy in-home equipment, take in-person or virtual classes, or purchase a personal fitness app.
“Employers can repurpose benefits money if there is lower headcount in the office going forward,” says Julie Stone, managing director, health and benefits North America, at Willis Towers Watson in Parsippany, N.J. “It’s about meeting people where they are.”
Providing an allowance for home offices is another example of benefits flexibility. Employers with a hybrid or remote-first work strategy may want to offer reimbursement for home-office furniture and supplies.
“Unless employees can bring home things like office supplies, stationery, desks and chairs, companies may want to consider providing an allowance or budget from which workers can purchase necessary provisions,” says Kelly Chance, director of national benefits delivery with Insperity, a professional employer organization based in Houston.
Mental Health Support
Access to mental and behavioral health support is likely to be ongoing as employers consider post-pandemic employee benefits. The stigma associated with seeking mental health support has been ripped away by the enormity of the pandemic and its attendant stress and isolation, and people have become more willing to get help.
SAP North America introduced mental health days as a way to promote awareness of and de-stigmatize mental illness.
“It starts with a day off, and we want it to lead to an ongoing conversation about employees’ physical and mental health and wellness,” says Dan Healey, the company’s vice president of human resources in Newtown Square, Pa. With employees working from home, the “lines between home and workspace have blurred to the point where it can be tough to see the lines at all.”
When Celeste Parker thinks about the post-pandemic workplace, her concern is the psychological toll a year of disruptions, uncertainty and worry has taken on employees and their families.
“A lot of kids were out of school for a year,” says Parker, manager of employee benefits and relocation at retailer Costco in Issaquah, Wash. She notes that 35,000 of the company’s 165,000 employees have children under the age of 16 and “some of them are going to need help” once the pandemic abates.
One of Costco’s key changes for 2021 was to make pediatric behavioral health specialists available to support employees and their families as they work through these issues and settle into a new normal in their personal lives.
In addition, employers continue to beef up and expand access to employee assistance programs (EAPs) and other mental health resources. For example, Costco has increased the number of EAP mental health visits available to employees from six to eight per year. The company also removed co-pays for in-person or telehealth behavioral health care.
To expand access to mental health support, pet food company Canidae Corp. now allows all 144 of its employees to access its EAP, even if they don’t participate in the company’s health plan. In addition to connecting employees with traditional counseling services, Canidae’s EAP will focus on “life management” programs, including child care resources, elder care assistance, homebound-education support, and weight and nutrition resources, says Karen Casey, the company’s head of people and culture in Stamford, Conn.
Post-Pandemic Time Off
Recognizing the stress employees are under, a growing number of organizations are tweaking their allocations and policies on paid time off (PTO) as they prepare for a post-pandemic world. Although some companies have noted that these changes are temporary, benefits executives say at least some of the new approaches are likely to continue beyond this year.
Electric, an IT provider in New York City, mandates that its 290 employees take a companywide day off on the first Friday of each month.
“We also remind employees regularly to use their PTO,” says Jamie Coakley, Electric’s vice president of people. “We check in with employees who have not scheduled or taken their PTO.”
SAP North America has overhauled its entire PTO system by uncapping the number of sick days available to employees, simplifying the process for obtaining a leave of absence and doubling its crisis leave allocation from five days to 10.
Crisis leave began as a way to help employees who were facing disruptions during the California wildfires and in the wake of hurricanes in the southern U.S. Since the pandemic began and most employees moved overnight to working exclusively from home, Healey says, “employees are empowered to decide how to use their crisis leave to deal with problems in their personal lives.”
Some employers are using PTO to reinforce employee flexibility and autonomy in remote or hybrid work environments. With 89 percent of its employees indicating they would prefer a hybrid work schedule once they are able to work onsite again, financial technology company Finastra plans to allow employees to work at home two days a week and in the office two days a week while also introducing unlimited time off.
“We are signaling a more trusting environment,” says Sharon Doherty, the London-based company’s chief people and places officer.
Giving employees control over their time can also be a powerful employee benefit. Professional services firm PwC has added a new leave option that allows employees to take on no work for up to six months while maintaining their benefits and collecting 20 percent of their salary. The company also offers options such as working a 70 percent to 80 percent schedule instead of full time, as well as compressed, four-day workweeks.
“People can step away from work for any reason with no explanation necessary,” says Kim Jones, PwC’s leader of people experience, who is based in Dallas. “We can’t take all the challenges employees face away, but we can take some sting out of it.”
Implementing more-flexible time-off options requires more than just crafting more-liberal policies. Companies and their managers must provide consistent messaging about taking time off and how far flexibility extends.
“This is about navigating boundaries,” says Willis Towers Watson’s Stone. “It has to be clear that caring for a sick child is not just a workday at home with a sick child.”
The Virtual Care Revolution
The pandemic created fertile ground for the implementation of virtual tools to support employees’ physical and mental health. As a result, telemedicine and digital tools have gained levels of utilization and acceptance in just a few months that would have taken years to achieve pre-pandemic. For example, publishing company John Wiley & Sons Inc. in Hoboken, N.J., saw a 35 percent utilization rate when it introduced a mental health app to help its 7,000 employees manage burnout and workplace stress, says Danielle McMahan, Wiley’s chief people officer. That was better than the 25 percent to 30 percent expected.
Utilization is just part of the picture when it comes to telemedicine and digital tools. At Electric, Coakley is digging deeper into aggregate user data for insight into how and how often these tools are used. One-third of the company’s workforce adopted a new, on-demand coaching app—well above the goal of 25 percent. Now, Coakley is analyzing data on how many repeat sessions employees have scheduled and whether they are meeting with the same coach, which can indicate that employees are building relationships with specific professionals. This same approach could be used to analyze aggregate data from digital behavioral health tools.
The rapid growth in virtual tools designed to support employee health and wellness has been a mixed blessing for some employers. After analyzing telemedicine utilization data, ChampionX’s Prettol is concerned that some employees could be left out. For example, employees with higher incomes and education levels tend to be active users of telemedicine, while other groups of employees have been slow to adopt it.
“Can telemed become more equitable in usage distribution?” Prettol asks. “There are still things we are trying to figure out.”
Ensuring consistent quality of telemedicine and digital health care tools is another concern. “Everything in this space is moving so quickly,” says Kate Brown, Mercer’s Center for Health Innovation leader in Austin, Texas. “Employers may not be asking questions about quality because they are so focused on just getting something in place.”
At Costco, Parker monitors utilization rates of the company’s digital health offerings and makes sure all employees and their families have the same access to quality, affordable care. If a digital or telemedicine solution offers only adult-centered behavioral health care, for example, she looks for other tools that provide care for adolescents, as well.
In addition, Parker considers how many health care professionals operating within the telemedicine or digital solution are employed by that company and how many are contractors. She also asks how the solution assesses the quality of the providers.
“We want to make sure that virtual tools measure and maintain quality,” Parker says, “which can be difficult even with providers in a traditional behavioral health care setting.”
Employers may find multiple uses for digital health tools. When ChampionX was transitioning to remote work in the early days of the pandemic, managers found that digital tools designed to support employees returning to work following childbirth were helpful when managing a newly remote workforce.
“No one had a playbook for the pandemic,” Prettol says, “so we used the playbook on employees returning from maternity leave as the cornerstone in how we trained managers on remote-work management.”
Employers are bracing for less happy news in a post-pandemic world. While telemedicine and digital tools have helped to fill some of the health care gaps recently, many people skipped nonemergency health care altogether, including annual preventive screenings for conditions such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer.
This gap in care is likely to lead not only to a greater-than-normal number of cases, but also to an increase in cases of greater severity. Cancers, for example, that might have been caught early a year ago are now being diagnosed at a more advanced stage.
To help counteract this reality, many employers are stepping up chronic-disease screening and management programs. Costco, for example, enhanced and expanded its diabetes management program to provide free equipment for monitoring blood sugar, as well as materials and coaching for employees with either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes.
“We recognize that preventive care took a back seat in the past year,” Parker says.
The post-pandemic future of employee benefits is a work in progress, with many variables driving its trajectory. If employers continue supporting remote or hybrid work arrangements among their employees, a location-agnostic talent strategy could drive a very different employee benefits approach in the months and years ahead.
“The pipeline for talent would be wide open,” says Deb LaMere, chief human resources officer for software provider Datasite in Minneapolis.
If that happens, the changes to employee benefits in 2021 and 2022 could be just the beginning of an entirely new era.
Joanne Sammer is a New Jersey-based business and freelance writer.
Illlustrations by Anna Godeassi.
Benefits For Pandemic Pets
Interest in adopting and fostering pets soared during the COVID-19 pandemic—and employers responded by offering pet insurance to workers.
Surveys conducted by The Hartford of 1,328 employers found that interest in offering pet insurance increased to 29 percent in June 2020 from 22 percent just before the pandemic closures and lockdowns began in March 2020.
“Times of crisis are a great opportunity for employers to strengthen relationships with employees by meeting their needs with convenient, personalized benefit programs,” says Anna Lyons, senior vice president of people and culture at Alegeus, a health care funding platform based in Waltham, Mass.
That’s one of the reasons SAP North America introduced pet-related benefits during the pandemic.
The company now offers a suite of options that include pet insurance, preventive care plans, telephonic vet visits and online concierge services that provide information on pet care.
“Our goal is to make benefits as flexible and personalized as possible,” says Dan Healey, SAP North America’s vice president of human resources.
However, while more employers offered pet insurance, there was no uptick in the number of workers who chose to buy it, according to a report by professional services company Aon. —J.S.