The most-used phrase of 2021 may well end up being “return to work.” Some businesses have already brought employees back to the workplace. Others are still weighing the pros and cons. Some are considering going to a hybrid model (on-site and remote work).
But the world of 2021 is not the world of late 2019. “This is why trying to make the workplace what it used to be before the pandemic will not only be impractical and untenable for many reasons, it will be just as (if not more) disruptive than the initial work-from-home transition,” Amy Quarton writes in BenefitsPRO.
Trends affecting employee benefits
Employee benefits offerings that were important a year and a half ago might not seem as important to employees now, and benefits they had never even thought about might now be at the top of their wish list.
“This shift in the work environment is an ideal time for employers to begin thinking about how they want to work with employees to help them recover financially and emotionally from the disruptions and stress of the pandemic,” writes BenefitsPRO reporter Kristen Beckman.
The following pandemic-prompted trends will play a big part in how employee benefits evolve:
1. Increased focus on employee financial health.
The pandemic’s financial impact was a cruel blow for many workers. Even those who were fortunate to have retirement plans or emergency savings may have had to dig deep into those funds. “The resulting financial instability can cause a strain on employees that can impact productivity especially at a time when they are transitioning back to work,” writes Beckman.
What we’re seeing:
- Financial wellness benefits: Increasing numbers of providers offer education and coaching, budgeting and savings tools, and financial advising and planning.
- Emergency funds: Various emergency savings programs are offered by payroll vendors, retirement plan providers, and others, but no matter the vendor, the key feature needs to be easy employee access to those funds.
- Student loan repayment assistance: Typically administered through a third-party, this employee benefit enables employers to make regular contributions directly to workers’ student loan servicer.
2. Demand for more benefits options.
Many employees got a taste of what flexibility in the workplace feels like when they began working remotely. Having flexibility and options, whether in work location/time or in benefits choices, can restore some semblance of control to employees’ lives.
What we’re seeing:
- Flexible scheduling: Flexible work hours ”will likely be made widely available and be in high demand as physical workplaces reopen,” writes Quarton, and many new scheduling tools have launched to help employers maintain social distancing.
- Better mental wellbeing and mental health benefits: The most helpful option is to offer better insurance coverage for mental health care. Other options can include adding more visits via EAPs, and providing apps for meditation, mindfulness and stress relief.
- Caretaking benefits: Help can include reimbursements for or assistance finding daycare, elder care, after-school care, remote tutoring, remote safety monitoring and more.
- Virtual physical/mental health appointments: Vendors have brought telehealth capabilities not just to computers but to phones, and virtual appointments are likely to remain an option, post-pandemic.
3. Technology is at the center.
People learned to interact virtually in online meetings, online school, even virtual courtroom appearances. Although glitches, goofs, and internet outages caused a great deal of stress, most people expect technology to be the default option for many tasks and situations.
What we’re seeing:
Online benefits fairs and virtual open enrollment: Going virtual can be made interesting and informative with the use of interactive tools such as webinars, virtual booths and live chats. What’s more, writes David Karlin in BenefitsPRO, being able to access virtual open enrollment at home “allows family members, like spouses, to be easily included in the decision-making process.”
Apps to manage employee benefits: “The range of digital health apps, platforms, services and new products spawned or accelerated by the pandemic can hardly be mapped,” writes BenefitsPRO’s Dan Cook. Hundreds of employee benefits apps and tools are readily available, with new ones launching weekly for benefits and health monitoring and management, provider and pharmacy searches, 401(k) funds monitoring, wellness tracking, and more.
One thing is certain: As we begin to deal with yet another “next normal” as the country reopens, employers, and the employee benefits they offer, will play a key role.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series for ALM’s Small Business Guidance program, providing insights and information for small and medium-sized companies.