How Companies Are Reimagining Employee Benefits in Wake of Covid-19

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The coronavirus pandemic has changed life in ways we could have never imagined, forcing employees to work at home, and under circumstances that are often less than ideal. (Helping a middle-schooler with long division while on a Zoom call? Check.)

One of the many transformations beginning to emerge from this new reality, however, is a reimagining of how companies craft their employee benefits. Before the pandemic upended work life, perks such as on-site childcare and gyms, free lunches, craft beer Fridays, and convenient services like dry cleaning and even hair salons were some of the enticements companies used to attract new employees and keep current workers happy. In our current work-from-home environment those perks simply don’t carry as much sway.

“When you’re working from home, a child care center at the office or a gym in the same building where you work just don’t matter the way they used to,” says Kathryn Mayer, an editor at Human Resource Executive magazine who’s been covering employee benefits for the past decade. “The pandemic has companies going back to basics to figure out what really matters to their employees.”

For most companies, that means evolving beyond traditional employee benefit offerings that focus mainly on medical and dental plans. Instead, companies are rethinking everything that matters to workers right now, including a bigger emphasis on mental health, family benefits, and even pet care. The smartest companies, Mayer says, are taking it one step further by surveying their workforce and asking about specific pain points. The goal: figure out how employers can best respond to alleviate stress and keep dispersed and remote employees engaged, motivated, productive and calm.

Focus on mental health

Among the biggest concerns that companies are focusing on now is mental health and wellness. And with good reason. According to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a majority of U.S. adults say that worry and stress related to the coronavirus has had a negative impact on their mental health, up from 39% who felt that way in May. As a result, expanded coverage for mental health services, including therapy sessions, meditation, extra time off, and other outlets, is growing. In fact, in the early days of the pandemic, companies such as Cisco and Google offered workers an extra day off just to decompress after weeks of working remotely.

Willis Towers Watson, a global advisory firm, surveyed nearly 900 companies in the spring and found that 77% are now offering, or expanding access to, virtual mental health services. Sixty percent are offering virtual workouts to support folks working from home, and half of those surveyed said they’re promoting healthy nutrition and weight-management for at-home employees.

“Because of soaring rates of depression, anxiety, and burnout, mental health can potentially be the new pandemic we’re dealing with in the next few years,” says Mayer. She adds that companies are paying for employees to have access to meditation apps like Headspace to relax and unwind, and BetterHelp.com, an online platform for virtual therapy, but there’s still a way to go. “A lot of companies are playing catch-up when it comes to mental health offerings because it wasn’t a conversation before the pandemic that companies were comfortable having,” she adds.

The pandemic is also putting a bigger spotlight on the need for more comprehensive family benefits. Johnny C. Taylor Jr., CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) says one of the complicating factors today is that there are now five generations of people in the workforce. “Child care has always been an issue, but now we’re hearing from companies that elder care is becoming a bigger concern for their employees and that they need benefits to reflect that reality,” he says. “I think we’re going to see big changes in this area by companies in the months and years ahead.” In fact, a recent report in the Harvard Business Review revealed that there is a huge disconnect between what employers offer and what employees need when it comes to family care, including elder care.

Help with virtual learning

The pandemic has upended traditional modes of education and working parents are paying the price. School closings and new hybrid schedules are leaving parents scrambling to juggle work and virtual learning sessions for their kids. Now more companies are stepping up by adding new educational benefits to help lift that burden. Accenture and Bright Horizons, the child care center operator, teamed up to create an offering that gives employees access to small-group, part-time school-day supervision at greatly discounted rates.

Ellyn Shook, Accenture’s chief human resource officer, recently told the Washington Post: “Employees had been through two–and-a-half months of Zoom classrooms, and it was a nightmare, even for the most tech-savvy parents. Parents said they needed educational support, not just babysitting.” Each learning center will have proctors that will help students with their virtual learning curriculums, and can add things like extra math, coding, or virtual field trips. Other companies, including Bank of America and Microsoft, are also joining in the program which will operate through a network of centers that include Sylvan Learning, Mathnasium, and Code Ninjas.

Work-from-anywhere

Even before the pandemic, there were states like Vermont, Oklahoma, and Michigan offering cash incentives for remote workers to relocate there. It was not only attractive to remote workers who were able to take advantage of the cash payments, but it was potentially a way for these states to attract the people and workers they need to economically flourish. With the pandemic forcing work-from-home arrangements for so many millions of people, some companies are making this work-from-anywhere arrangement a permanent perk.

The trend is creating a much larger talent pool for companies, as well as more job openings for workers who are not limited to positions that provide a reasonable commute. In fact, staffing firm Manpower now estimates that more than one in four jobs posted in the U.S. specify no location, up from 1 in 10 in January.

Focus on furry friends

Pet insurance and other pet-related benefits are also getting more attention in the wake of Covid-19. Pet adoption skyrocketed during the pandemic as employees looked to their furry friends for calm and soothing during this turbulent time. In short, they look at their pets as family and companies are responding in kind. In August, Zebra, an insurance comparison company based in Austin, Texas starting offering employees $300 a year to help offset pet adoption fees. The company also offers “pawternity” leave—paid time off to get acquainted with a new rescue pet. 

As workers continue their remote routines in the months and even years ahead, Taylor of SHRM says smart companies will continue to reach out to their workforce to figure out how benefits need to evolve to reflect this new reality. “We tell chief human resource officers this is the time to be ‘extra,’” he says. “That means, reach out, talk to your people and find out what’s on their mind. They won’t be shy about telling you the kind of benefits they really need right now.”

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

Susan Caminiti

Susan is a writer and senior editor whose work covers a wide range of business and social topics including corporate profiles, personal investing, entrepreneurship, health and wellness, work/life issues, and wealth management for both editorial and corporate clients. She is a former staff writer for Fortune magazine and her work appears in Fortune, Fortune.com, CNBC.com and in a variety of other print magazines.

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