During the COVID-19 crisis, employees experienced a major shift in priorities, needs, and wants. Between the transition to remote work, increased reliance on technology, and pressures on employees’ mental health and well-being, 2020 was most certainly a roller coaster of crisis management for HR leaders and employees alike.

Few could have predicted how the pandemic would change employees’ expectations of their work experience. Long gone are the days employees require no more than a paycheck and healthcare. Workers are stretching more than dollars to make ends meet. They’re juggling a multitude of challenges brought on by the pandemic, including high levels of stress and anxiety while balancing an increased workload. Now, more than ever, employees want benefits and perks that support their overall wellness, such as mental health resources, financial education, and support for their parental journey.

Many progressive companies have already started taking note (and action) as a result of this shift. A recent study from Willis Tower Watson found that 42% of companies have changed or plan to change their paid leave plans, 66% will elevate mental health solutions, and 73% offer flexible work hours due to the pandemic.

As employees’ desires for more meaningful benefits drive change in the professional landscape, many HR leaders are being proactive and asking their workforce how they can help while also looking for ways to retain staff and recruit new talent. Leaders are realizing there is a shift in values among workersthe added perks of ping pong tournaments or beer Fridays seem frivolous and extravagant to employees in the time of a crisis.

The bottom line is employees want their companies to start caring more. Meaning, now more than ever, employees need more support from their team and management to help them shift their families, communities, and lives toward a post-pandemic future.

The support that employees are looking for from their leaders is less about incentives and more about valuable and tangible benefits, such as childcare subsidies, home office stipends, telemedicine, and flexibility, to name a few. Attempting to return to pre-pandemic status is impractical moving forward. Employers will need to find the middle ground between upgrading benefits offerings and remaining true to their company culture and business objectives.

To stay competitive and keep employees happy, here are the areas in which HR leaders can look to modernize their benefit offerings.

Flexible Work

The onset of the pandemic created strenuous circumstances for many employees. Risking illness or worse on the front lines, transitioning to remote work, and arranging childcare when schools and daycares closed stressed millions of workers. The mandates for adapting to the crisis became a giant experiment in workplace flexibility, which was already a growing requirement among job seekers, especially in certain fields such as technology.

According to a 2019 survey by FlexJobs, 80 percent of employees said they would be more loyal to their employers if they had flexible work options. The pandemic accelerated the trend and expanded it outside the tech sector. Because of this, not only has there been a greater understanding of why flexibility at work is so attractive to employees, but there has been a greater acceptance as organizations were forced to transition many of their employees to remote work.

Employee values shifted as they realized they can be just as productive working remotely and can save hours of commuting time each week. The resulting pressure from employees and job candidates to offer some level of work time or location flexibility is placing HR in the position of advocating flexible work with the C-suite. As with many workplace dilemmas, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

Flexible work can be offered in numerous ways, including flexible hours, job-sharing, and remote work. While some companies have announced transitioning to a fully remote workforce, others are dipping their toes into the water with one or two remote workdays per week.

Workplace flexibility can reduce employee stress, provide more independence when it comes to work location, and even help save money (for both the employee and the organization). The result is a workplace of happier and more fulfilled employees who have a healthy work-life balance, having more time to drop off or pick up the kids at school, time for physical fitness, or enough time to cook and have a family meal during the week, and these employees are less likely to burn out

Remote Work Stipend

Not every benefit will work for every company, but a remote work stipend, or allowance, is becoming an increasingly popular perk as many employees continue to work from home in 2021. But that wasn’t the case in 2020.

According to a July 2020 Nulab survey of more than 850 pandemic-era remote workers, 56 percent were not allowed to bring equipment home from the office, and nearly 1 in 3 workers had to purchase equipment to facilitate remote work.

More than one year into the work-from-home evolution, employers are settling into the idea and providing essential office items to remote team members. Companies are even offering unique work stipends beyond laptops and routine office supplies, investing in extra comforts like a standing desk or ergonomically designed chairs to make working at home a little easier.

Providing support to remote employees through stipends allows them to perform their job duties with the proper equipment and work necessities. And getting creative with allowances, expanding into coffee and workspace interior design, for example, might positively impact recruiting and retention efforts as well.

Childcare Assistance

One of the biggest challenges created by the pandemic was the move to work from home as schools and daycares simultaneously closed. What’s more, many parents had to juggle working while teaching their kids who were adapting to learning virtually.

Wolters Kluwer reported that “more than one in ten organizations (14 percent) are providing resources and referrals for child care, tutoring, or backup or emergency child care, with an additional 13 percent considering doing so” due to the pandemic.

Employers recognize that there is a need to support this, even in 2021, as many employees are still working remotely and taking care of their kids. Childcare assistance benefits include flexible schedules, child care subsidies, and virtual school tutors.

Employee Wellness

The COVID-19 pandemic placed a spotlight on employers’ ability to protect and care for their workers and changed expectations around employer-provided wellness programs.

Employees paid close attention to how well employers put their well-being before profits. Companies that put employee health first by moving to remote work, providing necessary personal protective equipment, and practicing contact tracing and quarantine procedures, enjoy greater recruiting and retention benefits now. But the pandemic also impacted expectations around other ways to contribute to employee wellness, driven in part by the move to more virtual services and high levels of stress among workers.

Trending workplace benefits include mental health support, telemedicine services, gym reimbursements, health coaching, nutrition support, meditation and stress management programs, and online fitness classes and apps.

Though studies vary on the effectiveness of workplace wellness programs to improve engagement, mental and physical health, and reduce healthcare costs, they can be strong recruiting tools in a highly competitive environment. For that reason, employee wellness benefits are expected to remain popular well into 2021.

Financial Wellness

According to the American Payroll Association’s “Getting Paid In America” survey, 69 percent of workers would find it difficult to meet financial obligations if their pay was delayed a week. For many employees, the pandemic’s furloughs and layoffs revealed just how fragile their financial security is.

Financial stress can impact productivity at work, and offering financial wellness programs like these can mitigate the negative impact on the organization.

  • Retirement plans (with company match)
  • Student loan repayment plans
  • Early wage access
  • Financial education
  • Emergency savings program

Financial wellness programs equip employees with tools and knowledge that can improve financial health as well as physical and mental health by reducing the strain of financial uncertainty.

A New Era of Benefits

The COVID crisis set the stage for workers to reexamine many facets of their lives, including their workplaces and how they spend those 40 plus hours each week. They want to be valued at work and to have a choice of unique and flexible benefits that can positively affect their quality of life.

As workplaces continue to recover and compete for talent, improving nontraditional benefits will play an important role. And while it is yet to be determined what the remainder of 2021 will hold, it is unlikely to return to business as usual.

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