As nationwide lockdowns swept through Europe and Asia in February and March of 2020, companies quickly switched employees to remote working. Now countries in Western Europe and East Asia are slowly returning to normality, and employers face an important decision about where employees work. Should employees continue working remotely, or should they get back to the office?
While most companies adopt a short‐term hybrid strategy, how they permanently resolve the post‐Covid conundrum will shape employee benefits for a generation. But how exactly does remote working affect employee benefits? Can the physical location of an employee make such a difference to employee benefits? And why offering employee benefits is important for you as an employer? In this article, we answer these questions to make sure you are prepared for the future of employee benefits in light of Covid‐19 and the shift to remote working practices.
This article covers
- 1/ How to match employee benefits and remote work
- 2/ Changing employee benefits priorities
- 3/ 3 ways to match employee benefits and remote working
- 4/ What employee benefits should you offer?
- 5/ How to overcome employee benefits and remote work challenges
- 6/ How business leaders are increasing employee benefits and rewards
This article was first published on ITIJ.com.
From stipends for long commutes to after‐work gym memberships, most employee benefits are tied to the workplace. But when we dissociate ‘work’ from ‘place’, these traditional benefits lose their utility. What use is a train season ticket when our commute is reaching for a laptop? Do on‐site childcare and meal tickets matter when we’re stuck at home?
Having access to employee benefits and perks can reduce workplace stress and boost employee morale. The result: increased productivity, fewer working days lost and reduced staff turnover.
What are the most popular employee benefits and perks?
Employee benefits (or group insurance) are products and services an employer pays for on behalf of their staff. A benefits package can encompass a range of perks that reward staff for their hard work and promote their wellbeing. This includes a pension (now mandatory for many workers under auto-enrolment), as well as insurance and other wellbeing benefits.
According to research published by Reba in The Rewards Report, 82% of employees who felt motivated had received some form of reward, perk or appreciation of their work. This compares to 69% of employees feeling demotivated who claim they had not received any form of perk or benefit. Staff hugely value perks – both big and small – and employee benefits have become a key recruitment tool in attracting the best talent. Existing staff benefit too, with perks and benefits being a key reason for employees staying in their roles longer and working harder.
Perks can help attract and retain good staff. According to a survey of 3,000 UK employees, benefits are the second-biggest reason to join a business – 38.3% rated this second behind salary, and above promotion opportunities (22%) and company reputation (18%).
International employees often have different needs to domestic staff, since they may not have access to the same healthcare system, so comprehensive medical provisions are a standard part of many expat packages. The two other key insurance benefits focus on life and income protection.
These policies all protect a group of employees under a single umbrella. This lets employers insure their staff in an efficient manner that’s easy to manage.
Most employee benefits aren’t mandatory but simply knowing the employee benefits scheme is available if employees need it is often enough to give workers a boost. Meanwhile, should they ever be in a position where they’re eligible to claim on any of these policies, having such a safety net can be a huge weight off their minds.
Employee benefits tend to:
- Boost workplace morale
- Lower stress
- Improve productivity
- Increase the physical and mental health of the workforce
- Make it easier to attract top talent to your business
- Help retain existing staff.
International employee benefits are a series of non-cash provisions employers make for staff who work overseas. They may span your own company policies, such as parental leave provisions, plus pension and insurance schemes. We focus on the insurance side of things.
On a deeper level, remote working represents a monumental social, cultural and psychic shift in white‐collar labour history. Some commentators compare remote working’s significance to Taylor’s scientific management revolution at the end of the 19th Century, and advancements in personal mobility from the 1950s onwards that made ‘commuting’ possible.
Just because remote working is historically significant, however, doesn’t necessarily make it a good thing. Sure, those first few weeks of lockdown felt like a glorious rebirth, at least for office staff in the UK, who enjoyed an unseasonably warm spring away from the office in 2020. Of course, the novelty and early lightheadedness of remote working soon gave way to new psychological strains and stresses. We weren’t just not going to the office. We also weren’t going on holidays, we weren’t going out, and we weren’t seeing friends. Confined to our homes, with nowhere and no way to spend our time, the screens took over. Completely unopposed, work incorporated life.
What are the benefits of remote work for employees?
The benefits of working remotely for employees relate to trust and empowerment. The opportunity to assume a more flexible work schedule gives staff the ability to tailor their work experience around what makes sense for them. The benefits associated with this freedom of working from home or remotely include:
- Less time spent commuting and better work-life balance. The daily commute takes a lot of time from any workday. Dealing with traffic jams on both sides of the workday means hours wasted in the car. Working from home or a nearby coworking space or coffee shop means more time to relax or get a jump start on work. This contributes to improved morale and happiness.
- Increased productivity. Given the ability to work however best suits them, employees get more done. Instead of accepting a rigid workplace structure and schedule, employees adapt their work to a mode they’re comfortable with. Their chosen environment, schedule, habit, and even the way they dress all contribute to comfort, which translates to focus and productivity.
- More autonomy. Employees gain certain confidence and respect for a business that trusts them to work remotely or gives them the flexibility to work from home. That autonomy manifests in employees in numerous ways — whether it’s confidence in the work they’re doing or a willingness to do more when asked.
What are the benefits of remote work for employers?
A remote workforce leverages benefits into the company’s bottom line and boosts intangibles like culture and access to talent. For employers, giving up some level of control and oversight is its own form of freedom. The benefits include:
- Lower overhead costs and reduced need for a physical office. If you have 20 in-house employees, your workplace needs space for 20. If you have 10 in-house employees and 10 remote employees, your workplace might only need space for 12 people. You will be able to save on office-related costs.
- Access to a wider talent pool and improved employee retention. With remote work, the physical location of a job doesn’t define the talent pool. It’s part of strategic positioning in an increasingly globalised economy. Keep employees happy and productive and they’re more likely to stay on. In fact, they’re more likely to develop an appreciation and affinity for their job and lend positivity to the company culture. Any executive knows how detrimental turnover is for a business; remote can lower it.
- Technology benefits. Technology gives businesses a competitive edge. Because remote work relies on technology, it forces businesses to adapt and grow their strategies in a responsible way. Remote workers help a company adapt quicker and find smarter solutions out of necessity, for example, it can boost digital transformation for insurance and make brokers’ business more digital. Read our full guide on how insurance brokers can successfully adapt to the post-COVID era.
Marketing & Communications Manager at Pacific Prime
How have employee benefits changed in the past year?
As preferences and circumstances (remote working, employee healthcare behaviour) have shifted dramatically, the type and nature of benefits have changed to some extent. The future of employee benefits will be a digitalised and flexible one. Demand for employee benefits will continue to grow, as employers all over the world are more cognisant of its importance in retaining and attracting talent now and in the post‐Covid‐19 era.
A survey by Nuffield Health in June 2020 revealed that 80% of Brits felt home working was harming their mental health. According to figures from the Royal Society for Public Health in February 2021, 67% of Britons felt less connected with colleagues, 46% were taking less exercise, and 37% reported disturbed sleep. Despite these worrying trends, people seem to be working more than ever. At William Russell, staff are now reading 33% more emails per week since 2021 began (a period coinciding with the third nationwide lockdown in the UK). Most worryingly, overworking habits seem to survive the circumstances (e.g., lockdown restrictions) that spawned them.
Remote working has undoubtedly blurred the boundary between working and non‐working, once so helpfully defined by the act of commuting. Those remarkable technologies that sustained our initial transition to remote working – Slack, Zoom, Teams – soon became overwhelming. It’s no wonder that people are now spending more time in front of their screens than ever. A Microsoft survey in April 2021 showed how constant video calls increase stress and general brain noise, making it difficult to switch off completely. Our new reality is a paradox in which confinement fuels burnout.
Marketing & Communications Manager at Pacific Prime
How has remote working impacted mental health and employee benefits offering?
Social distancing and remote working have exacerbated mental health issues, especially in areas most hard‐hit by the pandemic (e.g. the US, the UK) and fast‐paced cities where psychological conditions have already been relatively prevalent pre‐Covid (e.g. Hong Kong, Dubai). As a result, we’ve seen a marked increase in the utilisation of mental health services across the major employee benefits markets.
Remote working is not quite the panacea we initially thought. So, what do employees need to equip themselves properly for remote working? We’ve picked up on three main trends in our industry.
- Firstly, several insurers and insurance providers (William Russell included) are making customer products available to employees in the insurance industry. From virtual doctor consultations to mental health chatbots powered by AI, reprovision from customers to employees is a cost‐effective way of freshening employee benefits and making them more relevant. But not everything is about treatment and cure.
- A second trend we’ve noticed is an increased interest in our preventive health and wellbeing benefits from our group clients and broker partners. Enquiries about these benefits in 2020 increased 15 per cent year‐on‐year. Employers seem to understand that preventative health promotes employees’ long‐term health and helps with productivity and output.
- A third trend suggests a new type of employee benefit for the age of remote working. Throughout 2020 and into 2021, enquiries for our protection insurance products for employees have doubled. We believe this interest stems from the increased prominence of mortality and severe illness in society over the past eighteen months. In a crisis such as Covid‐19, it’s only natural for people to reassess their priorities in life; apparently, boardroom discussions reflect this very human process.
These trends show companies are already adapting to the employee benefits challenge posed by staff working remotely: we’re seeing new benefits focused on long‐term care, old benefits being re‐purposed for the new reality, and a renewed emphasis on the digital provision of services.
If employers wish to adopt remote working permanently, then the trends reshaping employee benefits must continue and accelerate. Of course, getting employee benefits right for remote working comes at a cost. Offering a new programme of benefits will take time, planning, investment and much experimentation.
Co-Founder & Managing Director, William Russell
Many businesses have responded with short-term changes or additions to their benefits, and others are considering carrying over some of these changes into the years ahead. But interestingly, 89% of employers are also deprioritising at least one type of benefit due to the pandemic. For example, companies are moving away from benefits centered around in-person work, such as subsidized meals or commuter benefits. Instead, 98% plan to expand their offerings to focus on the most impactful benefits, especially those designed to meet the needs of remote workers.
Offering in-demand employee benefits that will boost productivity is crucial if you want to attract and maintain top talent. But what kind of benefits make sense for remote workers who you typically only see and connect within virtual environments? And how do you maintain diversity and inclusion in a remote workforce?
The answer will vary depending on your company and employees. Each company and its employees will have different needs and wants, so it makes sense to listen to your co-workers and feel out the pulse of your business. Remember: one size doesn’t fit all.
- Health insurance and medical benefits
Having an insurance plan has become one of the priorities of every modern-day working professional. It provides a sense of financial security to your employees, which is very important today. Moreover, since your employees are already working in isolation, keeping up a healthy lifestyle becomes even more important for staying fit physically and mentally. And one of the best ways to deliver health and wellness to your remote workforce is by using an employee wellness platform.
- Workstation support
Every employee aspires to work with the best equipment in hand no matter if they are at the office or working remotely. When they have access to all the amenities for getting the work done, it fuels their motivation to be more productive and give better results. It also makes them feel comfortable by creating a good vibe around and instilling a sense of responsibility. So, here you can support your employees by providing them with various hardware and other resources that they might need for setting up their home workstation.
- Childcare benefits
Your employees are definitely going to love it when you extend some benefits for their family members’ wellbeing. And the best one here would be providing benefits for your employees’ children. When your employees work from home, they might also have to look after their kids at the same time. This ultimately creates a major distraction for your employees. Hence, to relieve your employees, you can provide some childcare benefits like access to professional babysitters or engaging online classes for kids.
- Learning and Development opportunities
Learning and development opportunities have always been at the forefront of effective employee benefits. Employees these days are more curious about learning new technologies, enhance their skills and grow professionally. When they are allowed to quench their thirst for knowledge while working simultaneously, they feel obliged. Also, the availability of online courses has now made things way more accessible for anyone to learn anything. And you can too provide your employees with access to premium online courseware on any topic they wish to learn.
It won’t be easy to implement these new employees benefits, and the danger is that employers delay or skate over essential innovation at the cost of employees’ physical and mental health. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. You need to first understand whether you can offer this option, and what it is you’re trying to achieve by bringing in such a policy. You’ll also want to consider the usual variables of where they’ll work, for how long, what they’ll be doing, – these can differ drastically based on company, market, goals, and so on. However, we’ve identified three key obstacles to matching employee benefits with remote working:
- Firstly, companies are now operating in a different commercial reality. While furlough schemes have allowed firms to survive, the financial outlook is uncertain, and CFOs will look for ways to rein in spending. Inevitably, tighter budgets will affect the ability of employers to implement a new breed of employee benefits. While we don’t expect companies to dismantle employee benefits completely, we can expect scaling down, switching to more cost-effective benefits, and tiered services depending on employee seniority.
- Secondly, new employee benefits take time to implement. Switching between remote working and office working is not like flicking a switch. Each model requires a different approach to employee benefits, and each approach takes time to implement, embed and drive utilisation. Companies should consider these difficulties very carefully before deciding where their staff work.
- Thirdly, we lack research into the efficacy of the new breed of employee benefits. Certainly, digital provision of services makes sense on some levels. But in times of burnout due to excessive screen use, perhaps another suite of digital services and products is not the correct answer.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that working from home became the new normal for many people overnight, and employers do not expect traditional working habits to resume once the crisis is over. This change will have momentous implications for organisations, spanning everything from how people are motivated and rewarded to how work gets done and what workplaces of the future will look like. Due to the coronavirus, almost all employees faced increased levels of stress. The most popular rewards changes centre around mental well-being to reduce employee stress.
According to a recent survey of HR professionals by Garner, almost all organizations have had to cut costs in response to COVID-19, but a majority (68%) of organizations had also added or increased at least one reward to help employees during the pandemic.
- The most popular reward change was improving mental well-being, with 32% of organizations introducing new options (e.g., apps or virtual counselling) for employees to access mental well-being benefits.
- Sixteen percent of organizations increased medical benefits, 14% increased child care support services and 7% increased transportation services in response to the coronavirus.
Peace of mind when your team works remotely abroad
So, where does that leave employers considering a permanent switch to remote working? With discussions amongst employers revolving around shiny new digital services and what to do with excess office space, perhaps they underestimate the power of the human touch to make a difference to employees’ lives. Managers and directors are responsible for productivity, true, but they also have pastoral obligations to their teams and departments.
The defining employee benefit of the post‐Covid era may simply be a (remote) work culture in which team members having a tough time know they can chat in confidence with an empathetic manager. While we’re waiting for the world to work itself out, talking with your employees as people—and not just staff— is an excellent place to start.
No matter where your team go, you can take one thing off your mind. William Russell offers international employee benefits that covers your staff for everything from minor injuries to long hospital stays. We can even offer medical evacuation to patients who require treatment in other countries.