Return on Investment

Rethinking employee benefits and perks during the pandemic and beyond

By Teresa Brinati

FRM SepOct AskTheExpert

The COVID-19 pandemic cast a long shadow on once-coveted employee perks when employees at many associations had to abruptly transition to working from home in March. Lost were benefits such as on-site gyms, community gathering spaces and pet-friendly offices. Mastering a variety of tech tools, meeting virtually and maximizing digital products swiftly became the new imperative. Amazingly, we got our work done, even while juggling childcare and the distractions of home.

Employers are now focused on adapting workspaces to safely bring employees back to the office. But months of sheltering in place have significantly raised the profile of working remotely. In a poll of 1,227 working adults two years ago, the benefits provider Unum found that the most desired perks have to do with flexible work options. The pandemic has inadvertently boosted the viability of such options and may pave the way for new, creative employee benefits.

What Employees Really Want

To work remotely was the most frequent request from prospective employees at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT). IFT began offering remote work up to two days per week — and flexible schedules for those who aren’t able to work remotely — to its benefits package five years ago.

“Our benefits have evolved to address needs our employees have expressed and to keep pace with the industry,” said Lauren Friedman, IFT’s director of human resources. “We’ve always had a robust total compensation package which we continuously benchmark.”

Over the past half-decade, IFT has added casual dress every day, paid parental leave for mothers and fathers, a mother’s room to accommodate staff who are breastfeeding, a wellness reimbursement and a floating holiday to be used for days the organization doesn’t have off.

In a 2019 Society for Human Resource Management survey, 20% of responding employers indicated they increased offerings in health-related and wellness benefits.
IFT’s benefits progression is fairly typical. Barring changes in the regulatory landscape or economic conditions, employee benefits offerings tend to evolve over time rather than seeing abrupt year-over-year changes, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Each year SHRM conducts a research study about the types of employee benefits that organizations are offering, including health, wellness, leave, flexibility, career, retirement and other benefits. With 2,763 HR professionals responding, SHRM’s 2019 survey found that health-related benefits and wellness benefits saw the greatest increases across employers surveyed, with 20% of employers indicating they increased offerings in those areas. 

Enhancing health and wellness benefits are on the radar screen of the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE), which has added an additional medical plan to its benefit offerings. “We wanted to offer a plan that better met the needs of some of our employees who had limited healthcare needs and who wanted a plan with lower premiums,” said Mardel Ahleong, ACHE’s vice president for human resources.   

ACHE has also added a pre-tax parking benefit to its package, as well as a privacy room in its office for nursing mothers. “We update our wellness plan biometric goals each year to ensure we’re measuring the most current health benchmarks,” Ahleong noted. “We also conduct periodic surveys of staff to seek their input on our benefit offerings.”

In the SHRM survey last year, other notable changes in employee benefits by percentage points included an increase in student loan repayment (4%), part-time telecommuting (5%) and standing desks (7%).

Creating a Work Environment Where People Will Stay

The workforce today is multigenerational — Baby Boomers, Gen X and Millennials form the majority of the workforce, but most organizations include members of the older Traditionalists and younger Gen Zs as well, according to SHRM. So employees at different stages in life want and need different benefits, but at least one generation consistently pushes for more.

“Millennials are driving benefits because they are more concerned,” said Dr. Monica Gavino, a former human resources executive who is now an associate professor in the School of Management at San José State University. “The West Coast sets the trends for benefits, with Silicon Valley employers willing to take risks in implementing new benefits.”

“Some tech giants offer free meals or subsidized cafeterias as a benefit,” said Gavino, who noted that meditation and prayer rooms are a new trend. Who couldn’t use a dose of Zen, especially during these extraordinary times? There is data to support that regular meditation can help boost work performance, improve employee wellness and cultivate a positive culture.

The key, of course, is to retain and engage employees, particularly because their tenure — the average stay of an employee — is two to three years, reported Gavino. “After that, they’ll typically leave for a better title and more money. Attracting them isn’t enough. It’s what you do and how you treat them when they’re there.”

Gavino, who is a Latina, emphasized that being welcoming as an organization, particularly for a diverse workforce, is critical. “Organizations need to recognize how important it is for diverse candidates to see during the hiring process diversity in the hiring committees, top and middle management, and peers who they will work with,” Gavino said. “When we’re not welcome, we will leave,” she added.

ACHE was recently recognized by Association Forum for its Welcoming Environment®: “One that is comfortable, inclusive and empowering — they open the door for innovation, increased participation and an elevated sense of community and involvement for all.”

Keeping Lines of Communication Open

The national conversation on race and racism has elevated the urgency of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) efforts. The anti-racist movement is driving associations to revisit how they operate and to actively engage in dialog with their employees and their members.

“ACHE is committed to equity and inclusion with our staff and our members,” said Ahleong. “Each year we host a diversity training and focus on all areas of diversity, including race, gender and ability. We have utilized speakers from our Employee Assistance Programs, online modules and even a theater group called Erasing the Distance.”

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has forced ACHE to evaluate how to welcome employees in a remote work environment, it still does organizational introductions. Ahleong said that a “tell-us-about-you” questionnaire requests information about an employee’s hobbies, favorite foods, etc., and gauges interest in various internal committees for service opportunities. This info is shared with the employee’s manager and on ACHE’s intranet under employee profiles, which builds community.

These activities are significant pieces in a Welcoming Environment. IFT highlights its DE&I events in its staff newsletter by inviting employees to tell a story about how such events resonate with them. Articles have featured Black History Month, LGBTQ Pride, Disability Awareness Month, Asian-Pacific American heritage and history and the Mexican Day of the Dead. But even before an employee joins the association’s staff, IFT stresses its commitment to DE&I throughout the recruiting process, which sets a welcoming tone as well as opens the lines of communication.

“We’ve had prospective employees mention needs early in the process such as a room to pray, which we were able to accommodate,” Friedman noted.

At IFT, new employees are assigned a “buddy”. The role of the buddy is to help ease the transition into the organization and serve as a resource for any questions new employees may have. All new hires meet with IFT’s senior manager of DE&I & International Programs to get more acquainted with initiatives in this area, including its strategic promise, “Include.” After 30 days on the job, there is a check-in. New employees are asked various questions about their experience joining IFT such as how welcomed and included they were made to feel in their first month and anything they need to do their job that they may not have at the moment.

“Our hope is that these meetings will foster relationships throughout the organization, giving employees ample resources to voice any concerns they may have,” Friedman added.

This year IFT added Juneteenth to its holiday schedule to highlight the social injustices occurring in the United States. Along with the day off, IFT provided educational resources about the significance of the day and a list of events to partake in during the celebration. In addition, IFT began hosting “restorative circle” discussions for employees to have a safe space to process and share experiences with each other and which will continue to be available as long as employees need them.

Invest in People

Staying current and competitive with other employers is a necessity for every association. From remote working to wellness reimbursement to increased focus on equity, employers are striving to be more welcoming. As the pandemic lingers and the work-from-home option grows, some new perks may be needed to attract talent and retain quality workers. For example, benefits might include equipping homebound workers with tools of the trade such as ergonomic chairs, laptops, second monitors and microphones.

Investing in the people side ultimately benefits the association. “Smaller organizations can do some great things because they can be nimble,” Gavino added. “There comes a point in any organization’s growth when you have to invest in the people side—creating a wonderful culture where everyone can contribute and help the organization reach its goals is a competitive advantage of any company.” 

Creative Benefits

Employees’ needs have shifted during the pandemic. Here are some ideas to meet these needs:

  • Telehealth services
  • Mental health services
  • Additional sick leave, or “crisis days”
  • to be used for both physical and mental health
  • According to hrexecutive.com, “Employers are expected to allocate the largest amount of their payroll budget to bonuses in the history of Aon’s 43-year study.”
  • Childcare assistance
  • Wellness resources, such as virtual fitness subscriptions
  • Financial wellness resources

List adapted from an article posted on Human Resource Executive, hrexecutive.com

About the Author

Teresa Brinati is the director of publishing at the Society of American Archivists and may be reached at tbrinati@archivists.org.

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