COVID-19 has impacted millions of businesses across America. From working remotely being accepted as productive to accelerating digital transformation through the cloud, organizations have been going through changes that will have a long-term impact on their business. With so much change in the way we work, employees’ needs have changed, too, and organizations have had to account for such changes in their workforce’s benefits.
At the onset of the pandemic, tech companies were among the first to encourage their employees to work from home and announce the cancellation of live events. Later, they planned a very cautious return to the office, which for most will not happen till later in 2021. Options for broader remote work at some companies are remaining in place for good.
Given the very competitive job market they operate in, it is no surprise that tech companies were also among the first to address the change in priorities among their employees’ needs. After speaking to human capital management leaders at tech companies like IBM and Microsoft, it was clear they agreed on three top priorities for employees in this new environment: clear communication, support for families, and mental health.
Transparency and communication
As uncertainty grew during the first days of the pandemic, organizations realized early on there was a great need to improve both quality and frequency of communications from management at all levels to each and every employee. Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins recently said that while people might not always like what they hear, employees appreciate being informed and kept up to date with how their company is responding to the pandemic. Getting information on available resources to help cope with the new reality has been paramount. For instance, Intel set up a COVID-19 internal microsite with a FAQ, real-time updates, and resources including health insurance coverage, testing options, and links to official information resources for employees.
When it came to benefits, rapid communication was ideal. IBM recognized that employees had enough to worry about without having to figure out whether they were covered by insurance or not. At first, employers strove to give peace of mind about testing. Over time, efforts focused on clarifying what kind of leave employees had the right to access, whether they fell ill themselves or were called on to look after a relative who had fallen sick. A timely reaction also required a lower level of complexity. Employees needed to be able to act without jumping through unnecessary process loops to get authorization for time off from a manager.
Childcare and eldercare
According to Joanna Daly, VP of Compensation, Benefits and HR Business at IBM, COVID-19 has highlighted the diverse makeup of family relationships and the different circumstances that influence people’s needs.
As businesses closed, so did schools. Employees have had to take care of their children and help them with distance learning while trying to work from home. The virus’s highly contagious nature meant that many families have not been able to rely on the usual support systems they might have put in place with older family members like grandparents or even regular childcare. Under stay-at-home orders, people also have been called upon to care for family members with chronic conditions who could no longer depend on external help.
Organizations tackled the issue in different ways. Some gave employees extra time off or subsidized care:
- IBM offered four weeks of fully paid flexible emergency leave for parents and caregivers that could be taken in increments of hours or days depending on needs.
- Amazon rolled out a new family care benefit through Care.com to 650,000 full and part-time Amazon and Whole Foods Market employees. This benefit provides each employee up to 10 days of subsidized emergency backup child- or adultcare until the end of January 2021. Amazon employees pay a co-pay of $25 per day for in-center childcare, or $5 per hour for in-home child- or adultcare. Amazon covers more than 90% of the cost of the service.
- Dell expanded its tutoring solutions, giving employees a broad range of services to choose from, including one-on-one tutoring, group tutoring, live online classes, pre-K group education, test preparation, and homework help. For those parents searching for care, Dell expanded its network of 1,000 discount childcare and learning centers to 2,400.
- Intel extended emergency childcare and eldercare reimbursement, offered online learning resources for employees and parents with Tutor.com and LinkedIn Learning. They also made work hours more flexible by allowing employees to “borrow” from future time off allotments, or from future holidays or sabbaticals.
In addition to COVID-19, employees in the U.S. have faced social unrest and devastating fires and storms, which have added more stressors to their mental well-being. Sadly, conversations about mental health still carry a lot of stigma. At this difficult time, organizations have realized they need to focus on creating a safe environment for employees to talk about their stress level and find resources available to them.
While we talk about the importance of exercise, healthy eating, and quality sleep, we tend not to talk as openly about the steps we should take to achieve and maintain optimal mental health. Many organizations have taken this on in an effort to make mental health as stigma-free as physical health. Creating easy and timely check-ins between workers and managers but also among team members has been paramount to recognizing any sign of distress in a co-worker. Dell turned to technology and launched meQuilibrium, a self-help app that provides tools such as meditation and breathing exercises, as well as tips for managing stress. Employees received incentives for using the app to encourage the practice of checking in with themselves.
During this challenging time, managers have been called to go beyond their traditional roles and step up their game in the support they provide to their teams. It’s not about becoming therapists but about recognizing when someone is struggling, then offering help before being asked. Managing people remotely requires different skills, and an ability to be supportive without seeming overbearing and intrusive.
As a result of all this change, employees will likely come to expect flexibility in their work practice and benefits even when the pandemic is over—and companies are already adapting. EVP and Chief People Officer at Microsoft Kathleen Hogan said in a blog: “Moving forward, it is our goal to offer as much flexibility as possible to support individual workstyles while balancing business needs and ensuring we live our culture.”
This means that the physical space where people work, and the hours they work, could be very different in the future. Technology can play a significant role in empowering such flexibility, so it’s no surprise that tech companies are leading the way on finding a better work-life blend.
Carolina Milanesi is principal analyst at Creative Strategies and founder of The Heart of Tech, a tech consultancy focused on education and diversity. She has been covering consumer tech for over 15 years.