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How the pandemic paved the way for more flexible benefits in 2021

Every worker is juggling different responsibilities in the wake of the pandemic, creating a whole different perspective on benefits offerings.

How the pandemic paved the way for more flexible benefits in 2021
[Photos: Surface/Unsplash; Skyler Gerald/Unsplash; Sigmund/Unsplash; Artem Riasnianskyi/Unsplash]
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March 2020 will forever be a turning point for U.S. workers. That’s when many states issued stay-at-home orders that shuttered stores and restaurants and sent office denizens scrambling to make space in their home for remote work. For about half of the 3,500 employees of Paylocity, the transition was somewhat easier, as they’d already been working from home pre-pandemic.

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But they still experienced a dramatic shift, according to Steve Beauchamp. The CEO of Paylocity tells Fast Company that the pandemic shut down the staff’s normal routines. That was especially true for the one-third of its workers who have children under the age of 13. “These employees have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19, especially as they attempt to balance online schooling, child care, and a full-time job,” says Beauchamp, “all while worrying about their elderly parents or loved ones who might need additional support.”

Paylocity’s entire workforce felt the impact of the pandemic, says Beauchamp, and they were understandably worried about their job security as so many workers were laid off. So in addition to “openly guaranteeing” that no layoffs would occur, Beauchamp says he told staff that they would explore flexible options to help workers balance workloads while still maintaining peace of mind.

Over the past nine months, many employers have found themselves in a similar position, trying to accommodate people juggling caregiving with remote work and a host of other factors that impact engagement and productivity. Yet while plenty have offered creative solutions to counteract the burnout that comes from being always on in a remote work situation, Beauchamp is correct that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Traditional benefits such as two or three weeks of paid vacation and health insurance can’t begin to cover the impact COVID-19 has had on our work circumstances.

Burton Goldfield, president and CEO of TriNet, a professional employer organization (PEO) that provides comprehensive HR services to over 18,000 small- and medium-sized businesses, observes that there’s even less use of other standard benefits. “With remote working prevalent across the country,” says Goldfield, “there has been a significant decline in the use of commuter benefits,” such as paid transit cards or mileage reimbursement, as well as lower usage of healthcare and dependent care flexible spending accounts. “Of particular note is the decrease in preventive screenings, due to employees canceling or delaying these services as a result of stay-at-home orders,” he adds.

In their place, Goldfield points out, is an increase in “flexible” benefits. “Some employers are offering extra paid time off for sick leave, quarantine, or caregiving leave to help a sick family member,” he notes. “Others have made or plan to make changes to PTO, vacation, and sick-day programs to enhance employee flexibility and lessen the buildup of accrued days by year end.” Goldfield says that some employers are even planning to increase carryover limits to offset any unused vacation.

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This kind of flexibility has been helpful for some to be more productive and even advance their careers. Jenny Robles, an account director at KCSA Strategic Communications who is based in New York City, says that COVID-19 rearranged many of her personal and professional goals. “Having just been promoted in March, I was scared of failing to prove myself at my new role,” she says. Robles moved back home to take care of family members who contracted the virus and was told to work remotely until further notice.

What helped Robles juggle the twin responsibilities of caregiving and work was that KCSA offered monthly mental health days, which helped her with scheduling doctor visits and days off. She also took advantage of the biweekly check-ins with her “work sensei” that were designed to make sure she felt supported in her new role.

“The most important help from my employer was the leniency of work hours and deadlines,” Robles asserts. “I was able to log off for a few hours and take care of my parents and their home, and log back on as needed.” Additionally, she says that the firm’s managing principals called her on a daily basis to inquire about my family and mental health. “[They] remind me to always choose ‘family and health over work.'”

Months later, Robles says her family is safe, and she is excelling in her new role. Additionally, she observes, “[I am] managing juniors with the same empathy KCSA showed me.”

That kind of arrangement can go a long way toward cementing loyalty with an employer. According to Limeade’s 2020 Employee Care Report, one in three employees have left a job because they didn’t feel their employer cared about them as a person. And the lack of care can cause an already-exhausted worker to influence others—even when they’re not working side by side. “Employees who are burned out are twice as likely to have tried to convince another colleague to leave the job with them,” the report’s authors write.

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Yet flextime isn’t a magic antidote to the serious burnout working parents have experienced. Working mothers in particular, who have been hit hardest by the pandemic, need more than flexibility and perks. As Fast Company‘s Ainsley Harris noted in a recent article, in excess of two million women at nearly every income level have left the workforce in 2020. “Working mothers don’t need bike shares. They certainly don’t need magic shows. They need their companies to act as better corporate citizens and advocate for policies that address the daily needs of parents,” she wrote.

“While some employers are looking for employees to return to the workplace, others are looking for ways to solve the childcare needs while their employees are still remote,” according to Stephen Kramer, CEO of Bright Horizons, a provider of childcare and early education, back-up care, and workplace education services. “As employers realize increasing childcare benefits will maintain productivity and retain talent, we have been seeing an influx of requests from companies to find in-home child care or increased backup care for employees to help manage patchwork school schedules.” Kramer says from April through June of 2020, they saw 20 times the typical number of backup care requests.

The only way to know which employees can benefit from different types of flexible offerings is to ask, maintains Beauchamp. “Before we began designing these different options, we surveyed our employees to ask them what types of arrangements would help them to ease the burden of their new schedules,” he says, noting that it was important for the company to communicate they were planning to make changes to curb burnout and reduce stress and turnover, especially among working mothers.

“We wanted to start making transparent changes right away so that employees didn’t feel overwhelmed or felt the need to leave if their responsibilities were starting to look too daunting,” says Beauchamp. “With this new flexibility, employees have the ability to balance their schedule the way they need so they can continue to feel good about their work while taking the time they need to support their family and their own mental health.”

Looking ahead to 2021, Goldfield asserts that the benefits landscape will continue to feature flexible options for both general and behavioral health, with particular emphasis on the convenience of telehealth. “While employers are looking at the total well-being of their employees in support of the pandemic, the enhanced and flexible benefit offerings as a response to COVID-19 may set the bar for the way talent is recruited and retained,” he says. Goldfield believes that it will also lead to increased productivity and company loyalty.

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Beauchamp concurs, noting that Paylocity’s employee survey scores have trended positive even at the height of the shutdown. “Moving forward,” he says, “we will continue to address questions, concerns, and survey our employees to ensure we continue to make any adjustments necessary.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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