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Changing Expectations: How the Pandemic Has Affected What Employees Want From Their Benefits Programs

Employers have always had high expectations of their workforce. But in a highly competitive employment marketplace, employees across all age groups are demanding more of their employers than ever before. In an eventual post-pandemic environment, what can you do to keep ahead of these evolving expectations?


The pandemic has changed us all in ways that are not yet fully understood. It is becoming clear that there will be no ‘return to normal’ in the workplace. With health and safety of employees at the top of the agenda for the last 18 months, the traditional employer/employee relationship has changed beyond recognition. Caring, connecting and coping together has become the number one focus for employers and employees alike.

In this article, we look at what has changed for employees as a result of the pandemic — and how those changes have affected their expectations of their employer and their benefits programs. We also see how professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) is managing these changes to create a work environment that employees are proud to be part of.

With insights from:

  • Lisa Copeland, Vice President and Toronto Practice Leader, Aon Health Solutions
  • Rachel Hurley, Wellbeing Leader, PwC
  • Jim Winkler, Global Chief Innovation Officer, Aon Health Solutions

 

Employee resilience just got personal

The pandemic brought employee resilience sharply into focus for organizations across the world. How well employees coped with the changes forced upon them was, in part, down to how resilient they were. Our research as part of the 2021 Global Wellbeing Survey shows that those organizations that invested in employee wellbeing prior to and during the pandemic were more likely to have resilient employees than those that did not. 

 

 

We have learned that the greater the investment in wellbeing, the greater the levels of employee resilience. However, because of major workplace changes necessitated by the pandemic, traditional wellbeing benefits such as gym membership, subsidized cafeteria and travel perks have been rendered much less important to employees.

The drivers to happiness at work and, by extension, employees’ ability to remain motivated, productive and capable of outperforming their peers, have become much more personal.

 

What you need to know about what’s changed

The pandemic forced employees to endure huge upheaval and challenges to their overall wellbeing. Having come through the worst of it, they are now working in new ways that make sense for them. They will not tolerate a simple ‘as you were’ mentality from employers. Moreover, they expect their employers to carry forward the personal connection and care provided during the pandemic into the new world of work.

 

Safety

As business restarts, employees will expect to have a say in what returning to the office looks like. They will be looking to their employers to help them manage their personal circumstances and health concerns in the creation and maintenance of a safe and inclusive work environment.

 

Flexibility

As organizations plot a course back to the workplace, employees want flexibility and consideration of their personal circumstances. Whether the employee is a baby boomer, Gen X or millennial, there are distinctive differences between the needs of different age groups. In the new reality, one size fits all benefit programs were not right for anyone.

 

‘Every individual is a unique ecosystem all their own. Culturally, in terms of gender, in terms of sexual orientation, in terms of personal health habits and then you layer on to that where they're working, how they're working, what kind of family situation they're working in. Everybody's got a different unique experience and that is putting a great onus on employers from an innovation standpoint, to create programs that are inherently flexible.’

Jim Winkler, Global Chief Innovation Officer, Aon Health Solutions

 

Employers that recognize this fact by providing flexible benefits packages show that they can adapt to their employees’ changing needs. Those employers that demonstrate their commitment to offering employees fulfilling, flexible roles throughout their career will attract and retain the best talent.

 

‘Flexibility is going to be key. When I talk to clients, what is consistent with all of them is the idea of what can be done to retain and attract talent? The message you give out as an employer about wellbeing and work/life balance is going to have an impact in the future of people deciding where they want to work.’

Lisa Copeland, Vice President and Toronto Practice Leader, Aon Health Solutions

 

Work/life balance

Having faced an existential threat to human existence, it is understandable that many employees are asking themselves some fundamental questions about what they want from life itself, not just their careers. Providing the framework and tools to help employees take a closer look at how they are living and help them achieve the balance they seek, can be a key differentiator for employers.

 

‘You think to yourself, what you just went through, you know, do I want to continue working 50 hours a week and missing vacations and working on vacations? I think people are going to want to work for companies that not only talk the talk but also walk the walk about work/life balance and holistically care about their employees. Benefits play a key part of that.’

Lisa Copeland, Vice President and Toronto Practice Leader, Aon Health Solutions

 

Mental health

Whether coping with the silence of working in isolation or juggling the chaos of homeschooling and caregiving with work commitments, the pandemic has taken its toll on mental health across the employee spectrum. Mental health care is a significant issue that employees want their employer to show that they take it seriously. Note that younger staff members and graduates have been raised in an environment where talking about mental health is as normal as talking about physical health concerns. Meaning they expect to see mental health support and resources from their employer when they join the workforce.

 

‘The pandemic shone such a spotlight on health and mental health specifically. What we're finding is that when we bring new employees in, especially those who we are hiring directly out of universities, they are a part of a new generation who have grown up where it's safer to talk about mental health issues. People coming into the workforce now look to their employer for the same, if not better, support and resources for mental health as they do for physical health.’

Rachel Hurley, Wellbeing Leader, PwC

 

Environmental concerns

The pandemic gave the world the opportunity to see what happened to pollution levels when commuter traffic ceased while also asking themselves ‘do we really need to travel as much as we used to?’ Helping employees achieve a better work/life balance while reducing time spent in the office can help employers meet Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) goals and appeal as an employer to future generations.

 

‘We've seen through the pandemic that we don't need to be in the office as much, and we don't need to be traveling as much. We know that when we reduce both of those things, we're reducing our carbon emissions too, so our teams are making more conscious decisions and recognizing this as an opportunity to really make a positive change for the environment.’

Rachel Hurley, Wellbeing Leader, PwC

 

Virtual healthcare provision

With access to many healthcare providers restricted during the pandemic, employees became used to accessing virtual providers. Giving employees the flexibility to schedule appointments to fit with the demands of their own life is highly valued and should be maintained.

 

‘We've seen a huge increase in people wanting virtual healthcare and now most employers are looking for it. Insurance companies have partnered with vendors that have a preferred offering for virtual healthcare and employees are going to be looking for those different things.’

Lisa Copeland, Vice President and Toronto Practice Leader, Aon Health Solutions

 

Clarity of purpose and values

Many of us felt varying degrees of confusion, fear and uncertainty throughout the pandemic. Working for an organization with a clear purpose and values helps to put these feelings into perspective, providing employees with the reassurance needed to boost resilience.

 

Two-way communication and authenticity

With workforces and teams isolated across the world, leaders have needed to deliver clear and authentic communication throughout the pandemic. Employees have appreciated the immediacy and authenticity of efforts from leaders communicating from their own devices to keep messaging going in real-time. Equally, employees need to feel that their voice matters and that their views and opinions count. So those employers that promote open conversations and a top-down, bottom-up approach to communication around wellbeing will continue to foster resilience in their workforce.

 

‘We encourage open dialogue. The thing we do that has the biggest impact on our people is creating safe spaces to share stories, whether it’s through team meetings, our inclusion groups or national staff calls. We encourage our people, including our leaders, to open up about what they're going through. The more we can encourage open conversation, the more our employees and partners see that and say, 'oh it's okay for me to talk about this’. And most importantly the people who need help, feel comfortable raising their hand and getting the support they need  -- that's the ultimate goal.’

Rachel Hurley, Wellbeing Leader, PwC

 

Inclusivity and diversity

Employees want to feel included and listened to. Leaders have become much more intentional about ways to bring their teams together and gather their input so that people feel connected. This is a key point that must be maintained in the new landscape.

 

‘We encourage open dialogue. The thing we do that has the biggest impact on our people is creating safe spaces to share stories, whether it’s through team meetings, our inclusion groups or national staff calls. We encourage our people, including our leaders, to open up about what they're going through. The more we can encourage open conversation, the more our employees and partners see that and say, 'oh it's okay for me to talk about this’. And most importantly the people who need help, feel comfortable raising their hand and getting the support they need  -- that's the ultimate goal.’

Rachel Hurley, Wellbeing Leader, PwC

 

EAPs are the baseline

Employee assistance programs (EAPs) were once thought to be cutting edge. To show how far employee expectations have changed in recent times, employees now consider them a basic starting point.

 

‘We've seen such a dramatic change in employee expectations. When we first implemented an employee assistance program, we were far ahead of other companies. Now the baseline has changed, and an EAP is the minimum of what our employees expect from us and with good reason.’

Rachel Hurley, Wellbeing Leader, PwC

 

The pandemic created conditions requiring care, humanity and kindness to permeate every aspect of organizational culture, with employee expectations reset at a more individualized and personal level as a result. Next, we explore how to align your benefits programs with these major changes.

 

Understanding what employees want

In order to understand what employees want from their benefits programs, it is important to ask questions and gather data to ensure significant changes to benefits programs are meeting specific needs. The ideal starting point is to invest in a complete employee survey.

 

‘With the conjoint survey, you're looking at a total reward perspective. So, you're looking at employee retirement, their vacation, everything. So, if a company is going to invest in doing a survey, I personally think it's better that they do it holistically at a level that you're looking at an aggregate for rewards. And, that you are also surveying the entire employee population.’

Lisa Copeland, Vice President and Toronto Practice Leader, Aon Health Solutions

 

Once this is complete, it is critical to dive deeper to inform decision-making. This is where the use of focus groups allows employers to ensure every employee type can provide feedback and fine-tune any new proposals that emerge from the employee survey.

 

‘Strategically you want to make sure each employee type is represented. From a diversity perspective to make sure those focus groups represent a true version of what your workforce looks like.’

Lisa Copeland, Vice President and Toronto Practice Leader, Aon Health Solutions

 

Of course, the results of the employee survey and the focus groups need to be balanced against budgets and the needs of the employer. However, it should be recognized that while employers will always welcome cost-neutral changes, the point of listening to employees is to hear their voice. For employers to genuinely demonstrate that they have heard their employees, requires recognition that this will likely require investment in new plans and programs.

Once implemented, benefits programs need to constantly evolve with enough flexibility to accommodate new and emerging employee needs. An open and honest dialogue is essential.

 

‘People often ask how do you know what people want? How do you know how to help them? And what I always say is, ask them. That's the best way to find out what people need.’

Rachel Hurley, Wellbeing Leader, PwC

 

PwC uses a regular pulse survey called ‘You Matter’ where the business checks in with staff and partners asking some very simple questions to make sure they are OK and experiencing a good work/life balance. The business also runs an annual global people survey. However, as Rachel Hurley, Wellbeing Leader at PwC explains, it is vital to understand that employees can experience survey fatigue. This is where other networks and groups within the business provide valuable insights and ensure wellbeing programs are hitting the mark.

 

‘Our Inclusion groups have been essential in tapping into and supporting our employees wellbeing. For example, one of our groups, the Differently Abled Wellness Network (DAWN) started a few years ago with a handful of people who were passionate about wellbeing and really wanted to get involved. It has grown organically over the past few years to over 700 people across the firm from all different backgrounds of people who just want to be involved in the conversation and support one another. We partner very closely with DAWN for many reasons - one is they help us to get the word out of whatever mental health and wellbeing programs or initiatives we are rolling out. They also host events to spread awareness and to bring people together to share information and resources. DAWN is really our eyes and ears on the ground.’

Rachel Hurley, Wellbeing Leader, PwC

 

Following a period where people have shown the resilience to overcome significant challenges to their wellbeing, they want to know what the new workplace culture will look like and how their employer plans to care for them. As PricewaterhouseCoopers’ approach demonstrates, those organizations which recognize that every employee’s situation is unique and find ways to listen, understand and ultimately invest in bringing people together to perform at their best, will be the ones who emerge from the pandemic with a resilient workforce in great shape for the future.

 

Employee expectations - the next steps for people leaders:

  • Learn how the drivers for happiness at work have changed as a result of the pandemic.
  • Recognize that specific employee types have specific needs and expectations.
  • Consider a holistic employee survey to uncover unmet needs in your benefit program. Focus group the results. Be prepared to invest in change. 
  • Help employees understand their benefits program. Communicate clearly. Educate inclusively. Keep listening to employees.

 

If you invest in the wellbeing of your people, they will invest in the wellbeing of your organization.