The Big Rebrand: 3 New Categories of Benefits in a Post-COVID World

A workplace observance that’s been around less than twenty years, National Employee Benefits Day well deserves its spot on the annual calendar. Recognizing all those administrators, insurers, and professional advisors who balance the broad spectrum of plan design, day-to-day benefits administration, affordability within budgets, ever-evolving compliance rules and emerging trends is smart business. These teams shape “wellbeing,” literally by stewarding finite resources to bundle what American employees need AND want. Isn’t that the definition of wellbeing? Who’s with me on replacing the current “employee benefits” lexicon with “employee wellbeing”??…that’s a topic for another day.

When I asked rising executive and thought-leader, Alexa Baggio, to be NEEBC’s blogger for National Employee Benefits Day, I knew first-hand her talent for recognizing the pulse on the employee benefits landscape and her ability to translate it into actionable opportunities. In her blog below, she exceeded my expectations for delivering fresh, crisp, poignant perspective on designing and offering meaningful benefits, including distinguishing three new benefits categories. 

I suspect it will be obvious how we can and should observe National Employee Benefits Day. In case it isn’t, I’d encourage you to intentionally recognize this month, people on your team responsible for any aspect of designing, understanding or offering benefits. Plan your formal or informal inventory of the benefits you offer (or on which you consult). Evaluate the value of benefits and ask yourself if you’ve maximized every resource available. Anyone can add a wellbeing line to her/his email signature. If you are a professional, you needn’t wait for your manager to suggest that you listen to podcasts, amplify through social media the wellbeing posts and programming that’s meaningful, read newsletters and blogs on developing themes and tools, or participate in webinars or development offerings. Often these learning options are complimentary …another perk of being part of the Benefits community!

Introduction by Robin Antonellis, Executive Director of NEEBC.

The Big Rebrand: 3 New Categories of Benefits in a Post-COVID World 

Things have changed - COVID-19’s true impact on the workforce and workplace will play out over the next few years and coming decades. In the meantime, everything about work, on both a personal and professional level, has been reevaluated… by everyone.

Employees have been given new freedoms, for better and worse. Management has been forced to adapt. Some employers have saved on large population expenses while simultaneously experiencing RIFs, risking employee burnout, and supporting increased mental health concerns and the costs of remote work. It’s safe to say that no one has gotten through this period ‘unscathed,’ but a few truths are starting to solidify.

Namely, that the work from home experience has quickly become commoditized. A butt in a seat staring at a screen full of talking boxes, while it can afford certain personal freedoms - like sweatpants and mid-day yoga breaks - is incredibly hard to differentiate. For the last year, the entire world has experimented with what happens when work is tactically ‘the same’ for a large portion of the population (at least 59% based on basic U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).

It’s important to point out what is now known more deeply than ever - that the most important factors in job satisfaction are first, the value of the work you do (literally, your job) and second, the people you do that work with (your team). However, the newest addition to the “top 3” is your overall employee experience. Why an employee chooses to sit in front of a screen for your company, for your brand, with your team, and what differentiates that experience for them is now paramount among employer pressures. While the long-term effects of the current environment are still unknown, it is safe to say that perks and benefits now serve as a majority slice in the proverbial employee-experience pie.

So if you weren’t paying attention to your employee experience before, you better be now. When the reign of COVID-19 is over, your employee experience is poised to rise from the ashes. Why? Because luckily, the world (and the market) have never been more primed to serve the employer market and rise to this challenge. There are more services available to employers that directly benefit their employees than ever before, and brands are targeting the unique needs of consumers as employees in increasingly creative ways.

As with all waves of change, the common vernacular is ripe for change. The categories of benefits: core, ancillary, voluntary, etc., no longer fit the narrative of the hybrid employee. These legacy terms are products of decades-long insurance cycles that no longer match the times. The new categories of benefits are benefits that are expected, benefits that are deliberate, and benefits that serve as signals. They all wrap into one singularly designed ‘employee experience,’ and they are here to stay.

1. Certain benefits are now… expected.

Healthcare, vision, dental, and other important insurance products - regardless of their category in the industry - are so expected they function as binary. You either provide health insurance, or you do not. You offer 401k, or you do not. The choice between the plans when joining an employer is usually an afterthought to the employee (unless they or a loved one have an important cause or illness that needs coverage), and so these parts of the employee experience are no longer benefits, they are pure expectation. Beyond having them or not having them, their details serve little importance in the minds of prospective talent. We’ve evolved well beyond that in the age of Glassdoor, where the larger experience is always on display. Whether these benefits are fully or partially paid, or fully voluntary, employees expect employers to provide access to these and seek them out when they are personally beneficial.

And while that might be obvious, there are new contenders in this category… Employees now expect benefits that support multiple generations and various life stages (i.e., student loan support, aging parent support, improved Rx options, etc.).

Benefits that support working families is probably the greatest current expectation and largest category where employers continue to fall short. Child care, financial support, creative leave policies, and scaled work arrangements for working parents if child care is not an option, are increasingly the employers burden. More than half our workforce population cannot manage these realities on their own; employers are expected to be part of the solutions.

2. There are benefits that need to and must be… deliberate.

While foosball tables and open office spaces were nice for a while, following the basic trends and latest fads will no longer suffice. Employers will need to create experiences that deliberately set up the interactions and engagement they seek.

The easiest example of this is the office. Your office, your physical space, regardless of your office/hybrid/remote choices, is now one of a company’s biggest perks. It must be designed to attract people to it and designed to give those people a reason to work there rather than the spare bedroom. It needs to be a place to create both intergenerational interactions and facilitate cross pollination amongst teams. The earlier-in-career workforce is suffering from WFH culture, missing out on all kinds of nods, tips, tricks, and touchpoints with later-in-career teammates. They are starved for learning and engagement from their veteran peers, and they will flock to companies that foster those learnings.

The Boston Globe recently published an article indicating that over 45% of Boston-area employees prefer a hybrid model for their return to work strategy. Now, imagine a holiday party next year where no one on your team has ever met their colleagues face-to-face. Aside from being stoked (or relieved) that most of those people are not centaurs or talking M&Ms, these kinds of gatherings can no longer be haphazard or boxes checked. They need to be thoughtful, they need to be deliberate, and they need to be backed by the products and services that affirm your mission and your desired culture for the future.

3. There are benefits that serve as signals... for all to see.

This last category of benefits concerns mostly the benefits you provide ‘access’ to - all the other things you can choose from when designing your experience. While you can vary the strength of a ‘signal’ by fully paying for something, or merely offering group access to it, the benefits you choose to communicate, market, and encourage are ‘signals’ to your team about what is valued and encouraged as an employee. They are as important as the prior two.

Signal benefits are not necessarily expected, they are deliberate, and they work to fine tune the employer brand story you are hoping to tell. A great example of a signal benefit is fertility. While not every employer has the luxury of financially supporting fertility options in full, it is a strong signal to provide access to these benefits, and to make sure they are equitable. In addition, if you are providing female fertility benefits, you can signal supporting LGBTQ and male candidates by offering support or access to something like Legacy. You can choose to add trans and gender-based coverage to your medical plans to signal your support for diversity and your desire to attract more. You can provide access to these things to bolster the signals around your existing leave and family policies. See where I am going with this?

Similarly, you can be deliberate in your signaling around nutrition and health, if that’s appropriate for your population, by financially supporting benefits for fitness, nutrition, meditation, etc. Choosing not to provide something can be an equally strong or even stronger signal. If you do not provide access or support for certain things, that tells an additional story about your employer brand priorities. Not providing a bunch of discounts on consumer products or ‘perks cards’ might fit well with your signal of emphasis on financial wellbeing. In short, it’s all bespoke now. It has to be. The employer now owns which signals should and should not be sent, based on the needs of your workforce.

With all that said, it is easy on the frontier of the employee experience to be overwhelmed. But it’s important not to try to be all things to all people. Discounts are weak signals. The things you promote, and in what frequency, are stronger signals. The things you support financially are stronger still. The benefits you choose to support, deliberately include, and signal with, ultimately solidify your employer brand story and help differentiate you in this new world. Remember, simply marketing and speaking about a benefit is a signal. Awareness is key.

Overall, technology has commoditized much of what work looks like on a daily basis for people. It has hastily eroded the line between ‘employee’ and ‘consumer,’ and people increasingly expect the same services and experiences they have grown accustomed to in an increasingly Direct-to-Consumer world.

With these new categories and frameworks for employee experience and benefits design, comes the need for new channels to expedite communications, streamline employer brand messaging, and move beyond the basic PEOs and one-size-fits-all solutions. Employees, like their consumer-selves expect personalization, customization, and flexibility. They want their offerings to feel tailored to them and unique to your organization.

The new employee experience is everything. This is the opportunity COVID-19 has given us, and so it will be in this new world.

Alexa Baggio is the Founder & CEO at PERKS - The Employee Experience Co., [email protected] 

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