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Strategies to adapt employee benefits to a COVID-19 world

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The pandemic changed the way we work, shop, eat, play, lounge, exercise, and live. As case numbers surge around the country, it’s clear that returning to normal may not be possible for quite some time. As much of our world has already changed because of COVID-19, shouldn’t we assume that employee benefits will change, too?

Over the past several months, I’ve spoken with HR leaders, brokers, administrators, and others at the forefront of our industry. What I’ve come to understand is that, while no one knows exactly how things will look in the future, we can all agree that they will be different.

Here are just a few of the ways we’ll have to adjust benefits delivery to thrive in a post-COVID-19 world.

The workforce is changing
In the future, meeting employee needs will mean moving past the traditional plan design into building a benefits strategy tailored to a more remote and dispersed workforce. While many companies saw the remote work necessitated by social distancing as a temporary solution, others have made it permanent.

Twitter told employees they need never return to the office if they aren’t comfortable in that environment or don’t want to. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in May he expects more than half his employees to work from home within a decade. Google’s employees will work from home until next year.

As remote work remains the reality for the foreseeable future employers and health and welfare consultants will need to offer greater benefits personalization than we’ve ever seen, as well as a willingness to be flexible in what we offer our members.

Deliver programs that bring real value to employees
With an increasing number of employers operating with fragmented workforces, it will no longer be enough for us to rely on exclusive gym memberships or on-site wellness screenings.

Employees expect wellness programs that add value. Due to the ripple effects of COVID-19, those programs will need to be more flexible than ever. That might mean offering a stipend that you can use for physical fitness activities or more emphasis on matching HSA or FSA contributions. It might mean rewarding employees for choosing a lower-cost facility to encourage smart healthcare consumer behaviors and control increasing financial risk to the organization.

Consider not anchoring programs to a physical space or location. Virtual care should also be a vital component of a new benefits package. This can't be underestimated or approached as a simple checkbox offering. You should strive to deliver an employee benefits experience that allows telemedicine, EAP, and behavioral teletherapy to be easier to access and use. We know it leads to better employee morale, productivity, and reduced healthcare spending.

By choosing a forward-thinking program design, paired with a compelling experience to bring that design to life and ensure utilization, you’ll appeal to employees in a rapidly changing and increasingly competitive work environment.

Go beyond a medical strategy
Employees need a more holistic approach to benefits that goes beyond implementing high-deductible health plans. They need robust solutions that support employee's mental health, emotional wellness, and work-life balance. If you didn't offer these before the COVID-19 crisis or expected low utilization year over year as the status quo before the pandemic, it's time to reassess your options and delivery method. Census Bureau data now shows one-third of Americans are suffering from clinical anxiety, depression, or both.

Remote work means more isolation and the stress of balancing work and life in a confined space. Innovative employers will see this as an opportunity to address this potential cost-driver by proactively supporting employees. That may mean emphasizing your EAP, adding additional behavioral health programs, or providing a child care stipend.

Change your collaboration and communication models
As more employees work remotely, the way we administer benefits should change, as well. For one thing, the days of in-person benefits townhalls or open-enrollment education meetings may quickly become an event of the past, and it's time for HR to adjust.

Whatever you choose, ask yourself: could employees use this tool to answer their benefits questions anywhere in the country? Without an office to walk into, HR leaders may find themselves bombarded continuously by benefits questions. An easy-to-use, supportive benefits experience keeps questions to a minimum and allows our HR teams to focus on the strategic tasks and big-picture thinking we need right now.

The COVID-19 crisis is changing every day, and it's impossible to predict what employees will need next year. Our best step forward now is to offer a holistic, digital benefits experience that's dead simple to use. We owe employees that much.

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