5 important takeaways from Microsoft’s HR strategy

Fred Thiele, Microsoft’s vice president of global benefits and mobility, prefers using well-being over wellness when describing the software giant’s holistic benefits approach.

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“It’s more indicative of what we do,” says Thiele, a keynote speaker Wednesday at Human Resource Executive‘s Health & Benefits Leadership Conference in Las Vegas. “We’re expanding and wellbeing indicates this is not a static idea.”

Indeed, it’s not. Fifteen to 20 years ago, companies began looking at offering health plans with comprehensive coverage and offering employees access to biometrics like testing blood sugar for diabetes and body mass index.

Related: 5 ways to get creative with employee benefits

“Then we realized the notion of wellbeing included the whole person,” Thiele says. That realization brought on the notion of holistic health benefits to Microsoft, which would address employees’ physical wellness along with their financial health and mental, emotional and social wellbeing.

In response, over the past eight years, Microsoft has not only continued focusing on the three axes of physical, financial and mental wellbeing, but it has also started seeking ways to expand its holistic health benefits.

How Microsoft is expanding holistic health benefits

The pandemic has played a key role in this expansion, with hybrid work and flexibility prompting changes to some of the holistic health offerings, such as how mental, emotional and social health benefits are handled.

But as Microsoft and other companies expand their benefits offerings, Thiele offers words of caution: Don’t be dismissive of so-called table stakes like retirement and healthcare benefits, he says.

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“My feeling is health and retirement still remain important,” Thiele says, pointing to a survey that showed 60% of survey participants list health and retirement benefits as important retention tools, up from 41% in 2010. “Although new and early career employees at Microsoft may not initially think they’re important, it changes once you have them and becomes a powerful retention tool.”

Changes over the past two decades include the way sick time is treated at Microsoft. Previously, it was considered paid time off for when an employee was physically sick. But employees today are asking to use sick time for mental health. As a result, Microsoft has made changes, offering holistic health days.

The Redmond, Washington-based, giant also offers a Perk Plus program, in which a small amount of funds are distributed to employees to support their physical, fitness, or mental-emotional-social wellbeing. 

The importance of caring managers

One crown jewel in Microsoft’s holistic health efforts that Thiele alluded to in his presentation is the Health Plus plan. This is essentially a self-insured health plan that Microsoft offers to its employees across the globe and is designed to cover healthcare situations that normally would be denied, such as a child born with a birth defect that would face trouble getting coverage in some countries because it would be considered a pre-existing condition.

“We felt it was our duty to take a global view of benefits,” Thiele said.

Another area that Microsoft has added to its expanded holistic approach to health is requiring all managers to complete training to become “caring” managers, based on the fact that 70% of employees across 10 countries said their managers had the greatest impact on their mental health.

“Ten or 15 years ago, it would seem out of place to have managers coached on caring, but now it is expected,” Thiele said. “We have seen good results in getting managers to be empathetic.”

5 takeaways from Microsoft’s strategy

Ultimately, regardless of the size of your company, Thiele said, all HR leaders can take the following efforts to improve the holistic health of their organization.

  1. Listen to your employees and design your holistic health around their needs and demographics.
  2. Cultivate benefits that demonstrably address your employees’ needs rather than chase shiny, trendy, quirky fad benefits.
  3. Global companies should take a global view of benefits and programs when possible.
  4. Be influential outside of total rewards.
  5. Give employees choice when appropriate. 

In giving employees choice, it might be wise to hold onto a bit of paternalism, Thiele advises. For example, allowing employees to greatly reduce their life insurance may not serve the surviving spouse, partner or family members well, who may be surprised there is little to nothing left to support them after the employee’s death.

Dawn Kawamoto, Human Resource Executive
Dawn Kawamoto
Dawn Kawamoto is HR Editor of Human Resource Executive. She is an award-winning journalist who has covered technology business news for such publications as CNET and has covered the HR and careers industry for such organizations as Dice and Built In prior to joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected] and below on social media.