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Pandemic changes workplace–and benefits–likely forever

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Chris Pyne
Chris Pyne is executive vice president of group benefits at Unum. Contact him at [email protected].

The doors of America’s businesses are starting to swing open–but the workplace inside may never be the same again.

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Employers and employees alike face continually evolving challenges to where, when and how they work. And an Unum survey of more than 400 U.S. employers in early June shows more changes are coming for the workplace, including benefits and enrollment. These new ways of working are likely to stick around for quite a while–and some of them will be welcome news to employees.

Some highlights of what we learned.

Employers understand the need for paid leave–and many are taking action. As the pandemic hit, people without paid sick leave wondered how they’d cope if they became ill. At the same time, closed schools and daycares meant children were sent home to be supervised by parents who needed to work. Faced with the prospect of millions of people potentially losing their incomes, their jobs or even their homes, Congress responded by requiring many employers to provide some paid leave to employees who were sick or diagnosed with COVID-19, or taking care of children who were suddenly home all day.

The employers we surveyed seem to understand the need for leave will continue beyond Dec. 31, when the Congressional mandate ends. Nearly half say they probably or definitely will expand their employer-paid leave offerings within the next 12 months as a result of the pandemic. Only 24% say they probably or definitely won’t enhance their paid leave benefits.

Related: 8 benefits employers should zero in on during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Working from home loses its fear factor. Nearly all (95%) of employers surveyed have transitioned at least some employees to working from home. On average, 60% of employees at these businesses have worked remotely due to the pandemic. That shift has shown people can be productive working remotely, and many employers are planning to give employees more flexibility in the future.

Despite technology snags and very relaxed dress codes, many employers seem to have lost their phobia of allowing people to work from home. Some found productivity may have actually increased, while others invested heavily in remote capabilities and are prepared for a virus resurgence in the future.

Related: Twitter tells employees they can work from home ‘forever’

More than half of employers now say they’d allow employees flexibility to work from home even after the pandemic ends, echoing a similar finding by Gallup. Only 17% say they won’t, including many businesses that can’t accommodate that model, such as retail or manufacturing.

Benefits enrollment will tap into technology with a soft touch. Over the past few months, we’ve been forced to accomplish more things remotely, from staff meetings to doctor visits. Employers are taking that lesson and applying it to this year’s benefits enrollment.

The biggest shift comes in employers who plan to offer employees the opportunity to enroll via videoconferencing or co-browsing with a benefits counselor. Whereas 23% say they gave this option for last year’s benefits enrollment, nearly twice as many (42%) plan to go this route for 2020 enrollments. And 22% will offer individualized, real-time support through telephone enrollments, down only slightly from last year’s 24%.

Those virtual “high touch” enrollment methods will replace in-person meetings for many employers: Only about a third will enroll that way this year, compared to nearly half who say they chose that option a year ago. The number of employers planning to use online self-service enrollment increased a bit from 47% to 54%.

These trends are likely to continue even after the pandemic recedes, as more benefits providers and enrollment companies develop technology solutions to deliver a personalized experience for employees in multiple locations and situations.

Related: How to think about open enrollment during coronavirus

Benefits needs create conflicting priorities. The pandemic has illuminated the need for benefits to help employees during life’s unexpected moments. Employees who got sick with COVID-19 needed healthcare coverage and disability benefits to help pay the bills while they recovered. But at the same time, the sagging economy squeezed revenue for businesses–as well as for employees who may have been furloughed or laid off.

Related: Here’s how employers are changing benefits due to COVID-19

Employers are split in their reactions to these competing priorities, but a slight majority say they plan to make one or more changes to their non-medical benefits packages next year.

A third of employers say they’ll enhance their benefits programs by adding or enhancing wellness benefits (31%) and fewer will be picking up more of the cost of benefits (15%), or expanding existing coverage on other employer- or employee-paid benefits (5%).

However, some employers say they plan to go the other direction, with about one in five shifting more costs to employees (20%) or reducing benefit levels (18%). A smaller number expect to drop some employer-paid benefits (10%). Forty-three percent say they don’t plan to make any changes to their non-medical insurance benefits in the next 12 months.

What’s next

The pandemic has forced employers to look more closely at how they support employees’ health and wellness, and how to remain competitive in the future.

The months in lockdown and the planning for a safe return to work have illustrated the importance of employees’ need to care for themselves and others. Many employers are responding with increased benefits and flexibility for workers, including greater adoption of virtual and online methods of working.

But employers also must be aware that increased remote working will increase the war for talent, as well. When people can work anywhere, their choice of employers is virtually unlimited. To compete, employers will need to revisit their benefits offerings, even if the economy is slow to recover.