The ‘golden age of benefits’ is coming. Here’s what it means

As employers stepped up over the last year with innovative, new benefits to help employees meet the challenges of the pandemic, many in HR speculated that this was a shining moment for the benefits space.

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According to industry analyst John Sumser, however, that moment is yet to come. Sumser, founder and editor of HRExaminer, shared his takes on the evolving role of employee benefits–and what’s to come–at Tuesday’s Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. The free, virtual event runs through Thursday (Click here to register).

Sumser, who focuses primarily on HR tech, says he examined the shifts in the benefits space with a beginner’s mindset–giving him the advantage of realistically seeing all the possibilities that abound. In that regard, he thinks the entire “point of benefits” is changing.

In particular, he cites nine overarching ways the goal of today’s employee benefits has shifted:

  • expanding workplace safety;
  • enhancing engagement;
  • improving employee experience;
  • increasing alignment;
  • ensuring diversity;
  • creating joy;
  • demonstrating care;
  • improving the likelihood of business continuity;
  • and strengthening bonds and pride in membership.

Benefits are becoming more like infrastructure–on which you expect and project a return, he says. They are the elements that make divergent groups of people come together and contribute to a quality experience–and, in turn, drive productivity–creating a group of people who “feel like a fan of their place of work because of the quality of benefits.”

So, how did this happen?

Before the pandemic, benefits administration from an employee perspective was slow, tedious and overly complicated. Innovation within the industry had ground to a halt but–as with sectors like newspapers and retail before it–the benefits industry is on the cusp of a major overtaking by software, particularly in the provision of benefits.

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Sumser points to players like Apple and Amazon that have waded into the benefits space, building their business around wearables and promising quick, easy, more affordable delivery of healthcare.

The use of software will provide an “unbelievably rich opportunity for external players,” he adds, though incumbents in the healthcare and insurance industries can still keep up–if they’re willing to spend the money.

At the same time, societal changes driven by the pandemic are setting up the next era for benefits.

Employers learned that innovation can happen quickly. The use of telemedicine skyrocketed. Taboos around mental health plummeted. The workforce changed–millions of women left, while the K-shaped recovery we’re in means low-wage workers continue to suffer and already marginalized populations may remain left out. Employees got used to not having to drive to work. Many (Sumser included) even got pets that they expect to care for like they do their family.

Overall, the social contract between employers and employees changed, Sumser says, evolving from that of a parent and child into one that recognizes all parties are adults and should have a voice in decision-making.

In the coming years, the benefits space will have responded directly to those trends. He sees health and safety as table stakes, along with enhanced childcare and education benefits. He predicts new efforts to restore equity for those on the lower leg of that K-shaped recovery, along with the continuous reduction of mental health stigma. With more workers remote, that will give way to coaching opportunities for networking and community building. Telehealth will continue to rise, as will the use of wearable devices in healthcare delivery, he says.

“Benefits ought to be part of a delightful experience for the employee; that’s what we should be working for as an industry.” John Sumser

“The golden age of benefits is coming,” he says. “All of these new circumstances are going to create an explosion in the kinds of benefits employers can extend to employees.” Additionally, the administration of such benefits will get easier as single-thread data sources integrated into one platform become more common.

“This is where benefits teams can shine,” he says. “Benefits ought to be part of a delightful experience for the employee; that’s what we should be working for as an industry.”

Conference sessions will be available through June 11. Click here to view this entire session.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].