Why this accounting firm has rolled out 2 dozen benefits since COVID

Nearly three years ago, almost as quickly as employers had to strategize for setting their workforces up remotely, they had to pivot to another crisis: wellbeing. With working parents doing double duty as schools remained closed, and employees adjusting to the challenges of remote work—or the pressures of working on the front lines during COVID—the impact on employee wellness was immediately evident.

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That prompted many to beef up their benefits strategies—from strengthening EAP offerings to making flexibility the norm. At accounting firm CliftonLarsonAllen, the benefits investment—particularly around wellness—wasn’t just a one-off to tide the organization through the worst of the crisis. Instead, it fully revamped its benefits strategy, rolling out two dozen new offerings since the pandemic started, nearly half of them in 2022.

“We fundamentally transformed our approach to how we make decisions, how we strategize, how we communicate,” says Patrick Bowes, managing director of HR at CLA. “Behind that is recognizing that every person—and we have 8,500 people—is on a different wellness journey. What I need looks different from what every other one of the 8,500 people need.”

To manage that diversity of needs, CLA created four domains of wellness—physical, financial, social and mental—and used that foundation to reshape its portfolio of benefits.

“Every decision we make, we ask, ‘Are we giving someone the opportunity to be better at these four things?’ We want our employees to have the opportunity to pick and choose and access the things most important to their wellness—to essentially create their own wellness program,” Bowes says.

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Employee feedback, Bowes says, was the most critical driver of the changes to the CLA benefits strategy, which was also informed by claims data. For instance, leadership has seen a rise in short-term disability applications, and thus eliminated its tiered structure for eligibility, so that all workers are covered at 100%. Noticing the rise of musculoskeletal issues among the workforce, it instituted a new partnership with a provider that offers virtual physical therapy. It also rolled out an option that allows employees to seek second opinions and treatments related to complex diagnoses at some of the best care centers in the country—at no cost to employees.

“If I have something I need treatment for—we’re seeing things like cardiac issues, cancer, orthopedic things—I can travel to the best centers for that specific care, bring a caretaker with me, be treated on site there and never see a bill for it,” Bowes explains.

As employees everywhere continue to grapple with rising costs, financial concerns factored heavily into benefits redesign. For instance, CLA held its medical premiums flat last year and reduced its dental premiums by 15% while expanding included services. It also cut the vesting time for 401(k) and profit-sharing plans in half.

Leadership also sought to alleviate employee financial concerns associated with family-building through the rollout of fertility benefits, Bowes says. Also for new parents, the firm launched coaching and counseling services to help ease the transition for employees returning to work after a parental leave.

When it comes to leave, CLA instituted a “flexible PTO” policy—essentially amounting to unlimited time off, Bowes says.

“If you take time off, you don’t have to worry about what you’ve accrued, if you’ve banked enough, how much you can roll over,” he says. “It’s rooted in the trust we have in our people to manage their work, their lives, their time and their communication with one another. We don’t call it ‘unlimited,’ but we think about it that way.”

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Proper work/life integration goes hand in hand with better mental health, he adds. In this area, CLA has given employees access to 24/7 online cognitive behavioral therapy—including for all family members over age 13—doubled the number of covered EAP sessions and partnered with Thrive to offer additional wellbeing resources.

Perhaps its most popular new offering is a wellness stipend, which Bowes says feeds into the idea of the individuality of wellness, as employees can earn money for completing a wide range of wellness-related activities.

“We understand everyone is on their own wellness journey and we want to give people the opportunity each quarter to earn money making decisions about their own wellness,” Bowes says, noting that the stipend amount is being doubled for 2023, after the program was so well-received by employees in its inaugural year.

Listening to employees, he adds, has been key to the success of each of CLA’s new benefits and will continue to shape the strategy moving forward—as will an understanding of the evolving relationship between employees and employers.

“People are looking for help managing their lives, and the organizations they work for are one of the entities they’re looking to to provide this,” Bowes says, noting that the world of work hasn’t seen such a shift in the employee-employer relationship since the rise of employer-sponsored healthcare about 80 years ago.

“People are looking to their organizations for things they’ve never before been a part of: mental health, building resilience, caring for aging parents and children with special needs, financial planning, getting a better night’s sleep,” he says. “This is a massive change.”

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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]