It’s now more than a year since the WHO officially declared a global pandemic, and in this time the workplace has been fundamentally and irrevocably changed. The overnight switch to full time remote work has disrupted the traditional 9-5, and businesses have had to contend with constantly shifting priorities, regulations, and employee needs.

From an employee benefits perspective, many of the schemes put in place by companies have been rendered obsolete or unsuitable for post-pandemic working. Free lunches, onsite childcare, and fitness benefits are no longer sufficient for staff who have worked tirelessly through adverse circumstances to meet business objectives. 

As we begin the return to the workplace, HR leaders must seize this opportunity to revise employee benefits packages to suit the post-pandemic world. 

Communication, communication, communication

Before commencing an overhaul, HR leaders must first take the time to really understand what employees want from their rewards and benefits package. Benefits work best when they can meet the needs of the greatest numbers of staff members, but it’s also important not to assume that you know what these are and, wherever possible, to personalise offerings for individual employees.

The blurring of our work and personal lives during the pandemic has highlighted the stark differences in individual circumstances across teams, whether that’s living conditions, financial security, or health concerns. As a result, it’s important to take an objective approach to determining what will be of greatest value to staff, both individually and as a whole. 

One of the ways to do this is by taking an ‘emotional barometer’ reading of the entire workforce to help understand which areas need the most improvement. This could take the form of an anonymised survey, group feedback sessions, or assessments done by an external provider. Employee benefits represent a substantial part of a business budget, and as with any investment, it’s vital to do thorough research before diving in. 

With this in mind, we can examine the likely three core areas of focus for benefits and rewards practitioners post-pandemic. 

Fixed flexibility benefits

One of the key takeaways of the Covid pandemic has been demonstrable proof that flexible working works. Pre-Covid many firms offered the choice to work remotely perhaps once a week or a few times a month, and some may have allowed for flexible start times in line with childcare needs. With a year of home working under our belts, research shows time and time again that the ability to work flexibly is now considered a prerequisite by staff of all ages. 

A 2020 YouGov survey by workplace analytics provider Locatee found that just one in seven UK office workers want to return to the workplace full time, and this is further supported by  Deloitte’s 2020 Millennial Study which revealed that 7 out of 10 millennials cited working from home as a significant factor in reducing their stress

Flexible working benefits the night owls, the morning larks, those with children or additional caring responsibilities, and fosters a culture of trust where employees are allowed to optimise their working day to best suit their needs. Whilst flexible working may previously have been considered a temporary accommodation for the pandemic, it’s clear that businesses need to enshrine a degree of flexibility for all levels if they are to keep employee satisfaction high and stress low.

Mental health support isn’t just an option

As a first point of call for personnel issues, HR practitioners are well placed to understand the importance of mental health initiatives in the workplace. With 1 in 6 workers experiencing mental health issues at any one time, tackling the growing mental health epidemic is crucial both from a strategic and wellbeing standpoint. 

Although remote work may have reduced stress for some, for others the social isolation, increased performance anxiety, and worries around health have contributed to serious anxiety and mental ill health. With a distributed workforce hidden behind the computer screen, it’s very easy to miss these signs of struggling amongst colleagues. 

Whilst progressive employers may have already offered programmes such as employee assistance, online counselling, or wellbeing schemes pre-pandemic, all firms should now look to implement benefits to support and enhance mental wellbeing. Prevention is always better than a cure, and this also applies to mental health in the workplace. Rather than waiting for employees to develop burn out or more serious conditions, employers should step in early and offer preventative counselling, coaching or training to support and develop a positive mindset. 

This will also be critical for helping employees to readjust to changes post-restrictions and post-lockdown. For many people the stark changes at the start of lockdown have now become routine. It’s very likely that people will be anxious about any changes or returning to the workplace even if it’s something they’ve craved. Mental health benefits can go a long way towards streamlining this transition for people across the spectrum of emotions. 

Increased investment in training and development

When a crisis hits, L&D initiatives are often the first to go from the budget. However, from a behavioural science perspective, training and development schemes are essential to maintaining a healthy, happy, and engaged workforce. 

Training programmes offer the chance to demonstrate to employees that they are valued members of the team; worthy of investment both in terms of time and money. This can go a long way to improving feelings of psychological safety amongst teams, and can be hugely beneficial for encouraging people to take pride and responsibility in their work.

Robust training programmes are also highly sought after by job seekers, and can be the difference between a candidate selecting one company over another. According to research by MPA, one in three UK firms offers no training or employee development time, despite 94% of workers surveyed by LinkedIn stating that they would stay longer with a company if there was investment in continuous development. 

Retaining and attracting talent is critical within any business, and firms who show the most willingness to invest in the training and development of staff long-term can gain a considerable competitive edge. 

As we hopefully put the darkest days of the pandemic behind us, there’s plenty of positive change to look forward to as we begin to create and shape benefits that will truly meet the emotional, physical, and educational needs of the workers of the future.