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Care@Work / Care@Work Blog / 4 Ways HR Leaders Have Reimagined Employee Benefits to Meet the Challenges of the Pandemic

4 Ways HR Leaders Have Reimagined Employee Benefits to Meet the Challenges of the Pandemic

Emily Paisner on November 24, 2020 09:17 AM

It’s no exaggeration to say that 2020 has pushed us to the brink. Working parents have been hit particularly hard, scrambling to juggle child care, school, work, and life all under one roof. The Covid-19 pandemic has turned an already broken caregiving infrastructure into a full-blown crisis.

Because of this, nearly three-fourths of parents plan to make major professional changes because of a lack of child care, and nearly 15% of those are thinking about leaving the workforce entirely, according to a survey of working parents.

As always, women are picking up a disproportionate amount of the caregiving slack and household work, on top of their jobs. But the pandemic has taken this burden to an extreme. Women are so burnt out that one in four are considering “downshifting” their careers – either moving into part-time work, cutting back on their hours, or dropping out of the workforce all together. More than 2.2 million women have left the workforce this year, versus 1.4 million men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The short- and long-term economic fallout from this inequality will be severe.

But there is a glimmer of hope: many companies have stepped up to support their employees amid this crisis. At the helm are Chief People Officers and HR leaders. They’ve risen to the occasion – adjusting, innovating, and rethinking employee benefits and company culture – to support employees’ health and wellbeing at home, at work, and on the front lines.

What’s even more hopeful is that many of the HR-led initiatives from 2020 are guiding the future of benefits.

Child care benefits are no longer optional

Working parents’ needs have changed dramatically this year. With child care center and school closures, the care crisis exposed by the pandemic makes it clear: families need flexibility and choice when it comes to finding child care.

Absent a national child care system, employers have stepped up. Amazon, for example, introduced a subsidized backup care benefit available to 650,000 of its full and part-time employees, giving them up to 10 days of backup child or adult care. Starbucks temporarily expanded its backup care program to support employees who need help with child care due to school closures, giving employees the option of choosing an individual or a facility to assist their kids with distance learning.

Some companies, including Google, Apple, and Nvidia, have responded by offering employees an increased number of backup care days and child care stipends and reimbursements. While others, like IBM and Salesforce, have given their employees additional paid time off and flexible emergency leave, while others are subsidizing learning costs like tutoring and homework help.

A commitment to mental health and wellness

Stress, anxiety, fear, isolation, and burnout are taking a toll on workers’ psychological and physical health and wellbeing this year. In fact, a third of Americans are showing signs of clinical depression or anxiety because of the pandemic, an alarming jump from years prior. Employers are finding ways to offer better mental health and wellness support.

As part of its 2021 open enrollment, Expedia Group is giving employees access to Talkspace, an online therapy platform, as well as expanding options for out-of-network mental health care providers. The company is also letting employees combine their yearly travel reimbursement perk with a $600 wellness benefit to spend on things like grocery delivery, at-home coronavirus and antibody tests, and more.

Twitter is offering counseling services with a clinical psychologist who runs the company’s global wellness program. The company even postponed employee performance reviews this year because, as Jennifer Christie, Twitter’s Chief HR Officer says, “as hard as everyone is working, and as stressed as everybody is, we need people to prioritize their own health and wellbeing over everything else.”

Other companies, including Google, Goldman Sachs, and Box, have also rethought or halted employee performance reviews this year, which can be stressful even in the best of times. A focus on empathy and compassion for employees’ experiences, more frequent check-ins between managers and workers, and, in some cases, a simpler annual review process may be here to stay.

Work “perks” are re-imagined

More than 40% of the U.S. labor force is working remotely due to the pandemic. That means employees have lost access to the work perks they could only enjoy in person. Things like catered lunches and gym memberships have vanished or become obsolete this year. And so, HR leaders have gotten creative and shifted budgets to accommodate a variety of new remote work perks, ranging from home office stipends to money for food and fitness.

Zoom, Charles Schwab, and Hulu have traded office meal benefits (think free lunches and snacks, expensed meals, and team dinners) for an at-home food delivery service. Other companies are offering employees monthly allowances for grocery delivery or meal box subscriptions.  

Because going to the gym isn’t the safest right now (and in many places gyms are closed), some companies are keeping employees moving at home with virtual fitness classes, monthly wellness stipends, or money to purchase exercise equipment and fitness app subscriptions.

Remote work is here to stay

 The shift to remote work will continue for the short- and long-term. Several companies, including Google, Indeed, American Express, and Uber have extended their work-from-home policies through the summer of 2021. Others, like Square and Twitter have announced that their employees can work from home indefinitely.

 Remote work gives employees greater flexibility and frees them to focus on delivering their best work rather than worry about being “present” for a set number of hours. “For me, it's all about being outcomes-based, not time-based,” says Lynne Oldham, Chief People Officer at Zoom. “I'm not interested in seeing you for eight hours. I'm interested in what you're going to produce.”

Transitioning employees to a remote work future takes more than just laptops, standing desks, and a Zoom login. It’s a massive undertaking that affects every aspect of company culture. To meet these challenges and make remote work feel more seamless for employees, companies like Facebook have started to hire for “Head of Remote” work positions. “It is a highly cross-functional role, straddling people operations, business operations and real estate, and internal communications,” explains Darren Murph, head of remote at GitLab.

 The innovations in employee benefits spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic are just the beginning. The future of work will continue to be led by forward-thinking CHROs, Chief People Officers, and HR professionals.

Emily Paisner

Emily Paisner joined in 2018 as the Director of Marketing for Care@Work, the B2B side of the business. In this role, Emily is leading the marketing strategy to build the brand and drive both growth and utilization. With over 20 years of experience, she has implemented innovative marketing strategies, programs and initiatives with proven business results. Prior to Care@Work, Emily led the Global Marketing team for Customer Agency, C Space, resulting in significant business growth. She is also proud of hosting the Equal Parts podcast, a podcast for working parents who are trying to balance it all while caring for the people they love — including themselves. Emily is a proud working mom and spends time out of the office trying to keep up with her two (very active) children.