As nationwide lockdowns swept through Europe and Asia in February and March 2020, companies quickly switched to remote working. Eighteen months on, working from home seems a little old hat (whether that’s a good or a bad thing, we’ll consider later on).
Now countries in Western Europe and East Asia are returning to normality, and employers face an important decision about where employees work. Should employees continue working remotely or should they get back to the office?
While most companies adopt a short-term hybrid strategy, how they permanently resolve the post-Covid conundrum will shape employee benefits for a generation. But how exactly does remote working affect employee benefits? Can the physical location of an employee make such a difference to employee benefits?
Changing priorities for workers and employers
From stipends for long commutes to after-work gym memberships, most employee benefits are tied to the workplace. But when we dissociate ‘work’ from ‘place’, these traditional benefits lose their utility. What use is a train season ticket when our commute is reaching for a laptop? What do on-site childcare and meal tickets matter when we’re stuck at home?
On a deeper level, remote working represents a monumental social, cultural and psychic shift in white-collar labour history. Some commentators compare remote working’s significance to Taylor’s scientific management revolution at the end of the 19th Century, and advancements in personal mobility from the 1950s onwards that made ‘commuting’ possible. Just because remote working is historically significant, however, doesn’t necessarily make it a good thing.
Sure, those first few weeks of lockdown felt like a glorious rebirth, at least for office staff in the UK, who enjoyed an unseasonably warm spring away from the office in 2020. Of course, the novelty and early lightheadedness of remote working soon gave way to new psychological strains and stresses. We weren’t just not going to the office. We also weren’t going on holidays, we weren’t going out, and we weren’t seeing friends. Confined to our homes, with nowhere and no way to spend our time, the screens took over. Completely unopposed, work incorporated life.
Mental health impact of home working during lockdown
A survey by Nuffield Health in June 2020 revealed that 80 per cent of Brits felt home working was harming their mental health. According to figures from the Royal Society for Public Health in February 2021, 67 per cent of Britons felt less connected with colleagues, 46 per cent were taking less exercise, and 37 per cent reported disturbed sleep. Despite these worrying trends, people seem to be working more than ever. At William Russell, staff are now reading 33-per-cent more emails per week since 2021 began (a period coinciding with the third nationwide lockdown in the UK). Most worryingly, overworking habits seem to survive the circumstances (e.g., lockdown restrictions) that spawned them. Have we simply switched the occasional drudgery of office life for something far more damaging? Remote working has undoubtedly blurred the boundary between working and non-working, once so helpfully defined by the act of commuting. Those remarkable technologies that sustained our initial transition to remote working – Slack, Zoom, Teams – soon became overwhelming. It’s no wonder that people are now spending more time in front of their screens than ever.
A Microsoft survey in April 2021 showed how constant video calls increase stress and general brain noise, making it difficult to switch off completely. Our new reality is a paradox in which confinement fuels burnout. Remote working is not quite the panacea we initially thought. It causes problems for which traditional employee benefits are simply inadequate.
So, what do employees need to equip themselves properly for remote working? We’ve picked up on three main trends in our industry.
What insurers can do to help
Firstly, several insurers and insurance providers (William Russell included) are making customer products available to employees in the insurance industry. From virtual doctor consultations to mental health chatbots powered by AI, re-provision from customers to employees is a cost-effective way of freshening employee benefits and making them more relevant. But not everything is about treatment and cure.
A second trend we’ve noticed is an increased interest in our preventive health and wellbeing benefits from our group clients and broker partners. Enquiries about these benefits in 2020 increased 15 per cent year-on-year. Employers seem to understand that preventative health promotes employees’ long-term health and helps with productivity and output.
A third trend suggests a new type of employee benefit for the age of remote working. Throughout 2020 and into 2021, enquiries for our protection insurance products for employees have doubled. We believe this interest stems from the increased prominence of mortality and severe illness in society over the past 18 months. In a crisis such as Covid-19, it’s only natural for people to reassess their priorities in life; apparently, boardroom discussions reflect this very human process.
These trends show companies are already adapting to the employee benefits challenge posed by staff working remotely: we’re seeing new benefits focused on long-term care, old benefits being repurposed for the new reality, and a renewed emphasis on the digital provision of services. If employers wish to adopt remote working permanently, then the trends reshaping employee benefits must continue and accelerate.
Of course, getting employee benefits right for remote working comes at a cost. Offering a new programme of benefits will take time, planning, investment and much experimentation. It won’t be easy, and the danger is that employers delay or skate over essential innovation at the cost of employees’ physical and mental health. We’ve identified three key obstacles to matching employee benefits with remote working.
Hurdles that must be overcome
Firstly, companies are now operating in a different commercial reality. While furlough schemes have allowed firms to survive, the financial outlook is uncertain, and CFOs will look for ways to rein in spending. Inevitably, tighter budgets will affect the ability of employers to implement a new breed of employee benefits. While we don’t expect companies to dismantle employee benefits completely, we can expect scaling down, switching to more cost-effective benefits, and tiered services depending on employee seniority.
Secondly, new employee benefits take time to implement. Switching between remote working and office working is not like flicking a switch. Each model requires a different approach to employee benefits, and each approach takes time to implement, embed and drive utilisation. Companies should consider these difficulties very carefully before deciding where their staff work.
Thirdly, we lack research into the efficacy of the new breed of employee benefits. Certainly, digital provision of services makes sense on some levels. But in times of burnout due to excessive screen use, perhaps another suite of digital services and products is not the correct answer.
So, where does that leave employers considering a permanent switch to remote working?
With discussions amongst employers revolving around shiny new digital services and what to do with excess office space, perhaps they underestimate the power of the human touch to make a difference to employees’ lives. Managers and directors are responsible for productivity, true, but they also have pastoral obligations to their teams and departments. The defining employee benefit of the post-Covid era may simply be a (remote) work culture in which team members having a tough time know they can chat in confidence with an empathetic manager.
While we’re waiting for the world to work itself out, talking with your employees as people – and not just staff – is an excellent place to start.