The current pandemic will change the UK workplace in ways no one would have predicted a few months ago. Several weeks of lockdown are likely to have lasting effects on work processes as well as on employees, requiring a review of the corporate benefits strategy to adapt the offering to the altered needs of employees post pandemic.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, remote working has moved from the exception to the norm worldwide within a few weeks and employees needed to develop a new daily routine that suited their individual situation at home.
The lasting effect of the lockdown
The shift to home working has placed a great reliance upon technology to ensure businesses continue to operate and teams function in a collaborative and engaged fashion. Employees made wider use of the technology already in place as well as alternative digital communication tools and channels, many of which may have proven to be quite handy, making work more efficient and effective. Video conferencing may have felt awkward at the beginning but many people have embraced it and now appreciate its advantages. There are many reasons to believe that the experience during the pandemic will have lasting effects on work processes.
On top of performance challenges, management had to consider how best to ensure their duty of care responsibilities are met and that their staff remain supported and their wellbeing considered.
While the lockdown forced us to adapt quickly to a much more digital world, it won’t have been in vain. In a state of lockdown it’s clear to see the role technology can play, and this shouldn’t be viewed as a temporary measure. Employers will rethink the future state of the UK workplace during the gradual reset, not least because of pressure to reduce cost in a challenging economic environment post lockdown. Is a transatlantic business class flight really necessary or could a video call achieve the same results?
During the lockdown, employees themselves may have noticed the advantages of working from home such as the commuting time that is freed up to do other things. If it worked well during the lockdown, why would it not work after governments relax the social distancing rules? Particularly individuals with pre-existing conditions may prefer to continue to work from home and avoid having to board a packed tube to go to work. The employer may find it hard to explain why all employees suddenly need to work from the office again.
There is no doubt that some workers may be keen to get back to normal office life, but some social distancing rules are likely to remain in place for some time, requiring more space between employees, significantly reducing the maximum office capacity from pre-COVID-19 levels. Some concepts suggest that staff will be divided into two groups which will go to the office alternately on a weekly basis, but working from the office will not be mandatory.
Employers will need to address all these changes quickly and innovatively to keep strong relationships with staff and address their individual needs. Clearly, technology will play a key role in the new approach.
Further, there will be other pressing needs that the benefits offering should address as the global health crisis drives the economy into recession, triggering and exacerbating mental illnesses as well as personal financial difficulties of some employees.
Prior to the virus outbreak, most UK employers were at different stages of the wellbeing journey, but even then it was widely accepted that much more needed to be done.
The ORC’s 2016 global study “What makes a winning workplace?,” found only 58% of UK employees felt engaged at work, a fifth of UK employees would not recommend their organisations as a place of work or feel it motivates them to contribute more than normally required.
According to the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, people with mental health problems are 3.5 times more likely to be in problem debt than those without mental health problems. Nearly half (46%) of all people in problem debt are also experiencing a mental health problem.
The reasons to review the benefits offering are now more compelling than before. Engaged and energised employees will not only be happier and healthier, but they tend to improve productivity and innovation, deliver better outcomes, stay with an employer longer, provide a better service to customers and attract new ones. A motivated workforce may indeed turn into a decisive competitive advantage in the tough economic environment we are likely to experience in the next few years.
Now is the right time to actively prepare for the future and lay the foundations for a solid benefits scheme.
Recommendations for employers
- Harmonise and simplify technology – often organisations have multiple technology solutions. Join the digital dots to create a great user experience. Harmonising technology will also enable you to get more meaningful data and insight. Ensure you have a robust tool to capture all the data and insight you require. This will allow you to more effectively manage and administer your strategy, especially if you are a diverse organisation in multiple locations and potentially multiple countries.
- Use this time to reset the strategy and take an iterative agile approach to wellbeing in conjunction with your employees to create the workplace that lets them thrive.
- Good communication is critical to success. Take a proactive approach to wellbeing and empower your managers to support the strategy. Develop a communications plan with tailored strategies in conjunction with their triggers including online/offline, understanding the audience, the relevance of segmentation, and considering the lessons of the Nudge theory.
- A big budget doesn’t necessarily guarantee success – your wellbeing strategy will never reach its full potential without a clearly defined strategy with measurable outcomes – revisit these frequently and acknowledge the return on investment (ROI).
- Wellbeing needs to be viewed holistically. Addressing each aspect as independent issues will not produce the expected results.
- Acknowledge the wide range of employee benefits available through providers and the innovation in this field. Be aware of new entrants to the market.
- Don’t forget the simple things – a “thank you” can have a great impact. The National Employee Research Survey shows that over 90% of employees feel employee recognition is important at work, but 62% stated that they hardly ever or were never appreciated by their boss, 72% of employees stated that they would work harder if they were appreciated with a comprehensive staff appreciation program.
- A technology platform is a great way of socialising and managing recognition, especially if there is an element of reward associated with it. It should allow for a variety of recognitions such as manager to employee, performance, and peer-to-peer. Different types of engagement will appeal depending on the audience – closed social media, leader boards and gamification can all have a role to play.
Jon Cooke is Vice President, Employee Benefits, Lockton International