Clare Kelliher: The pandemic has prompted employers to review their benefits strategies

The experiences of the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic: business disruption, furloughed employees and extended, enforced working from home, have changed the employment relationship.

Our research at Cranfield School of Management during the pandemic found that the physical distancing of working from home sometimes led to psychological distancing, too.

Maintaining the connection became harder for employers, since the ever-present opportunity to reinforce the brand and culture by being together in the workplace was lost. In addition, as has long been common practice, people who work remotely often exercise more control over their working time than when in the workplace, choosing start, finishing and break times, and many employees will want to retain some of this flexibility back in the workplace.

As we move to a post-pandemic world, the employment relationship is being shaped by employees reconsidering what they want from work and how it fits with their future life plans, and also by employers assessing what they have learned through their experiences in the pandemic about how to run their organisation.

For example, research currently underway at Cranfield is looking at what employers have learned from using the flexible (part-time) furlough scheme and whether their views about part-time working have altered as a result.

HR professionals need to be proactive and reassess the benefits package on offer. Those who now have a greater understanding of their employees’ lives will be able to be more responsive to their needs.

A positive experience from the pandemic has been that many employers gained greater insight into their employees’ lives through seeing them at home on videos calls and by having to accommodate new demands in employees non-work lives, for example, care or home schooling.

Greater opportunities for personalisation and flexible working will be important for those who have now experienced it and allowing employees to exercise discretion at work is known to increase commitment and benefit wellbeing.

Where it is difficult to recruit and retain staff, higher salaries may be a short-term solution, but in the longer-term the whole benefits package needs to be considered, including loyalty-based incentives that work with personal circumstances and aspirations. Relationship-building by line managers in particular will be needed to sustain a committed and productive workforce.

Clare Kelliher is professor of work and organisation at Cranfield School of Management