Colin Barnes: How will benefits, wellbeing and employee expectations change as we reshape in a post-Covid-19 world?

It goes without saying that Covid-19 has forced immense change.

Although there is some degree of uncertainty over how the workplace will look once the pandemic has finished, there are some key areas emerging where we are predicting great change. We have defined four key phases which business will go through: react, respond, recover, reshape. The stages are chronological, and many businesses are now entering the ‘recover’ phase as lockdown in the UK shifts and businesses start to re-open.

Aon’s principal Martha How, workplace pensions and financial wellbeing lead Martin Parish, and principal Jeff Fox, join me to look at the core areas where we foresee initial change, across employee benefits, employee wellbeing and employee expectations, and the challenges which businesses will need to combat.

Focus on financial wellbeing

An area exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic is a general lack of financial resilience. With the furlough scheme propping up thousands of businesses and millions of employees, there is a reliance on government-funded support; and this is an area which employees and businesses could be focusing on in the near future.

With millions of employees facing changes to their personal finances, it could be that saving, rather than spending, may be the new norm. A combination of employee demand for better financial awareness and organisations wanting to safeguard their employees, we may see a rise in organisations facilitating employee financial planning when businesses reshape after Covid-19. An overall focus on financial wellbeing may see a greater organisational investment in financial education and money management tools for employees.

Increased remote working

For many organisations, it could be that the initial switch to remote working is extended for the foreseeable future, or even indefinitely, as organisations reshape their agile working policies. Some businesses have already announced a timeline for their remote working, with others, such as Twitter and Facebook, stating that they are planning to facilitate long-term remote working. Of course, there are challenges (as well as benefits) in managing a predominately remote workforce. One of the largest challenges is the generational divide in how it will impact employees; those at an early stage in their career may be disadvantaged by the change, and employers will have to seek ways to resolve this. Furthermore, managers may find it difficult to connect with employees when working remotely and assess performance effectively.

Digital communications

With an increase in remote working, many organisations are relying on solely digital channels to communicate with employees. With myriad communications required (including Covid-19 specific messages, benefits communications and return-to-work guidance), a clear strategy will be needed to ensure these are delivered effectively and in a digestible format, especially at a time where employees are likely to be stressed or distracted by external pressures. A holistic plan across all business-to-employee messages. which helps prevent employees feeling overwhelmed, will be needed.

Emotional and mental wellbeing

Emotional wellbeing and workers’ mental health has been an integral part of the wellbeing conversation since Covid-19 emerged. Mental health can be influenced by a number of external factors; with self-isolation, working from home, bereavement, furlough status and living situation all contributing to how an employee may feel during the pandemic, perhaps causing an increase in stress, anxiety or depression. In some instances, individuals could be managing conflicting factors. Helping employees manage their mental health in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic is just as critical as providing support during it.

Managing risk

During the reshape phase, many businesses may be looking more closely at managing future risk. There will be numerous practical and logistical challenges, which will vary business-to-business, from utilising personal protection equipment or shifting to remote working indefinitely.

In a different vein, there will also be a focus on employees’ individual risk. Although there is still limited information around the risk factors for Covid-19, evidence shows that those with underlying medical conditions could be at higher risk for severe illness from Covid-19. Encouraging employees to proactively look after their health and make healthy decisions will have an impact on their physical resilience to a second wave of infection.

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Invariably, it is an ever-changing situation. Businesses have a lack of control; they are driven by government regulations and World Health Organisation guidance. There may be bigger societal change, or things may return to semi-normal. Whatever society looks like, or how it operates, the legacy of Covid-19 will last for years, and businesses need to plan to address the impact sooner rather than later.

Colin Barnes is director – proposition and development at Aon