Colin Barnes: Employee benefits: Adapting to the future of work, today

There is no doubt 2020 will be a year to remember. It was fraught with difficulties and challenges, and for many bereavement. But, at the same time, the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic has also brought about a seismic shift in how we operate and function as a society.

It has accelerated technology and digital innovation and we have witnessed an online boom, where people turned in their millions to e-commerce and other online services from food delivery apps to digital fitness apps. Those of us who could, moved to remote working, while businesses adapted their services to respond to new ways of operating.

Along with travel restrictions and a dramatic reduction in in-person meetings, there has been increased utilisation of online video conferencing platforms where people across the UK and indeed, the globe, could continue to ‘meet’ and collaborate online.

It is fair to say that the pandemic has changed the way we work, likely forever.

As we head into a new year, many employers are considering the future of work and what this means for employee experience and working practices from a compensation and benefits point of view.

Aon’s 11th Benefits and trends survey, published in January 2021, reflects this awareness among employers. Some 90% of employer respondents to the survey believe that employees’ expectations of the workplace are changing, while 80% think they will need to adapt their existing benefits strategies to meet the needs of future generations. By the same token, most employers are re-evaluating their employee value proposition (EVP) and/or their benefits strategy for the longer term.

Global benefits strategy too, has moved up the corporate agenda: 29% of respondents say they already having a single global benefits strategy (a 10% increase from 2019) while 38% say they are working towards implementing one, up from 27% the previous year.

There is also more awareness around the importance of benefits engagement and the use of technology: 83% of firms believe apps and technology will have a positive effect on engagement in the future workplace.

To put all this in context, the recurring themes to come out of the Aon Benefits and trends survey this year, wellbeing and resilience, sit against a backdrop of growing awareness around irreversible climate change, seismic shifts in attitudes around diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) particularly in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and trans rights. It has brought ethical, social and inclusive approaches into greater focus.

Wellbeing in particular, was already a high priority at board level, but 2020 and the global health crisis has shone a light on the importance of employee wellbeing and further emphasised the link between wellbeing investment and business success. Look after employees and they will look after you. Employee resilience, therefore, is key.

With this in mind, employers placed huge importance on wellbeing during the pandemic. The majority (92%) focused on mental health, while 68% focused on emotional support. A further 87% of employers also invested in wellbeing strategies for those working from home. There was also a significant proportion of employers (56%) that went further and measured investment outcomes through improvements in employee resilience.

Yet the survey also found that while over a third of respondents are expecting to increase investment on employee health, brand new investment is stagnating due, in part, to budgetary constraints. This is particularly poignant, because it is a widely held view that Covid-19 will not be an isolated workplace changing event.  As the world becomes ever more volatile, global threats that will again test workforce resilience may loom closer into view; mass technology failure, environmental disaster, further global health pandemics and an ageing population may be the most prominent of these.

Employers must look at this pandemic as an opportunity to review and revisit their benefit strategies and find pragmatic yet creative ways to invest in wellbeing if they are to foster healthy, happy and resilient people. There is no room for complacency: employers must plan and act now to protect their businesses and people for today and tomorrow.

Colin Barnes is director, proposition and development at Aon.