Simon Richardson: How to define a benefits strategy for the ‘new normal‘

‘Exercising my right not to walk, sir!’ is the response of one of the students to the challenge from the maverick English teacher in the film ‘Dead Poets Society’ to find their own way of walking in order to challenge conformity. How often have we debated whether to participate in one of the many invitations from either fellow workers to an online social or a request from our manager to share the positive benefits of working from home? However, could these initiatives be adapted to influence the HR strategy by, for example, a staff survey or an audit of employee benefits to identify employee preferences at such a seismic change in the employment market?

A strong business case could have been made for a staff survey during high levels of UK employment to retain scarce talent, but only three in five employers carried out a staff survey last year according to the Gallagher Benefits and benchmarking survey, published in October 2019, with most employers struggling to identify the needs of a diverse workforce. Recent trends such as providing equal discretionary parental leave and flexible working practices support women returning to the employment market.

Therefore, the case for a staff survey during the current health crisis might seem to be even more difficult with unemployment dramatically increasing, resulting in an excess of labour in some sectors. However, a well-designed employee survey should identify the needs of those key staff who will be required to navigate the organisation through the unknown immediate challenges, as well as identify the requirements of the wider employee population who will be needed once the lockdown ends.

Employee surveys may increase engagement and productivity but employers should also seek to reduce costs through a structured audit of the compensation and benefit packages. There could be unexpected savings in self-funded medical schemes, with the cost of Covid-19 care offsetting the decrease in elective and routine care, as well as developing reward models for long-term incentives, deferred compensation and phantom share schemes. This could then provide savings which might be able to justify the need for organisational wellbeing tools identified in the staff survey, such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs) or benefits such as enhanced parental pay.

Simon Richardson is senior lecturer in HR at Westminster Business School, University of Westminster

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