Ongoing Remote Work Needs Restructured Benefits

After transitioning most of their workforces to operate remotely for the past year, accounting firms now face the decision of if and when to have employees return to offices. Before jumping full bore into an ongoing remote workforce situation, there are critical factors to be considered when it comes to employee benefits.

Working from home has its perks, like the ability to focus and remove workplace distractions, such as office drop-ins, impromptu meetings and office noises. Turning a portion of the home into a workplace has introduced new distractions, though, such as household chores, raiding the fridge every 15 minutes, neighborhood noises and, of course, video call fatigue. 

For many people, a perk of all meetings taking place remotely has been the ability to not just work from home, but also relatives’ homes, favorite vacation spots or even another country, so long as there was a dependable internet connection.  Some workers have gone so far as to make those favorite vacation spots their new home. Employers, eager to ensure continued productivity and retain valuable employees, have rushed to support working away from the office, making it easier than ever before to be productive from anywhere. 

The elephant in the room now that employers are considering when, how and if to bring employees back to the office is as follows: How do employee benefits (a key component to attracting and retaining staff members) function in this new work-from-anywhere world? 

Any company that plans to allow workers to truly work from anywhere moving forward should focus on ensuring their benefits programs addresses the following.

Physical and Virtual Access

Before your company embraces working from anywhere, carefully consider the complexities and nuances of giving employees free rein of working from the environment of their choosing without managing their expectations of significant challenges in the benefits your company offers. Benefits are sometimes limited or even very restricted by geography. As an example, if Kaiser is a company’s primary medical plan, moving to a location outside of where it is offered leaves an employee with no or very limited medical coverage. Under a PPO plan, a less densely populated area may have a very limited network or perhaps out-of-network-only coverage, exposing both the employer and employee to significantly increased claims costs. Disability may function entirely differently from state to state due to state-mandated disability coverage. Also, there may be more simple limits to the benefits program, like participation in the company wellness program, health fairs or flu vaccines offered on-site. Understanding these limits and communicating them clearly to the employee who is looking to relocate are extremely important to managing staff expectations and, ultimately, job satisfaction. 

Effective Communication Methods 

Technology-aided attention deficit disorder was here well before COVID, but now it attacks with a sweeping vengeance.  Video conference call upon video conference call produces attention fatigue. Most people are guilty of answering emails and texts on these calls while pretending to pay attention. Scientists have provided much data over the years that prove multi-tasking and lack of focus limit the ability for best thinking outcomes and reduce productivity.  But most people charge on, ignoring this advice and doing as much as possible at once. Employers must cut through all of this noise and communicate and develop an understanding of their programs in a fresh, and concise manner, beyond just the obvious of conducting all this virtually. What has been successful this past year is shorter more frequent messaging. Keep presentations and video training shorter in duration; I recommend making them 20 minutes or less, preferably 10 minutes. Provide a higher frequency of communication to reinforce key concepts and messaging, and be creative. While it will require a different type of planning, it is possible to host virtual health fairs during open enrollment with exercise and cooking classes while peppering in benefits education. And this type of interactive educational program has proven to be very successful.

Varying Regional Nuances 

Unfortunately, there are a lot of differences between states in not just taxes but also required benefits.  State short-term disability is an excellent example: Some states require employers to provide this and regulate how it is to be provided.  If an employee moves to one of these states, like New York or California, an employer will be required to provide the appropriate disability coverage. The statutory disability coverage can also impact any benefits under disability the employee may currently be enrolled in.  Some states do not allow for the tax-deductibility of HSA plans, which can be a bit of a shock for an employee who has relied on these for tax savings and any tax-free employer contributions. In a place like Hawaii, benefit coverage, employee contributions and plan design are regulated, requiring employers to provide coverage to even part-time employees. For employers new to a geographically diverse workforce, knowing, understanding and executing a wide variety of benefit plans can be overwhelming. It is a maze that must be planned for in advance before giving employees the green light to pack their bags and relocate. 

Embracing Technology

For the few companies that have not embraced technology for enrolling employees in benefits and managing changes to plans, now is the time to just do it. Too long, employers have assumed that not every employee will have adequate enough technology access to use the HRIS/Benefits Administration system, but almost every staff member does now with the advances that have been made in mobile technology. For companies that already use an HRIS/Benefits Administration system, now is the time to re-examine just how efficient and user-friendly it is. With the complicated virtual world and competing priorities, a company’s benefits administration system needs to be clear and easy to understand and use. With the enhancements and improvement of UX (user experience), consider making this tool a magnate for employees as a place to go for learning and development, company community and company values and culture. Leaning on these tools to fill in the natural office culture and sense of community that occur when everyone is together in a workplace but are lacking when people work remotely has never been more important. 

Managing the many complications and nuances of benefits that working remotely requires can be overwhelming. Slow down and take the process step-by-step. Consider how embracing the virtual workplace can result in a more productive, engaged and happy workforce than was ever possible within the confines of an office, but do not forget to weigh the impact this will have on a benefits program.

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