How HR and employee benefit policies changed as a result of Covid

Neil McLeese, MD BeyondHR

IT has been given wisdom for centuries that ‘the only constant in life is change’ but in the last 18 months we have had to adapt to a new pace of change which has accelerated massively since February 2020.  

Coming into 2020 working from home wasn’t something that a lot of people would have considered. In fact, the ONS statistics show that in the 5 years up to December 2019 the numbers of people mainly working from home had only slightly increased from 4.3% to 5.1% of the total UK workforce. Fast forward to February 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic saw homeworking become the “new normal” with 35.9% of the UK workforce working from home at some point*.  This is a staggering increase and is likely to stay at an increased level for the foreseeable future.

Despite change being the one constant experienced throughout the pandemic, something that hasn’t changed is that one of the keys to business success is the ability to attract and retain the right talent, in the right places, at the right time. This raises the question of just how have HR and employee benefit policies changed (so far) as a result of the pandemic in order to achieve this aim?

At present, some employers could be fooled into thinking that their employees are satisfied with current benefit arrangements. However, what they should endeavour to do is identify, understand and implement change that mirrors what employee expectations are. You may be asking, why? As the operating climate improves any dissatisfied talent will vote with its feet, thus leaving employers with voids they will struggle to attract other good candidates to fill.  

The AON UK Benefits and Trends Survey 2021, reported that employees now expect agile/home working and more flexible working hours from their employers*. This is no surprise given that during the recent lockdowns’ employees had to juggle work and life like never before with significant numbers of employees caring and schooling their children at home or caring for elderly family members.  The flexibility employers were able to show during this period gave employees the taste of a real work/life balance and it would be hard or unwise for employers to roll this back.

As the geographic location is no longer an issue, businesses that are offering some employee groups permanent working from home arrangements have been able to significantly widen their potential talent pool. The issue is how they attract top talent to vacancies as they arise. This is why employers that are offering employee benefits such as agile/hybrid working, flexibility of working hours and mental health support will have a huge advantage in the war for talent.

As you might expect with such significant and fast-moving change the picture isn’t completely rosy with a recent Government survey on homeworking throwing up some interesting points that business leaders should note.  Questions around topics such as homeworking hours, rewards and opportunities within the UK Survey*, conducted by the ONS released in April 2021, reported that in 2020, employees who completed any work from home did 6.0 hours of unpaid overtime on average per week, compared with 3.6 hours for those who never worked from home. It was also interesting to find that those who mainly worked from home were less than half as likely to be promoted. On average, these employees are around 38% less likely to have received a bonus in comparison to those who have never worked from home.

“What has this got to do with HR and employee benefit policies?” I hear you cry. Ultimately it comes down to the demographic of those most likely to opt for homeworking – for example working mums with young children. So as some employee groups return to the office and others don’t, inequalities could start to show. If these groups are less likely to be promoted it will lead to less inclusive leadership teams, disengaged employees as well as the risk of discrimination claims.  Therefore, it is important that employers monitor pay, promotions and training opportunities to ensure equality across their workforce.

Employers would be wise to ensure that as times and trends change so should their HR policies and practices (for example, performance reviews) so that employees aren’t indirectly disadvantaged. Businesses need to consider the non-financial factors or social factors when updating these policies. These factors look at the impact businesses have on employees and society. They can include diversity and inclusion; safe and healthy working conditions; labour standards, fair wages and human rights protection as well as good relations with local communities. When good practices are put in place the results can lead to better morale, productivity, reputation and increased turnover.

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