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As employers look to impress with benefits, time and choice are key

Larger paychecks won’t be enough to compete in the 2020s. Instead, employers are also looking for something broader that can help employees with life outside the office.
Adeline Kon/HR Dive

This story is part of an HR Dive series on what leading employers, analysts, consultants and other experts predict HR teams will face in the 2020s. Below are the other articles in the series.

This story is part of an HR Dive series on what leading employers, analysts, consultants and other experts predict HR teams will face in the 2020s. To see the other articles in the series, click here.

For a variety of reasons — perhaps the most commonly cited being a tightening of the labor market following the late 2000s recession — employers are spending more on non-wage compensation. Even as the U.S. employment rate has routinely dropped below 4% going back to 2018, employees on average have seen their wages stagnate, with roughly 2.6% year-over-year growth, according to a PayScale measurement conducted for the third quarter of 2019.

Simultaneously, U.S. private sector employees received increased access to several employee benefits. The share of employees eligible for paid sick leave, for example, grew from 63% in 2010 to 73% in 2019, while access to a defined contribution retirement plan (such as a 401(k) plan) grew from 59% in 2010 to 64% in 2019, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

U.S. firms increase access to key benefits
% U.S. private industry workers with access to each type of benefit
Nami Sumida/HR Dive; data from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Compensation Survey 2010-2019

There may be a direct relationship between stagnant wages and the expansion of the total rewards framework, industry experts previously told HR Dive. The latter half of the 2010s saw considerable growth for new categories of employee benefits as well as delivery methods for those benefits.

Personal tech adoption helped drive solutions in the telehealth, wearable and navigation spaces in healthcare, while a push for data analytics within organizations made the field more quantifiable. An influx of workers from Generations Y (i.e. millennials) and Z, coupled with tech adoption, drove changes in the expectations workers have for their employee benefits experience.

When it comes to the next 10 years, stakeholders largely told HR Dive they expect these trends to grow. But there are subtle changes emerging between the lines. Leading employers are looking beyond cost to achieve more holistic strategies despite unknowns about the consolidation and adoption of emerging solutions.

Holistic nature of benefits

Employee benefits systems will need to holistically improve workers’ lives, sources consistently noted.

Calls for “holistic well-being” aren’t new to those in the space. But consultants, insurers and HR executives said they’re ready to double down on the technology and frameworks that engage all aspects of employees as their organizations enter the new decade.

“We’re seeing something bigger and broader and deeper,” Jim Link, CHRO of Randstad North America, told HR Dive in an interview. “We’re seeing companies big and small think about the whole space of benefits.”

Under this concept — Link called it a “holistic wrapper that goes around an individual” — employers are entering the 2020s thinking about every component of an employee’s work environment and employment lifecycle, including the risks inherent in daily life, both inside and outside of the office.

Problem-solving for communities

Microsoft is doing that work in part by looking at its corporate backyard. According to Kristen Roby Dimlow, the tech giant’s corporate vice president, total rewards, performance and HR business insights, the company is even taking heed of what competitors like Amazon and Google are doing in Seattle, closely located to its headquarters.

There, officials have observed high homelessness rates and inequality gaps. That’s led Microsoft to go beyond its benefits package to invest in community housing and skills training for locals. Such initiatives allow the company to appeal to many different “talent ecosystems,” a mentality that it plans to follow in this next decade.

“You want to be helpful to the community,” Roby Dimlow said in an interview. “We have to really live that.”

The company has incorporated community health into its health strategy with initiatives like its Health Connect Plan. Offered through Primera Blue Cross, the plan consists of partnerships with local providers and aims to offer a more personalized health experience to employees while changing the economics of care, Roby Dimlow said.

But it’s also about being realistic: Microsoft knows employees don’t stick around for as long as they used to, Roby Dimlow noted. Benefits like the company’s community healthcare options and 401(k) plan are as much a part of the company’s talent strategy as they are its benefits strategy. They also make the transition from employer to employer easier.

“What I think about is ensuring a good value proposition,” Roby Dimlow said. The company wants to make sure its workers’ career experiences are top notch, even if it knows they’ll leave. And by working to ensure employees know what roles are available within Microsoft, it may stand a better chance at retaining them, Roby Dimlow said.

Competing for employees’ time

A primary focus for the next decade will be saving workers time, particularly in a way that allows them to dedicate more energy and focus to the job.

“We find ourselves competing for the discretionary time that an employee has anyway,” Link said. “If we’re competing for that employee’s time, why not make things easier for them?”

Randstad is attempting to pull new levers to develop a strategy around this point, including a grocery delivery benefit and programs that help employees manage their household and finances, Leigh Dobbs, senior vice president of HR and total rewards at Randstad USA, told HR Dive in an interview. It’s also offering more custom solutions like support and care coordination for parents of children with disabilities.

If we’re competing for that employee’s time, why not make things easier for them?

Going forward, some experts expect employers and their benefits partners to grow wellness offerings. In particular, that could mean expanding them to include more solutions for mental and social health, or complementing existing offerings for physical and financial health, Bradd Chignoli, senior vice president, group benefits at Metlife, told HR Dive in an interview.

“Employers will need to focus on each of those four,” Chignoli said. Self-care is an important component of holistic wellness, he added, and employers may soon feel more pressure to adopt more generous paid time off and paid leave benefits that include provisions for caregiving responsibilities. That tracks with a 2020 report from the Business Group on Health, which showed that 15% of large employers are considering expanding eligibility for leave benefits as soon as 2021 or 2022.

Overall, Link said he expects the next decade will see more employers opt for a “cafe” model of benefits that allows workers to pick and choose from a menu of solutions most applicable to their personal situation.

Tech

There’s always the chance for technology to cause unforeseen disruption, too. Employers need only look backward to know this is true: the market for benefits point solutions exploded in the past 10 years thanks to trends in consumer technology. Growing employee familiarity with smartphones, tablet computers and other devices, for example, helped drive growth of benefits applications.

While it’s uncertain what new technologies could revolutionize the space in the 2020s, sources expect virtual care solutions to see continued adoption despite doubts in some circles about their engagement and adoption rates.

“We’ve had telemedicine for years, but engagement rates for those [solutions] are abysmally low,” Kate Brown, leader of Mercer’s Center for Health Innovation, told HR Dive in an interview. “The uptake has just not been there.”

Still, employers and workers see value in virtual care, Brown said. A recent Mercer survey found nearly half (48%) of U.S. workers would have more confidence in digital health solutions if they were offered by their employer. Presented with 15 different digital health solutions, 94% of U.S. workers in the survey said they would try at least one.

Most employers are likely to invest more in virtual care
% of employers who say they are ___ to invest more in digital health for workers over the next five years
Nami Sumida/HR Dive; data from Mercer, Health on Demand (Feb. 2020)

Brown added that employers could improve engagement rates by working with carriers, as many may not be aware their business partners have virtual solutions in the first place. With better communication around virtual care, Brown said that during the next two to three years, “we’re really going to see utilization start to spike.”

Mercer also is paying attention to the actions of top tech firms in the healthcare space. Of recent note is Google’s acquisition of Fitbit, which is interesting given the company’s existing collection of consumer data, Brown said. She’s also watching the progress of Apple’s Apple Watch, which has been linked to a patent for solutions around Parkinson’s Disease.

“The upshot is that workers are overall very positive about digital health and about employers’ role in administering digital health,” Brown said.

Another tech-adjacent area to watch is data analytics. Chignoli said Metlife is thinking through how to use technology to make decisions quicker and simpler, and to give employees peace of mind. In its call centers, for example, Metlife is using data to help employees better understand callers and their queries, making conversations more effective.

Concerns about consolidation, data

But there are also a fair amount of concerns about benefits tech, particularly when it comes to the sheer number of available solutions. “There’s going to be a lot of consolidation in that space,” Dobbs said. Employers simply don’t have enough time to sit on every available technology demo.

There’s no getting around the fact that benefits tech solutions deal with sensitive data at times, particularly when that technology deals with employees’ health information. That’s been a concern for Randstad as it looks ahead, Dobbs said: “I don’t want Randstad to be on the bleeding edge.”

Also at play are regulatory concerns, particularly for employers operating in multiple states or countries. New laws regulating data can make it difficult to supply the right products and services, Link said.

He emphasized Dobbs’ point about employee data and its misuse. “I worry about that — I worry about bad people with bad motives taking that information and using it against a company,” Link said. “It keeps me up sometimes at night.”

The adoption narrative

Despite the industry’s hype around comprehensive and holistic approaches to benefits, data show that many U.S. employers aren’t quite there.

Last year, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)’s 2019 Employee Benefits Survey showed, for instance, that 24% of U.S. employers offered paid family leave. Less than one-third offered paid personal leave that is distinct from paid vacation or paid sick leave.

“If you look in the rearview, most of the adoption has been on the larger end of the market,” Brown said.

Despite this, Chignoli expects even smaller employers to increasingly provide new choices to their workers. “You’re never going to have a benefits package that is one-size-fits-all,” he said. “Choice is important.” That’s especially true, he noted, with the entrance of new generations of workers who will require different benefits over the course of their lives.

Benefits programs are also becoming more inclusive as the new decade dawns, Brown said. She pointed to fertility programs as an example. “There seems to be much more conversation around it,” she said. “We’ll start to see smaller companies look into these options.”

Employers, while ready to offer more choice, are still cautious about overwhelming workers. Randstad is working to ensure employees don’t feel they need to sign up for a new program simply because the company is offering it, Dobbs said.

But choice is also essential to ensuring that benefits are tailored to employees’ personal needs, Link said. It’s a tough balance but, in the end, Link said he sees this as an important question for employers to resolve going forward. “The value add there is going to be increased engagement and attraction of those employees in the first place,” he said. “It’s a big gamble and bet, but one that I think is important to take.”