As employers strengthen their benefits to attract talent in a tough labor market, establishing a commuter benefits program that makes sense in a hybrid environment is just one of the headaches HR is grappling with. With a variety of employees working at a variety of sites and holding a variety of preferences, how can HR develop a workable program?
Three transportation leaders weighed in on the question July 20 during Luuminary22, a summit on the future of the commute, hosted by commuter management platform Luum. All had different types of workers, different locations and different needs — but they pursued some similar strategies with respect to commuter benefits.
Allow for flexible use
Some companies — like those that run hospitals and pharmaceutical research facilities — require in-person work. For Jordan Fallman, global pharmaceutical company Sanofi’s Real Estate North America lead, the situation is even more complicated; because the nature of scientific research drives the hours for many employees, “our hours are all over the place,” he said.
At its Cambridge, Mass.-based office, which serves as home base for about 2,500 employees, Sanofi needed to provide benefits that would support businesspeople and researchers, from morning to night, from the city to the suburbs. Flexibility was key.
“Our first priority was to be able to provide guaranteed parking for those looking for it,” Fallman said, noting that the company was limited in parking, with roughly half the number of spots compared to the number employees reported they needed. “We were able to create a program where we can provide guaranteed parking at a minimal cost through a reservation system,” he said. The system has provided “the flexibility to extend parking spaces to more than just a finite amount of parkers,” Fallman said.
While Sanofi also used to have a “segmented” benefits system, requiring workers to pick between parking or transit benefits, it has opened up a flexible daily model, allowing workers to pick different commuting options depending on the day and their needs, Fallman said.
All panelists offered a variety of commuting options and benefits, from company-sponsored shuttles to vanpooling to discounted transit cards to safe and secure bike parking to, when necessary, car parking options.
Giving workers more choices also means looking at and investing in each commute option, panelists said. Even small infrastructural changes can make a big difference. Shawna Mullen, transportation services manager at Duluth, Minn.-based Essentia Health, said when the hospital expanded its insufficient bike rack to allow for more cyclists, it quickly filled up.
Find the ESG connection
For the company and workers alike, commuting options are about more than convenience — they help both live out environmental and ethical values. Workers concerned about climate change and the price of gas may be less enthusiastic about driving, and companies that help employees shift to options like cycling, public transit and car pools can more successfully demonstrate to prospective employees and shareholders that they are living out their ESG values.
All panelists said they were interested in promoting sustainable options over standard parking benefits, and all have seen some success with front-loading transit benefits. “We're seeing people canceling their parking so that they can, you know, take the bus,” Mullen said. “So that's really exciting.” Fallman noted observing a similar pattern of rising transit use at Sanofi.
Alyssa Sherman, senior manager of workplace services for Salesforce, said the company chooses “dense downtown locations” for its offices, which results in heavy employee use of transit. It also eases the commute with small commuter shuttles and disincentivizes parking by providing no free parking to employees at any of its locations. “As a rule, we’re not leasing parking. We’re not offering it,” she said. It’s a policy the company is sticking with and working to integrate its new acquisitions into.
Mullen said Essentia has found great success with an incentive program that provides any employee who walks, takes public transit or carpools at least eight days per month a $20 gift card. Essentia tried to pick a realistic number of days to help people develop the habit of using options other than driving alone. “It’s been really popular because it's a guaranteed reward,” Mullen said. “And it's a significant enough amount of money.”
In addition to environmental factors, diverse commuting benefits can help companies reach their equity goals, panelists noted. Not everyone has a car, for example, or lives out in the suburbs.
“There is a tendency to think that everybody who works here lives far away,” Mullen noted. To combat that, she worked with the data team at Essentia on a mapping analysis to make the company more aware of how many people lived within a 15-minute walk, bike ride or transit ride from the hospital system. “That was really helpful to help justify the cost of subsidizing[;] all of these people have the potential to consider these other ways of getting to work,” she said. “It was not a small number.”
All panelists were transportation managers, but they said they worked closely with HR to develop commuting benefits and sell their programs to leadership. Essentia Health has a transportation and parking committee that meets weekly, Mullen said, which includes a member of the HR team. Because that person has worked collaboratively with the transportation team, “they're really familiar with where the conversation has been and how the conversation has evolved and where it's coming from,” she said.
“Because we are subsidizing so much of the commute offering, it's an important piece of our recruitment,” Fallman added, saying Sanofi relied on HR to market the offerings to prospective applicants.
Kelly Koster, senior director of product marketing and sales enablement for HealthEquity and the panel’s facilitator, also noted the importance of good commuting benefits for recruiting. “It’s table stakes [for a company] to offer me a free transit pass,” Koster, who is based in Seattle, said. Otherwise, she said, “I will not accept a job.”
With flexible options and movement toward company values remaining a focus, panelists noted the importance of being nimble and allowing for change as workplaces continue to adapt to hybrid work and employee preferences.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the company with a transportation and parking committee in the final section. It is Essentia Health that meets weekly on those issues.