After a year of transitioning to and from remote work arrangements during a pandemic, hybrid work has become a turnkey phrase.
Hybrid work describes the mixture of both in-office work and remote work, whether the latter is done from an employee's home or another workspace separate from the traditional office. The trend is slowly catching on; about 1 in 5 employers have already begun the process of implementing the format, according to a recent poll of executives by consulting firm West Monroe Partners, while a larger share said such programs would be ready come summer.
Remote work has changed the relationships employees have with their managers, a dynamic that will impact employee benefits strategy in the event companies decide to pursue hybrid work, said Brian Kropp, group vice president and chief of HR research at Gartner. Managers, he noted, have seen inside their reports' homes and lives "in ways they never have before," blurring historical lines that have existed between the two sides.
"It changes the manager's role," Kropp said, explaining that leaders now may need to study and understand how to support workers' emotional well-being.
At the same time, Gartner observed a "significant increase" in organizational spending on mental health and wellness benefits, he added. The consulting firm stated in a June 2020 piece that 68% of its clients had introduced at least one new wellness benefit during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The types of benefits that have been introduced to support remote employees range from expanding telehealth benefits and access to programs that can address mental and health and well-being issues to incentives for redesigning home office spaces. Gartner has seen companies specifically offer workers better ergonomic support and access to items such as standing desks, Kropp said.
Mental health may be a particular area of focus in hybrid work environments given the lasting impact of the pandemic. "I expect to see continued utilization of our mental health benefits as we have been encouraging employees to make self-care a priority," Evangeline Mendiola, director of global benefits at San Francisco-based customer software firm Zendesk, told HR Dive in an email.
Mendiola said employees have reacted positively to internal efforts centered on removing stigma about mental health and wellness. She similarly noted the importance managers have played in proactively communicating with employees about time off, caregiver resources and other benefits.
"Our leaders must be passionate advocates of our employees' wellbeing and one of the best ways for them to do this is to be more involved and aware of our benefit options," Mendiola said. "It's also very powerful and compelling as a manager to lead by example - leaders should try and take advantage of the benefits themselves and share how it can help contribute to better work and life balance."
Flexibility need not come in the form of specific solutions or products, however. Google, which earlier committed to rolling out flexible work options to certain employees, also will host "reset days" to allow all employees to take a day off to recharge, CEO Sundar Pichai said in a recent email to staff.
In some cases, choosing which benefits that fit employees' needs during the pandemic may be a task of observation. Kropp cited the example of one large employer that, when looking at its HRIS systems, certain employees who were married to other employees at the organization filed for change of address forms while their spouses did not.
In one such instance, the employer reached out to an employee whose spouse had filed such a form after the form appeared in the employer's HRIS system, asking the employee if they wanted the employer to begin the process of creating one for them. The employee explained that they had not done so because they were going through a divorce.
When the employer began to see more such cases in its employee base, it realized that it was actually seeing an uptick in divorce rates, Kropp said. This resulted in the employer's decision to offer marriage counseling benefits.
Though employers may recognize the need to put forth benefits packages that better support employees' well-being, Kropp noted that this is only part of the equation toward benefits strategy
"[Managers] know that's the direction it's going and they know expectations have changed," he said. "But what they're not sure about is how do you make that relationship work in a way that's respectful of employees."
While it's unclear how organizations may be able to build employee-manager relationships with hybrid work, Kropp said some have experimented with hiring employees to assist managers in doing so. Names vary for such roles — examples include Remote Work Ambassador and Employee Counselor — but in all cases, "their job is to help be that support system," Kropp explained.