The COVID-19 pandemic tested the mettle of businesses around the world
The COVID-19 pandemic tested the mettle of businesses around the world, and one of the areas employers were most hard-pressed was responding quickly to employee questions about benefits.
Questions ranged from simple — what happens to my benefit program? — to more complex such as the implantation of new offerings to support employees in their time of need, like virtual medicine and counselling. With everything from government programs to health information changing by the minute, for employers it was much like struggling through quicksand as things unfolded — working hard to get ahead, only to find yourself more mired than ever.
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As organizations make their way back from COVID, it’s time to ask some questions internally. Did leadership and the management team fully understand the benefits and total rewards philosophy? Were they able to give employees the quick and comprehensive answers and support they needed? What should benefit plans look like in “the new normal?”
“It's the idea of asking the questions before the tornado arrives or asking them in the midst of the tornado,” says Alexandra Georgescu, Vice President, Health Solutions, Aon. “We work with our clients to develop guiding principles and that’s key in the readiness of employers — all good plans start with good strategy.”
Guiding principles lay out the directive or core philosophy of an organization around employee benefit strategies and how it connects to total rewards and business strategy. Organizations that had guiding principles laid out and in place had a much easier time making decisions during the pandemic, Georgescu says, because they had management on board, had the ground work laid out and a decision-making framework in place.
“There will be questions that come up — especially in a situation like the pandemic — but a fair amount of existential questions, if you will, have already been addressed and thought out. It’s much harder to set these when you’re in quicksand in the middle of a tornado.”
When the pandemic hit, the trend in the market towards reducing HR team sizes left many employers scrambling. Smaller HR departments might suffice on the day-to-day, but when all hell breaks loose there’s a lack of resources.
Geneviève Lemieux, Vice President, Health Solutions Practice Leader for Ottawa, Aon says the industry — and employee healthcare needs — have been changing fast over the last few years. The health care arena in Canada is ever-evolving with the introduction of things like virtual health care providers, and there’s always new technology coming into the market that impacts benefit programs.
“Being ready for change is something that was good before, but now people are realizing it’s not just good — it’s a necessity,” she says.
Going forward, from a benefit perspective, organizations need to look at something that’s often pushed to the side and develop a well thought out benefits and HR philosophy — they need to be linked. It’s extremely important to review guiding principles on a regular basis, she notes, to ensure continued relevance to the people and the business strategy, and the latter may be changing after the pandemic. Some organizations shifted the type of work they're doing, for example, others may have moved to remote environments.
In order to be better prepared, any plans made going forward could cover some of the things employers were challenged with at the beginning of the pandemic such as pay for those who had to self isolate and couldn’t work remotely in their industry.
“How can we leverage benefits to support employees in those situations? Those are things that going forward employers should start thinking about and preparing for a little bit more,” Lemieux says.
Moving into the new normal, Aon has heard a lot about organizations changing their remote work policy since many employees can be just as efficient if not more working from home. But Lemieux warns that could result in new challenges.
“A globalization of talent means hypothetically you could have an employee working for a Canadian employer while never putting a foot in Canada,” she says.
In the same line of thought, remote employees could travel — working from a different place every week, or in a different country for a period of time. Ads are already popping up from countries with fantastic beaches urging people to come work on the beach now that you can work remotely.
“That sounds really great but when you think about the impact, it will create challenges in terms of the benefits,” Lemieux notes. “The risks will change as organizations are evolving.”
For any organizations that might be looking at modifying their remote work policies, she advises they ensure their benefits, HR philosophy and guiding principles are updated and that potential changes in risk are reviewed and discussed with consultants and insurers, "because those are things that will have an impact on the risk a group of employees represents.”
Read more: HR to push for a 'permanent' remote work policy
One of the biggest challenges for companies when it came to health/benefit plans during the pandemic was the difference in how various insurers dealt with emergency travel or coverage restrictions. The pandemic highlighted how quickly things can change and how easily employees can end up stranded in a different country, not knowing what’s covered and what’s not. Some people got caught and had no coverage at all, Georgescu says.
“There’s a big question to be asked there, that we’re asking our clients — how should we manage business travel going forward?”
The responsibility and the impact of all this can be great, she notes, especially when you factor in other potential future events like natural disasters or acts of terrorism that are becoming more likely as the world becomes more volatile over time.
“We need to be prepared,” Georgescu says. “There’s a responsibility and an everlasting change that needs to be addressed, and I think it’s very important to not overlook this.”