According to estimates from the International Labour Organization, at the end of May 2020, 94% of the world’s workers were living in countries with a degree of workplace closure measures in place.¹ And by August, only 24% of the world's countries had no workplace closure measures in place². Millions of employees across the globe found themselves forced to work from home – many for the first time – while even more were furloughed or lost their jobs altogether. For HR, the impact has been huge – rarely has the spotlight shone so brightly on this function, and many felt the strain as they do their best to support their employees through this incredibly difficult time, while also trying to maintain operations. Here are some key areas for HR to focus as we move ahead, with many key trends discussed in our latest 'The age of agility: Flexible, adaptable and resilient benefits' report:

1. Differentiating with data

Prior to the pandemic, there was a divide between those companies benefiting from the latest technologies and those not. This gulf will only widen as we continue on the road to recovery. 

Those businesses with access to technology will also have access to data – and this will become an increasing determiner of success. Equipped with data, businesses will be able to understand how the pandemic has impacted their workforce and how employees’ requirements are changing – or likely to change moving forward. Looked at as a percentage of basic salary, almost three quarters (73%) of employers spend over 16% of their wage bill on employee benefits each year. Spending in this area has also increased considerably
since 2019, with the percentage of employers spending 25% of their overall wage bill on benefits doubling – from fewer than one in ten (9%) 12 months ago, to almost one in five (16%) this year. If any other area of the business was making this level of investment, it would have robust analytics associated with it. So why should benefits be any different?

Benefits technology – and more specifically benefits data – can provide an invaluable window into employees’ priorities, helping HR leaders develop offerings to meet their current and future needs. This level of data insight enables reward professionals to identify potential spikes in spend. For example - if relocating employees to a new market would increase healthcare premiums, employers can take steps to prepare for, or mitigate these extra expenditures. In this way technology, and the resulting data, will be instrumental in helping HRs balance the needs of the business and its people.

2. Catering to diverse needs

The way people want to work is changing, and so is the support they’d like from their employers. Companies must be agile and respond to these shifts if they want to retain the best talent.

It’s likely that tomorrow’s workforce will be more spread out and reliant on collaboration technology than ever before. The traditional office set-up may no longer be a reality for many, with the 9-5 and daily commute things of the past. This will create new challenges for employees, which HR teams will need to help them overcome.

Teams should be prepared to take a holistic approach to health to meet diverse employee requirements. We’re used to different age groups looking for different health benefits, but increasingly HR leaders will need to consider employee location as part of the equation. Someone working front of house or in head office will have very different needs to someone working remotely. Benefits such as cycle to work schemes or workplace gym memberships may no longer be applicable to all employees. Instead, some might be looking for mental health support or initiatives to help combat feelings of loneliness or isolation.

While benefits funds, which allow employees to choose how their benefits funding is directed, have existed for some time, we anticipate more companies adopting these. These can be accessed from anywhere at any time, providing a personalised employee experience to each individual while maintaining a supportive company culture.

3. Balancing economy with empathy

This time of turbulence has caused a period of reflection. Remote working has broken down professional and personal barriers for many, with regular video calls offering glimpses into people’s homes and family lives. In response, employees are expecting empathetic leadership that respects their individuality and non-work lives, and is committed to building a sense of community.

Businesses will need to balance economics and empathy to meet employees’ changing needs within budget constraints. Adopting more preventative, as opposed to reactive, measures will be integral to nurturing a supportive environment that balances budgets with pastoral responsibilities.

With the world continuing to change, employees are increasingly seeing their employer as part of their support network. Employers need to embrace this new role. By providing access to reliable news, targeted benefits and useful resources, they’ll help employees cope with disruption, and earn their loyalty and trust in the process.

Looking ahead

This pandemic has some time to run and the effects will be long lasting. Companies need to be embracing this change so as not to be left behind by those that do.

1 . International Labour Organization (2020). ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the world of work. Fourth edition. 27 May 2020. Available at: https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@dgreports/@
dcomm/documents/briefingnote/wcms_745963.pdf

2. Our World in Data (2020), Policy Responses to the Coronavirus Pandemic. Available at: https://ourworldindata.org/policy-responses-covid#workplaces-closures