Most associations have seen changes in their workplaces since the pandemic. New data from the Society for Human Resource Management sheds light on how COVID-19 has changed benefits and culture—and what organizations should do next.
The pandemic—and its resultant closures and safety requirements—changed the way many people worked. New survey data from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is showing the ways employee benefits and workplace culture shifted during the pandemic. And two experts from the group offer some advice on what employers can do with the data.
The 2020 Employee Benefits survey looked at how the pandemic changed the benefits landscape—showing both what was offered and what employees prioritized. According to the data, organizations expanded these benefits most: telework (78 percent), telemedicine services allowed in health plans (43 percent), leave to care for children (39 percent), leave to care for adult family (27 percent), and mental health services (25 percent).
A minority of organizations reduced benefits: 7 percent reduced their 401(k) match, 4 percent reduced compensation, and 2 percent reduced telework options.
While the benefits shift during the pandemic is important, SHRM Senior Researcher Rocki Basel, Ph.D, noted that it’s too soon to know which benefits will stick around beyond the pandemic.
“Organizations need to evaluate what went well during the pandemic, and where they may have fallen short,” she said. “Any new policies that created better workflows and improved workplace culture, organizations should consider how to implement these changes long term. I think the expectation is that organizational leadership keep an open mind when considering which policies to keep, and which policies to discontinue.”
Benefits priorities also shifted. In past surveys, retirement benefits tended to come in second after healthcare. In the 2020 survey, healthcare was on top again, but it was followed by flexible work, leave, family friendly, wellness, and then retirement.
Trent Burner, SHRM vice president of research, added the shift in priorities is likely to stay while economic uncertainty lasts. “Flexible work, leave, and wellness now are more important to working Americans than retirement,” he said. “We expect this to continue until the economy has stabilized.”
COVID-19 and Culture
Additional SHRM research, The Culture Effect: Why a Positive Workplace Culture is the New Currency [PDF], revealed that only 14 percent of workers believed their workplace culture improved during the pandemic, and 13 percent believed it became worse. However, workers diverged from executives, who overwhelmingly (72 percent) believed workplace culture had improved during the pandemic.
Communication was a key factor in why people believed culture improved—with workers (59 percent), HR professionals (58 percent), managers (49 percent), and executives (48 percent) all scoring it as the top reason. SHRM has seen some examples of good communication during the pandemic.
“One communication style that some organizational leaders adopted during the pandemic was being as transparent as possible with employees about the future of the organization,” Basel said. “This helped create trust. Trust was so important during the pandemic—organizations trusting employees and employees trusting their organization. Some workplaces quickly pivoted to remote work, and employees had to be trusted to work from home.”
For those who felt culture had worsened, the top reason was also communication. Other reasons included changes to workload, employees quitting, and the shift to remote work (this reason was only cited by HR professionals and executives).
“Organizations should be working on creating an environment where employees are comfortable communicating,” Basel said. “Organizations need to be intentional and thoughtful when it comes to communication in the workplace.”
Turning Data into Action
SHRM said the data suggests some guidance on how to make changes that will improve workplaces.
“There are two things that businesses can do to make changes following the pandemic,” Basel said. “The first is to get feedback from employees. Organizations need to understand what is working well and where they need to improve, and the best group to give them these answers are employees. They may have a different perspective than management or executives.”
Burner chimed in with another suggestion for associations. “The second piece of advice I would offer is to offer leadership training to people managers,” he said. “We saw that 27 percent of working Americans do not think their manager encourages a culture of open and transparent communication, but 95 percent of people managers think they encourage a culture of open and transparent communication. This is a chance to provide people managers with professional development opportunities that can help improve workplace culture.”
What changes has the pandemic produced in your workplace, and do you hope to keep them or jettison them? Share in the comments.