As many companies shift to hybrid working models, they’re figuring out their strategy for welcoming employees to the office. Returning to an in-office setting certainly won’t be easy for many employees after more than two years of working from home. According to a recent Adecco Group study, 42 percent of workers say they feel or have felt a lot of anxiety about returning to work at the office.
With that in mind, companies must find new ways to make the transition smooth and curb the anxiety of going back to the office. By focusing on the employee experience and taking into account the different work style preferences of today’s workforce, every employer has the opportunity to ease this transition and create an inclusive work environment.
Flexible benefits programs, more specifically benefits spending accounts, can help employers in shaping their return to office strategy whether hybrid, fully on-site or remote. These programs support employees and empower them to choose benefits that fit their individual needs and that fit their specific phase of life. Focusing on employee choice can be critical to easing the social anxiety of going back to the workplace and increasing overall retention.
3 Steps to Use Benefits to Curb Return-to-Office Anxiety
- Survey employees to learn about benefits preferences.
- Offer benefits spending accounts that support the needs of a distributed workforce.
- Communicate early and often with employees about new benefits programs.
What Are Benefits Spending Accounts?
Employers can offer benefits spending accounts as part of their broader packages. There are three primary types of spending accounts: lifestyle spending accounts (LSA), flexible spending accounts (FSA), and health spending accounts (HSA). Below is a high-level overview of each account type.
An LSA is a post-tax account in which employers allocate funds to an employee’s benefit account for the employee to spend within specific parameters. LSAs can provide programs that aren’t usually covered under a traditional medical or healthcare plan. For example, an LSA can cover items like training seminars, daycare for children, home office expenses, fitness expenses or even pet care. These programs can help alleviate the pain points employees may experience as they return to the workplace.
A healthcare FSA allows employees to set aside pre-tax dollars for eligible medical, dental and vision expenses for themselves and their dependents, even if they are not covered under the employee’s primary health plan. The employee chooses an annual election amount up to the IRS limit. The IRS sets a restriction on how much money may be put into an FSA in a single year because it isn’t subject to income tax. The money in an FSA is lost if not used during the plan year, which is an important point to note. Some accounts have a grace period or allow for a set amount to be rolled over into the next plan year.
An HSA allows employees to set aside pre-tax dollars for current and future healthcare expenses for themselves and their dependents, even if they are not covered under their primary health plan. Unlike an FSA, you do not need to use your funds within a set timeframe. Any unused funds are eligible to roll over each year without limitations or restrictions. Employees can also invest money in their HSA account, and any gains earned are untaxed. Note that employees are only eligible to open an HSA if they are enrolled in an HSA-eligible high-deductible health plan, which is a health plan with a higher deductible than most health insurance options. For FSAs, however, you don’t need to be enrolled into a high-deductible health plan.
Each of these plans can be helpful, but lifestyle spending accounts offer the most flexibility and choice when it comes to helping employees transition back to in-office work. This is because they return the buying power to employees, allowing them to choose the benefits that are most suited to their unique lives. The benefits offered with LSAs are more non-traditional in nature, giving employees more choice on where to spend their funds.
The key is to offer benefits programs that empower employees with the freedom of choice to best meet their needs. Below are a few ways that companies can construct benefits spending accounts that will support employees who are headed back to the office in any capacity.
Survey Employees to Learn About Their Benefits Preferences
Companies need to take stock of employee preferences regarding returning to the office and the benefits necessary to support them. Before setting up benefits spending accounts, conduct surveys to ensure employees have a voice in how flexible benefits programs will impact their experiences.
One effective survey method is the point-system survey. Organizations can present a list of options, then ask employees to assign a number of points from a scale (for example, one to 10) to emphasize which category appeals to their needs the most. You may consider several categories for the survey, including family support, mental wellness, professional development, physical wellness, work-from-home support and financial wellness.
Based on the data, companies can deploy resources to meet the workforce’s needs. Creating surveys also shows employees that companies care about their preferences.
Offer Benefits Spending Accounts That Support Distributed Workforce Needs
Embracing the new ways of working will involve adjustments as employers develop and solidify their new work models (i.e., remote, hybrid, or onsite). Company benefits programs may need some adjustments, especially to keep pace with an evolving workforce.
Determine the best ways to keep distributed teams connected, such as tooling like cloud storage, wi-fi services, or laptop equipment. From there, companies should look at the work style preferences of their workforce and discover what’s meaningful to hybrid, remote, and in-office workers. For example, office-based employees may prefer a transportation allowance, an on-site cafeteria, or on-site gym stipend. Remote workers may prefer funds to cover home office expenses, such as internet service, meal delivery programs or fitness equipment. Offer benefits that make sense for each segment of your workforce.
Here are some benefits spending accounts types that companies can offer a distributed workforce returning to the workplace.
Long, expensive commutes can significantly impact employee morale and contribute to the stress of coming back to the office. Companies need to provide flexibility when offering commuter programs. For example, offer spending accounts that cover expenses, such as public transit, ridesharing, gas, and parking.
Health and wellness have taken a much more prominent role in many people’s lives during the pandemic. More employees are looking for employers who can provide optimal health benefits and those heading back to the office setting may also be seeking wellness resources to ensure a smooth transition. So, companies may choose to set up benefits programs that cover wellness benefits, such as gym stipends, fitness studios, digital health apps or wellness coaching.
Family Support Benefits
Going back to the physical office may induce anxiety in parents who are used to being with their children while working remotely. Companies can set up family support spending accounts to provide resources for parents to help them through the transition, whether it be fully onsite or in a hybrid work environment. The account can include expenses, such as parental coaching, baby accessories, childcare services, afterschool programs, or tutoring. Furthermore, companies can also cover pet expenses as part of family support programs, including pet food and dependent care for pets.
Education Support Benefits
Some employees may currently be continuing their education or want to do so to advance their careers. Returning to the workplace may create some barriers to making that dream a reality. Companies can support these employees with benefits spending accounts that cover educational expenses, such as seminars, additional career training, student loans, or skill development like public speaking and language learning.
Communicate Early and Often With Employees About New Benefits Programs
A company should communicate information about the new benefits thoughtfully as part of its return to work strategy. The end goal is to increase employee engagement with their benefits programs through a strategic communication strategy. If new tools or resources are available to employees through benefits spending accounts, then leaders should look for how best to communicate these changes.
Organizations should consider what approach will work best for their workforces. For example, smaller companies may benefit from email blasts, calendar notifications, communal bulletin boards or Slack channels. For email blasts, a quarterly email reminding employees of their available benefits could lead to an increase in usage. When sending emails, employers should ensure the subject line is easily searchable and the message is simple and easy to understand.
Another tactic to increase engagement is to share employee stories from people who’ve saved money by using their available benefits and spending accounts. Intranet channels like Slack and Microsoft Teams can be a useful tool to send out reminders to use funds or for employees to exchange their experiences and thoughts and answer benefits questions.
Other companies may opt for home mailers or online flipbooks to communicate the programs available. This method can be especially helpful for larger announcements related to recruitment or annual enrollment. For new users, companies can also consider webinars, activities devoted to benefits education, such as train-the-trainer programs, to ensure employees are aware of their benefits options. Train-the trainer programs help prepare benefits ambassadors to teach others in areas that they are passionate about. This approach can also enable more peer-to-peer learning about benefits programs within an organization.
Prepare for the future of hybrid work with flexible benefits
The future of work is flexible. Companies should offer customizable options that fit the diverse needs of the modern workforce. Lifestyle spending accounts that offer unique benefits, such as commuter and wellness programs, are a great way to support employees, especially as dynamics shift around where and how people work.
The key is to focus on meeting employees where they are. Employers should monitor the engagement of their benefits programs to see which employees are using the program and how they are using it. From there, they should enhance their benefits program so it aligns with employee’s preferences. Those employers who listen and understand the needs of employees and make organizational changes based on those needs are poised to win the war for talent.