Managers and employees have different attitudes about their COVID workplace

Managers and employees have always had different attitudes about work, and the COVID pandemic has widened that gap even furthur. This divided workforce means most managers believe in the support their company provides, while fewer employees think their employer genuinely cares about them.

Seventy-seven percent of managers feel like their employer genuinely cares about their overall well-being, compared to only 55% of employees, according to a recent survey from Limeade, an employee engagement platform. Similarly, 78% of managers feel as though their employer has engaged in initiatives or offered services to support employee well-being since the start of COVID, compared to 66% of employees.

“This pandemic has not only added to stressors in our life, it’s also taken away some resources we’ve all relied on, like spending time with loved ones, building relationships with coworkers, and getting to explore the world around us,” says Reetu Sandhu, senior manager of the Limeade Institute. “You can see this in the drop that both groups report for their well-being.”

Pre-pandemic, 96% of managers and 86% of employees said that they had favorable well-being levels, Limeade found. However, since the start of the pandemic, those figures have plummeted to 73% of managers and 59% of employees reporting positive well-being.

In a recent one-on-one interview, Sandhu shared what these discrepancies mean for employers and how companies can work to close the gap between employee and manager attitudes in the workplace.

How has the pandemic increased the disparity between managers and employees in the way they view their employers?
The pandemic has emphasized factors that have always been there. Consider power dynamics, for example. Managers are in a position of power that grants them additional permission to prioritize their well-being. This was evident in the findings too — 83% of managers felt comfortable asking for a day off to support their own well-being compared to just 68% of employees. If employees didn’t feel adequately empowered, supported and even expected to prioritize their well-being before the pandemic, they’re only going to continue to fall behind during the pandemic.

Why does this discrepancy exist in the first place?
Organizations haven’t always recognized their role in employee well-being. Unfortunately, companies are only now facing the reality that factors such as power dynamics and organizational norms can have significant impacts on employees. Now, in the face of a pandemic, organizations are scrambling to find the answer. But we can’t expect it to just happen — we need to really consider the employee perspective. Our study revealed that 70.8% of managers feel that since the outbreak of COVID-19, their one-on-ones with their direct reports have focused more on discussing their well-being at work. Only 33.6% of employees actually feel like that is the case.

This disconnect highlights that managers may not be equipped with the resources to lead these conversations, or perhaps there is a gap in trust present in these relationships for genuine conversations about well-being to occur. This isn’t to say that managers do not care. We found that 84% of managers said they feel at least “somewhat” responsible for whether their direct reports experience burnout or not. Instead, it highlights that organizations are missing the mark in enabling both managers and employees to feel supported, cared for and safe to communicate honestly and openly about their experiences.

What can employers do to make all employees feel supported and cared for?
When employers invest in giving managers support, this pays out in dividends, as managers are then enabled to support their employees. Managers can think creatively about demonstrating care to their employees. This can include sending them a gift or a pick-me-up, asking intentional questions about how they or their families are doing, scheduling time for team connection and bonding where work is not an agenda item. Managers can declare a team well-being day, or celebrate the work that is being accomplished despite the tough times we are in. These seemingly small moments of care make an incredible impact on people.

It is very important that people feel as though they can speak openly about their work experience with HR and their managers. Managers, leaders and even peers need to establish trust within organizations and ensure that open communication is welcomed and not tied to any negative consequences. Then, and only then, will employees feel the safety and support they need.

Authentic care is the most impactful resource an employer can offer. Only when these efforts are genuine, will organizations see the direct benefits these offerings and open conversations have in supporting employee well-being. As a manager, don’t just say you want your team to prioritize their well-being — hold them to it just as you would their performance. This communicates that you take it seriously and want to support in a serious way.

SOURCE: Schiavo, A. (28 December 2020) "Managers and employees have different attitudes about their COVID workplace" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/news/managers-and-employees-have-different-attitudes-about-their-covid-workplace


6 ways technology changed the workplace in 2020

Without technology, working remotely during a global pandemic wouldn’t have been possible. But it also helped employers overcome unforeseen obstacles created by this new reality.

To help maintain social distancing, 42% of the U.S. workforce has been working from home, according to a study conducted by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. While working remotely has helped quell the spread of COVID, it’s caused new challenges for the workforce: balancing work while caring for children or the elderly, deteriorating mental health, lack of opportunities to network — the list goes on.

Despite the promising news of vaccines pointing to changes in 2021, remote work is here to stay. Employers including Dropbox and Wikimedia Foundation have all announced options for employees to work from home permanently, and Wells Fargo and Apple have extended remote work until the summer.

 Professional training and coaching:

BetterUp, a mobile-based professional coaching platform, is teaming up with NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration, in its first partnership with government agencies to provide their employees with personalized professional coaching.

In the coming months, the FAA and NASA will roll out BetterUp’s professional coaching to supervisors and executives. At the individual level, employees will gain unlimited access to one-on-one professional coaching, accessible via any computer or smartphone. Employees will have access to a digital library that includes thousands of resources designed to reinforce coaching session topics.

“Our evidence-based coaching approach has been linked to significant behavioral gains in areas such as resilience, strategic planning, stress reduction, and the ability to lead teams,” says Alexi Robichaux, CEO and co-founder of BetterUp. “Our goal with NASA and the FAA is to serve as a tool that will enable employees to better thrive as individuals and inspire others as leaders.”

 Telehealth:

Catapult Health launches new virtual program to improve access to preventive care
As the pandemic has triggered delays in both preventive and elective care, employers are turning to telehealth services to keep their workforce healthy and happy, and prevent the development of chronic disease.

Catapult Health, a provider of onsite and virtual preventive healthcare, has launched a new program called VirtualCheckup, through which employers can offer preventive care to their employees and family members anytime and anywhere.

“Over the past months, people are kicking the can on their chronic conditions,” says David Michel, CEO of Catapult Health. “Individuals that we're seeing now have not been to their doctors in several months. They've been scared to go. So we’re able to reach people where they are in this critical time and offer a solution that's very thorough and very simple for them to do.”

 Recruiting:

Gamifying training, onboarding can help boost engagement for Gen Z
As young workers get more technologically advanced and the workforce continues to embrace remote work, training and onboarding processes are vital for getting employees up to speed. But 38% of HR professionals say that remote onboarding is harder than in-person onboarding, and only 9% say that it is easier, according to a recent survey by the HR Certification Institute and MindEdge Learning.

With remote work here to stay for the foreseeable future, tech will play an increasingly large role, says Matt Fairhurst, CEO of Skedulo, a software and workforce management company.

“It’s about how to come up with and quickly implement really interesting technologies that help encourage the connectedness and engagement of employees,” Fairhurst says. “Not as a method of discipline, but simply as a way to lean into the expectations that remote workforces have — which is an incredible desire for engagement and connectivity across the organization.”

 Virtual mental health care:

With stress, anxiety and burnout on the rise, employers are seeking new ways to support workers struggling with poor mental health during the coronavirus pandemic.

Lyra Health, a mental benefits provider, is adding the Calm app to their benefit offerings to help manage the added stress. Over 1.5 million employees will have access to the popular resiliency training app, as the new partnership expands mental health support to employees who may be resistant to more traditional modes of therapy.

“The urgency has never been greater than it is now to provide holistic mental health services,” says Joe Grasso, clinical director of partnerships at Lyra Health. “It's a way to support people who maybe aren't ready to engage in therapy but want to dip their toe into some kind of wellness support.”

 Workplace safety:

New tool tracks COVID-19 geographical risk to pinpoint when employees can return to work
As new COVID-19 hotspots continue to pop up across the country, employers may be hesitant or unsure of how to proceed with potential reopening plans.

Health Advocate, a provider of health advocacy, navigation, well-being and integrated benefits programs, has launched a return-to-work solution called Return Navigator to help employers understand the critical components of how and when to return.

“For organizations planning the transition back to the workplace, safety and health are top priorities. However, it is challenging to determine the right timing and approach to have employees return,” says Arthur Leibowitz, chief medical officer and founder at Health Advocate. “By combining these valuable tools, employers can make more informed decisions about developing and implementing their return-to-work strategy.”

SOURCE: Webster, K. (23 December 2020) "6 ways technology changed the workplace in 2020" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/list/6-ways-technology-changed-the-workplace-in-2020


Zoom meeting fatigue: How to maintain productivity in the grind of WFH

Let’s face it: like everything else COVID-19, many leaders, their team members and clients are a little sick of Zoom meetings. What started as a useful tool — with a little bit of novelty — has now become yet another reminder of the grind that is just one part of the coronavirus pandemic.

The somber reality for many is that working-from-home will remain a reality for at least another three-to-six months. The very real challenge for leaders in small and large companies alike is keeping our work teams and clients engaged in what seems like an endless remote working model.

While there are many perks to working remote (no one misses commuting), what is lost is the physical connection needed to foster relationships among team members and clients. We have all come to recognize that those in-person meetings or deskside chats really did bring something important to a productive workplace.

Plus, mental health professionals have found that a lack of physical connection with co-workers can lead to feelings of isolation and disconnectedness. These psychological stressors can negatively impact team performance or a client relationship.

It is critically important that leaders recognize and find creative ways to overcome the not-so-virtual burnout to engage effectively with colleagues and customers, while also remaining productive. Here are just a few ways to foster personal connections and maintain workplace energy that are essential keys to overall business success.

  • Recreate your standing videoconference. Still running off the same meeting agenda and structure that has been in place since last March and April? It’s time to retool the meeting and, literally, flip the agenda. Rotate meeting facilitators among team members. Incorporate some comic-relief like a video of the week or a rotating share of childhood photos or “hair fails.” Changes can bring a fresh mindset when serious work is discussed.
  • Schedule meetings that aren’t strictly about business. When we all worked in the office, we found time for breaks – whether that was the occasional pizza lunch, happy hour or just a conversation in the hall. So, schedule occasional meetings that have nothing to do with work, but instead focus on developing relationships and camaraderie by playing games such as Scattergories. Bring teams and customers together who share interests in movies, music, hobbies, outdoor activities or sports to compete for prizes – this can go a long way toward strengthening connections.
  • Bring back the deskside check-in. Not all meetings are created equal. While many organizations have successfully transitioned to virtual meetings, it has come at the expense of quick conversations in the kitchen or casual stopping by a client’s office. Bring this back with 10-minute one-on-one check-ins on a singular topic at least once a week. And don’t limit it to business matters only – the sky’s the limit on what you and a colleague can chat about!
  • Bring back the phone call. It can be easy to unconsciously power through the day with little-to-no personal contact other than emails or text messages. Engaged managers should set aside time daily and weekly to reach out and connect with teammates and clients with a simple phone call. They don’t have to be long – they should also sincerely ask this question: “how are you and how can I help?” This keeps the lines of communication open and demonstrates to team members and clients that their interests remain top of mind.
  • Set virtual “office hours.” Professors regularly hold office hours where students are able to stop by to ask questions about an upcoming exam or a specific assignment. Why can’t a similar concept apply to the workplace? Hosting regular “office hours,” where clients and team members know they can pop into a Zoom room or chat via phone, eliminates confusion and boosts overall engagement. It also helps brokers continue to build out their business pipeline, especially as open enrollment season comes to a close.

The work-from-home environment isn’t going away any time soon — in fact, it may not be until the second or third quarter of 2021 before a sense of normalcy reenters the corporate world. Until then, it’s important that brokers do everything they can to foster engagement with team members and clients. It is a number-one priority for any top-performing team and broker.

SOURCE: Word, J. (28 December 2020) "Zoom meeting fatigue: How to maintain productivity in the grind of WFH' (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/zoom-meeting-fatigue-how-to-maintain-productivity-in-the-grind-of-wfh


The top tool for retaining your working parent population

When Allison Whalen returned to her job following her first maternity leave in 2017, she felt “completely overwhelmed” by the lack of supportive resources available to guide her through the leave and return-to-work process.

“I ended up getting through that first three months back at work and I realized there were about 50 things that I wish someone had told me before I'd even been on leave,” says Whalen.

Whalen says she felt lost in understanding how much child care she would need before and after returning to the office, and felt left behind on her professional development.

After returning to work for a previous employer, Whalen knew something needed to change for working parents going out and coming back from leave. She started Parentaly a parental leave benefits company, in order to help employers streamline the process of getting new parents back to work.

Parentaly provides companies and workers with tools, coaching and resources that help working parents navigate the before and after of parental leave, without sacrificing their career and helping the organization retain its talent.

These benefits became even more critical during the pandemic. Whalen herself experienced her second maternity leave this summer, and having a plan for how she would navigate this time helped her stay productive. Remote work due to COVID was an added bonus for both her and her spouse, she says.

“My second maternity leave was a way better experience because I had made a plan that around six weeks postpartum, I wanted to start spending about two to four hours a week doing work,” Whalen says. “That was possible because [my husband] wasn’t commuting and he had breaks in between meetings where he could take a walk [with the baby]. We could plan because he was there.”

While the pandemic has been a huge challenge for working parents, more flexible work arrangements have actually been beneficial to their overall productivity. Thirty percent of the working parents reported an increase in productivity during the pandemic, according to research from Rutgers University. Overall, 94% of employers say that even with employees working remotely, productivity was the same as or higher than it was before the pandemic, according to Mercer, an HR and workplace benefits consulting firm.

But flexible scheduling is just one part of the puzzle for employers wanting to support working parents. Companies that invest in employees and their families with benefits prioritizing their unique challenges see 5.5 times more revenue growth thanks to greater innovation, higher talent retention and increased productivity, according to research by Great Places to Work and Maven Clinic, a health services provider that supports women and families with their fertility, maternity, and pediatrics needs.

“So much of this comes down to productivity,” Whalen says. “[It’s about] how parents teach themselves to improve their productivity and then how the culture of the organization supports that productivity.”

To keep employees engaged and committed to work while juggling their home responsibilities, paid parental leave is a key place to start when employers look to boost their benefits for working parents. Microsoft offered employee parents 12 weeks of paid time off in order to help them deal with COVID-related school closures. PwC also updated its child care benefits to help parents deal with working from home and virtual school.

While workplaces often focus on maternity leave benefits, it’s critical they provide holistic support for parents at every stage of life, says Kate Ryder, founder and CEO of Maven Clinic.

“The best companies really look at parenthood as a journey. It’s not just about the nine months of pregnancy,” she says. “It’s not just maternity, but it’s fertility, return to work coaching [and] finding backup child care.”

As employers look ahead toward 2021, it’s critical they continue leading with empathy and understanding for working parents.

“The experience of being a working parent during COVID has been intensely difficult and stressful,” Whalen says. “I am hopeful that this experience will result in some major improvements in the longer term for me, namely a reduction in volume and duration of work travel, increased flexibility to work from home, and improved child care benefits.”

Whalen plans to encourage every employer she works with to provide more paid leave and greater flexibility and support when it comes to re-onboarding working parents coming back from leave. These actions now will benefit companies in the long-run.

“COVID has highlighted the importance of focusing on productivity over activity and so we are doing a lot of work focusing on how to work smarter, not harder,” Whalen says. “The companies that will come out on top over the next one to two years are the ones that will continue to invest in developing and retaining top talent during and through this pandemic.”

SOURCE: Schiavo, A. (22 December 2020) "The top tool for retaining your working parent population" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/news/parental-leave-and-other-family-planning-benefits-will-be-a-key-investment-in-2021


The new battles to come over working from home

A lot of things can be expected to go back to normal once the COVID-19 pandemic is truly over. Restaurants, cruise ships and resort towns will be packed again. Spending on home improvements will subside.

Since early last spring, though, many thoughtful people have been speculating that the workplace will never be the same. The success of the great experiment in working from home during the pandemic has made it much clearer than it was before that many of the things we do in offices can be done just as well or better while working remotely and communicating electronically. And because a lot of the best jobs in recent decades have been concentrated in crowded, expensive cities, this could also provide an opportunity for workers to relocate to places where life is simpler and real estate cheaper.

The extent of this permanent shift remains anybody’s guess. But views about it are becoming better informed as time passes, and two recent releases of survey data offer a fascinating compilation of them. They express a consensus that a lot more work will be done remotely in the future than was the case before the pandemic, but also reveal some potential conflicts over how exactly that will play out.

Hiring managers surveyed for online talent marketplace Upwork, for example, predict that 37.5% workers at their organizations will be working remotely at least part of the time five years from now, up from 21.2% before the pandemic.

Meanwhile, on the basis of several large surveys of workers conducted from May through October, economists Jose Maria Barrero, Nicholas Bloom and Steven J. Davis, in a paper titled “Why Working From Home Will Stick,” forecast that 22% of all full work days in the U.S. will be supplied from home after the pandemic ends, compared with just 5% before.

That estimate is based on workers’ assessments of their employers’ plans. The workers themselves would like to stay home 44% of the time — a preference that is roughly constant across demographic groups, education levels and incomes. But expectations about employers’ plans vary a lot, especially by worker income.

For another, their employers may get more out of it. The Barrero-Bloom-Davis surveys asked respondents to assess their efficiency working from home during the pandemic relative to what they had expected, and higher-income workers reported the biggest positive difference.

These are self-reported estimates, and may not reflect actual productivity gains. But Bloom, a professor at Stanford University, is co-author of a much-cited study that found call-center workers at a Chinese online travel agency to be 13% more productive when allowed to work remotely. He, Barrero (Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico) and Davis (University of Chicago) conclude on the basis of their surveys that post-pandemic work-from-home plans could raise productivity by as much as 2.4%.

Other factors include the reduced stigma of working at home, investments by employers and employees in better work-from-home arrangements (which in their estimation added up to as much as 1.2% of 2020 gross domestic product), improved technologies and positive network effects from more people working remotely.

As we’ve already seen, though, the benefits of remote work probably won’t be evenly distributed among income groups. They also probably won’t be evenly distributed between genders: the Barrero-Bloom-Davis surveys found that men were more likely to be able to work from home, and also reported bigger productivity gains from doing so.

Then there are the geographical implications. Earlier this fall, Upwork Chief Economist Adam Ozimek concluded on the basis of multiple surveys that 6.9% to 11.5% of U.S. households are planning to move because of the new remote-work opportunities created during the pandemic, most to places two hours or more away from their current location (i.e. outside of daily commuting range). Barrero, Bloom and Davis estimate that increased working from home will decrease spending on meals, entertainment and shopping in major business districts in the U.S. by 5% to 10% relative to pre-pandemic levels.

A lot will depend on the particular shape that remote work ends up taking. In the Barrero-Bloom-Davis surveys, about half of those who can work from home envision a future in which they’ll do so one to four days a week but still come into the office at least once a week, while 27.3% hope to work from home full time.

Some Silicon Valley companies have already informed workers who have moved to places with lower living costs that their pay will be cut commensurately. So while there will likely be significant economic gains from increased remote work, it’s far from clear yet who will get to pocket most of them.

SOURCE: Fox, J. (17 December 2020) "The new battles to come over working from home" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/articles/the-new-battles-to-come-over-working-from-home


HR checklist: 5 things to-do before the new year

2020 has been… a year. But before HR professionals look hopefully to the future, they need to tie up loose ends to ensure their workforce starts the new year off on the right foot.

“This has been a strange year, and a stressful one for both employees and their companies,” says Tauhidah Shakir, vice president of human resources and chief diversity officer at Paylocity, an Illinois-based HR software company. “Anything you can do to get ahead of things to wrap up this year is going to help alleviate that stress and get everyone off to a good start.”

The pandemic has caused a lot of stress in the workplace. In November alone, 42% of Americans reported experiencing cases of anxiety or depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As an HR manager, Shakir believes that staying organized, and helping employees through end of year changes will help alleviate stress for everyone. To help other employers cope with these unprecedented times, she created an end of the year to-do list to help other HR professionals stay on track.

 Note last payroll date

“Keep an eye on the payroll process, and be sure to note the first day of the New Year falls on a Friday so it doesn’t take you by surprise,” Shakir says. “You have to make sure people are getting their sick and bonus time. Have it all plotted out so you’re not rushing at the last minute.”

 Open enrollment

“This isn’t like any other open enrollment; HR needs to over communicate what benefits they’re offering, and which ones are going to help their employees the most,” she says. “We don’t know how much things are going to change in the New Year; make sure employees are prepared by making them aware of any mental health, financial wellness and other benefits that can help.”

 Go paperless

“Since many of us are not all working in the same space right now, this is the perfect time to switch the workforce over to a completely paperless documentation process,” Shakir says. “Email employees their end of year documents; it’s going to be a lot less stressful than them waiting for it to come through the mail.”

 Employee feedback

“This year presented a lot of challenges for everyone, and you’re going to want to take any lessons learned into the New Year,” she says. “You’re looking for lessons learned, ways to improve to make benefits more accessible to employees. There’s always room for improvement, so be sure to be open to what employees are telling you.”

 Be flexible

“A lot of employees are fatigued about working from home and feeling like they have no control right now,” Shakir says. “Remember employees have a lot on their plate right now, especially with the winter holidays going on, so be kind and flexible about when they work so they can juggle all their responsibilities.”

SOURCE: Webster, K. (16 December 2020) "HR checklist: 5 things to-do before the new year" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/list/hr-checklist-5-things-to-do-before-the-new-year


4 questions before reopening your office

With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing, many firms are still up in the air when it comes to office reopenings. As they think about whether (and how) to bring staff back in, there are four major questions to consider.

 What factors are the most important to consider when planning safe returns to the office?

Employers should first familiarize themselves with the CDC recommendations for workplaces and implement those precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

As firms are preparing for what safe work will look like on the other side of the pandemic, it will be crucial to go beyond those standard protocols. By thoughtfully reevaluating the configuration of your office space, firms can work to minimize any health risks in shared office environments.

Here are a few ways to do this:
1. Display signage to alert your employees and guests to routinely sanitize their hands, and provide sanitization stations throughout office space.
2. Lower conference and meeting room capacities.
3. Limit the number of chairs in shared spaces and around tables.

In Firmspace’s private offices, we provide daily office cleaning and keep high-touch areas sanitized. This also helps members and staff feel safer at work, and it’s an approach that can be easily replicated.

More importantly, the measures that firms adopt should be part of a normalized routine for the office. By making these practices part of the daily routine, the people at your firm will have the peace of mind they need to focus on work instead of worrying about their safety.

 How can firms gauge what the best work environment is for their employees?

Finding the best work environment for your firm requires ongoing communication to understand what each member of the team needs to be successful.

Executive teams and management need to keep open lines of communication and encourage employees to evaluate what’s working for them and what’s not. When it comes to what workers prefer in their workspace, it’s clear that usually one size doesn’t fit all.

It might seem obvious, but the best way to find out what works best for your employees is through continuous survey and feedback. If you checked in with everyone back in March, it’s time to send out another survey to see how they’re managing.

In each survey it’s important to be direct. Ask each member of the team how they feel about working from home, what challenges they are facing, what they expect from employers if they do decide to return, and whether or not they want to return to the office now or in the future. You should leave room on the survey to write in any specific concerns that the survey didn’t address.

Ultimately, employees need a work environment that helps them get work done, whether that’s remote or in the office. Even if the majority of your team prefers working from home full time, you should still provide flexible options for the workers who prefer operating from an office space, especially if it helps them feel more productive and engaged.

Similarly, you’ll want to make sure that you’re supporting employees who want to work remotely. That might mean reimbursing them for equipment they need. Either way, this will help remote employees feel more comfortable and productive at home.

 How can firms best manage employees in a remote environment to maintain productivity?

Better managing remote teams means taking a holistic look at how your business operates and the kinds of tools your team is using to get work done. While some firms made a smooth transition to remote work, others are scrambling to adapt and find the right ones.

Frequent communication is key. Firms should regularly speak with teams to identify any gaps in business operations, tools, or technology that can’t easily be accessed remotely.

Read more: Best tools to support your remote workforce

Many firms are finding it challenging to work with Zoom and other video conferencing applications in centralized digital workspaces commonly used at accounting firms, like Citrix.

This is partly because compatibility between the systems has never quite been tested and relied upon as it is now. Cloud-based applications like these that allow for communication and collaboration have gone from “nice to have” to “must have” for firms managing remote teams.

Cloud-based services offer enhanced security and allow members of the team to get work done, no matter their physical location. The files on the cloud server are also encrypted and can only be accessed by designated members of the team with a password.

Firms that haven’t implemented remote access and cloud-based technology should strongly consider making the change. Effectively managing remote teams means that leadership needs to provide access to all the resources that support security, privacy, and collaboration for their teams to stay productive.

What factors should firms consider before switching to flexible office space instead of returning to their traditional office to reduce costs?

The decision to remain in your current office or go with flex space depends on the direction of the firm. Even before COVID-19, firms were using flex space as either home base or as a satellite office. COVID has exacerbated this need as firms explore flexible office arrangements, which are much friendlier to unexpected turns in the market.

We are seeing firms take this opportunity to construct a list of office “must-haves” by asking themselves what is the real value of having an office. Some firms will go fully remote or find flex space, some will keep their traditional leased offices, and the rest will wind up somewhere in between.

Firms should strongly consider resisting the urge to give up all real estate, even if their employees prefer working from home. The pendulum will likely swing back in the other direction in the future and some employees may desire an office environment.

That said, for many firms, spending money on an office that may or may not get used in the next year doesn’t seem worth it. Utilizing flex office space allows firms to keep their occupancy costs down and quickly scale up or down based on market factors.

Fortunately, there are flexible rental options available for firms of all sizes that can accommodate those that are looking to become more agile without sacrificing the workplace experience.

SOURCE: Michael, A. (11 December 2020) "4 questions before reopening your office" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/list/4-questions-before-reopening-your-office


5 tips for a work-from-home holiday

Unfortunately, this holiday season will not offer a respite from the pandemic. Vaccination and a return to normalcy are on the horizon, but they won’t arrive before the end of the year. In fact, the cold temperatures and increase in travel during the holidays are forcing experts to urge caution and predict the worst. Under these circumstances, holiday work gatherings are foolish and even keeping the office open feels unwise. That doesn’t mean, though, you have to shut down the holiday spirit.

You already have the tech in place for a remote holiday experience. You’ve gotten used to Zoom, even if you’re not in love with it. When you know how to lead in a work-from-home environment, emceeing a party is no biggie. Is it as fun as a party in the flesh? Probably not, but it can still be fun all the same. Here are a few tips to ensure you do just that.

Prioritize safety

This tip is a no-brainer if there ever was one. The advice from experts is clear: You should not host an in-person gathering for your holiday party. It’s just that simple. As Thanksgiving showed, some people simply cannot resist getting together with their families during this time of year. While you won’t be able to enforce prudence in your team member’s personal lives, you can surely do so when it comes to company parties. No matter how much you love your annual gathering, no matter how much you’ve been looking forward to it, you just can’t have it as you normally would.

Keep mandatory events brief

At this point, we all know how real Zoom fatigue is. It’s one thing when we have to stay in meetings all day for work purposes. However, making people wait on-screen for hours during optional activities is akin to cruel and unusual punishment. To avoid this fate, front-load important games, events, and announcements on the party schedule. Over time, the party should get more formless, allowing people an easy escape if they don’t want to hang out for too long. In other words, don’t make it like a wedding where everyone needs to wait four hours between the ceremony and the food.

Prioritize interactivity

There are a whole host of ways to bring partygoers together across physical space. From games that work well over Zoom to sending cocktail kits to your team, there’s a method of group interaction that will delight your team members. I would recommend not doing anything that’s too onerous on the team members themselves. For example, it’s better for you to send gifts to the team than to try to organize a virtual Yankee Swap. The latter may be a good idea in theory, but it will run into snags if everyone fails to mail their gifts on time. You’ll find more success if you handle that stuff yourself. Also, don’t forget to tell team members to expect a piece of mail, lest they open it before the party and ruin the surprise.

Consider alternative ways to say thanks

One upshot of not having an in-person party is that you’ll save a ton of money. Consider doing something with this to benefit your team and community. Maybe you want to make a charitable donation on behalf of your firm. Perhaps you’d like to offer some precious extra time off to the folks who’ve given their all during an incredibly difficult year. Whatever route you choose, these gestures will surely make a real difference in people’s lives.

Keep the spirit alive

The holidays, we’re often told, are defined by the spirit of generosity and warmth more than by any event or gift. This year will put that maxim to the test unlike any other. Sure, things look a little differently this year, but we can all adapt, overcome, and still partake in the most wonderful time of year.

SOURCE: Vetter, A. (16 December 2020) "5 tips for a work-from-home holiday" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/list/5-tips-for-a-work-from-home-holiday


Can employers mandate workers be vaccinated before returning to work?

With COVID-19 vaccines now being administered in the U.S., planning for a post-pandemic future could soon be a reality. As employers prepare to reopen offices, they have to consider whether they are going to require employees be vaccinated, and have the processes in place to support such a mandate.

“Protection is a must, not a nice to have,” says Gary Pearce, chief risk architect at Aclaimant, a workplace safety and risk management platform. “If you can't demonstrate that you're protecting your own people, you're not going to be able to keep employees.”

The Pfizer vaccine has been authorized by the Food and Drug Administration and will provide 100 million doses of the vaccine by the end of March, 2021. A second vaccine from Moderna is undergoing authorization from the FDA this week. Moderna has also promised 100 million doses by March.

Sixty percent of Americans say they would "definitely" or "probably" get a coronavirus vaccine, according to the Pew Research Center. Twenty-one percent say they do not plan to get vaccinated.

Employers may be tasked with mandating employees be vaccinated before returning to work. This tactic could be challenging because of personal opinions about vaccines, as well as the timeline of the roll out.

“There's still a lot of objection about vaccinations. Part of it is concern and part of it is ignorance,” Pearce says. “Given the reality, it won’t be like we’re flicking a switch. The vaccine will roll out over time.”

While employers are eager to return to the physical workplace, ensuring the safety of their employees must be top priority, Pearce says. Employers should communicate frequently and openly with employees to ensure they feel heard and their concerns are being met. He shares how employers can navigate vaccine mandates for COVID-19 and the best way to enforce these rules before returning to work.

 Can employers require employees to have the COVID-19 vaccine before returning to work?

It's pretty clearly established that yes, [individual] employers can require mandatory vaccinations, as a matter of prior health crises and common law. There'll be some industries where it's going to be a mandate, like in healthcare, for example. But private employers generally can require their employees to be vaccinated.

There are some exceptions. If somebody has a medical condition that puts them at a reasonable risk, then you have to go through the traditional Americans with Disabilities Act dialogue of determining whether a reasonable accommodation can be provided or whether having to provide such an accommodation would constitute an undue hardship. The second big issue is that if you have somebody who has a bonafide religious objection, you have to take that into consideration. You might want to make an accommodation, but that obligation is not absolute.

 How can employers enforce this rule?

If you're going to have that requirement, you have to have all the administrative processes in place. How do you verify as an employer that somebody went and got it? What documentation will suffice? How will you ensure confidentiality of this medical information?

If somebody is very resistant to this mandate, they could be a workplace disrupter. If ultimately you say, ‘You’ve had the opportunity to follow the mandate,’ then what else are you willing to do to make good on that? You should be prepared to find qualified replacements.

You can't just base your program and processes around what COVID-19 regulations are, because they are almost always retroactive to real world developments. Instead, base it around what the right thing is to do for your workforce, and use your relationships with your employees as a way to shape and inform the program you establish.

What are some alternatives to an employer mandate to get employees on board with this policy?

There's a certain trust culture and an existing relationship you have with your workforce. The science and information regarding COVID is constantly changing, and there will be a lot of questions. So where will employees turn for guidance and information? One of the places they're going to turn is their employer. The employer is going to be a source of information as the vaccinations roll out, so they need to ensure they’re conducting business safely to make employees confident in what they're doing. Employers need to be proactive and repetitive in terms of communication with their workers.

Employees are going to have a sixth sense for whether they trust the message from their employer. They may not like it, but at least if it's credible and they understand the reasoning and that the employer is trying to balance the needs of the public and fellow workers, people are going to get with the program. I think the best case is when it doesn't have to come down to a mandate, but rather people are persuaded by having been given the best information, this is the right thing to do to protect their family and to protect their fellow workers.

SOURCE: Place, A. (10 December 2020) "Can employers mandate workers be vaccinated before returning to work?" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/list/can-employers-mandate-workers-be-vaccinated-before-returning-to-work


3 alternative ways clients can use an HSA

HSAs get hailed as a boon to retirement savers, offering rare triple-tax advantage status to dollars deposited within. But these accounts, offered in tandem with high-deductible health insurance coverage, are far more versatile than they get credit for.

Typically thought of and discussed primarily as a way to help clients meet medical bills today or in their future retirement, HSAs can provide assistance beyond this narrow scope, with funds eligible for use to pay Medicare or COBRA premiums, long-term care, and non-medical expenses — all without jeopardizing that special tax treatment.

Medicare and COBRA premiums

Once clients enroll in Medicare they can no longer contribute to their HSA, but they can do something they could never do on a high-deductible plan: use the money they’ve already stashed in it to cover their premiums.

HSA funds can pay for Medicare Parts A, B and D as well as copays for Part D. Medicare HMO, Medicare Advantage, and MAPD plan premiums are also eligible expenses for reimbursement. However, HSAs cannot help with Medicare Supplement Plan or Medigap premiums, says Paul Fronstin, director of the Employee Benefit Research Institute's health research and education program.

Married couples may run into trouble when they go to reimburse themselves for such premium expenses if the account owner isn’t also the spouse who is going onto Medicare or they are not yet 65, warns Roy Ramthun, founder and president of HSA Consulting Services and a former health care policy advisor for President George W. Bush. That’s because, while HSA’s can normally be used to pay expenses incurred by the account owner’s spouse or dependent, Medicare premiums aren’t considered an eligible expense unless the account holder is 65. This means couples with any age gap need to consider whose name the HSA should be under or each open their own HSA so that the older partner doesn’t have to wait until the younger turns 65 to take advantage of this rule. (Opening two separate HSAs will also allow clients age 55 or older to make duel $1,000 catch-up contributions on top of the usual annual limits.)

Clients who reach Medicare age but opt to delay enrolling because they’re still working can also use their HSA money to pay for their employer-sponsored health care as well as continue funding an HSA. They can do this even if their spouse is on Medicare, as long as they’re on a HDHP.

And finally, clients who lost their jobs this year will likely be relieved by another HSA premium exception. If a person has health care continuation coverage, such as with COBRA, or is collecting unemployment compensation under federal or state law then they can use their HSA to pay the premiums for their health insurance, says Fronstin.

“HSA funds will frequently be used by clients to pay premiums in situations where there are little or no alternatives,” says Justin Rucci, a financial planner at Tustin, California-based Warren Street Wealth Advisors. “In a situation where a client was laid off from work, has a hefty HSA balance, and has expensive COBRA premiums, this could be a prime candidate. Alternatively, a wealthy client with a large HSA balance beyond what they would use for out of pocket medical expenses can be a good candidate for this.”

Long-term care

Like with Medicare and COBRA, HSA funds can be used to cover premiums for purchasing long-term care insurance — if it’s the right policy.

To qualify, a policy must provide coverage for only long-term care services and kick in if you need assistance with at least two daily living activities or if you suffer cognitive impairment.

“Honestly, I don’t know how many policies do not meet these requirements,” says Ramthun. “But there may be some out there and clients will want to make sure it is the right kind or else they’re going to have a bad day when they find out it isn’t.”

If your client is unsure, have them verify with their insurer that their policy is tax-qualified before considering such a move or else they could be on the hook for income tax and a penalty.

The amount a client can take from the HSA to pay the premium depends on their age. For 2019, clients 40 or younger can withdraw $420 annually to pay this expense, but those between 41 and 50 can direct almost double, $790, to their long-term care insurance policy. Those between 51 and 60 can withdraw $1,580; 61 to 70 year-olds can take out $4,220 and people 71 and older can withdraw $5,270. (The IRS has not released the limits for 2020, but they usually rise slightly each year. Ramthun expects the new figures will be out in January.)

Alternatively, clients who do purchase long-term care insurance but pay premiums out of their own pocket each year can save those receipts and then withdraw a sum equal to that annual permitted outlay at any time in the future.

Those who would prefer to go without insurance and self-fund possible long-term care costs can tap HSA assets to pay for such expenses as they occur, allowing them to better take advantage of the potential tax-free growth that comes with saving in an HSA. However, not all long-term care costs are reimbursable, warns Ramthun.

Typically long-term services that are needed to handle daily functions if you’re chronically ill or disabled count, as do those required by a plan of care prescribed by a doctor. But those who require help with more maintenance tasks like laundry or cleaning to stay in their home can’t usually use HSA funds as they aren’t considered a medical service. Nursing home costs can also be tricky for this reason as certain medical care or assistance provided at the facility may be eligible for reimbursement but other associated expenses, like room and board or meals, often are not, even at the highest level of dependent care, says Ramthun.

Non-medical expenses

While clients may have the best intentions to save their HSA funds for future medical expenses in retirement, a year like 2020 can derail such plans. If someone needs additional funds, for, say, living expenses after a job loss or an unexpected car repair, they can withdraw funds from their HSA without triggering taxes or a penalty. The catch? They must have unreimbursed past healthcare expenses.

As long as the client had an open HSA when they incurred the medical expense and hasn’t yet tapped it to cover that cost, an amount equal to that bill can be withdrawn at any time and used for any purpose they want. Clients can claim back funds for expenses dating all the way back to 2004, when HSAs were first introduced, provided they had an account. Receipts should be on hand to prove their story in case the IRS comes checking.

One thing that can trip up clients planning to use this feature is a low or empty current HSA balance. That’s because if the account balance remains at zero for 18 months, the IRS considers the HSA closed and any medical expenses you incurred before that time will no longer be reimbursable, even if you open and fund a new HSA. “

“They essentially lose that original HSA establishment date,” says Ramthun.

Financial institutions may also act before the IRS rule kicks in, closing zero balance accounts after 15 months or earlier, again negating the ability to claim back any previous medical expenses.

Clients who move off high-deductible health plans or change employers and can no longer fund an HSA are most likely to fall victim, Ramthun adds, as a withdrawal for a medical cost or fees may empty the account without them being able to do anything to rectify it.

In desperation, clients may opt to pull more from their HSA than they have in past medical bills, but this move will cost them dearly, triggering income tax and a 20% penalty on the amount unmatched to those unreimbursed health care expenses.

Turning age 65, however, lessens this pain, as withdrawals no longer need to be paired with a medical expense to avoid that 20% tax penalty. Income tax, however, will still be owed on any funds removed for non-healthcare expenses, similar to how distributions from a traditional IRA or 401(k) are treated.

SOURCE: Renzulli, K. (04 December 2020) "3 alternative ways clients can use an HSA" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/news/3-alternative-uses-for-an-hsa-include-cobra-premiums-long-term-care-non-medical-expenses