The COVID-19 crisis revealed several unexpected positives over the last few months: it proved, for one thing, that many companies truly prioritize their employees' well-being and are ready and willing to act on that value. It also showed that companies are prepared to match their health and safety measures with benefits that help employees cope better with the situation: from enhanced medical insurance to additional caregiver leave to increased generosity around flexible working arrangements.
But at the same time, it has made work-life balance even less achievable than previously, as working from home erased the boundaries between the time that should be dedicated to work and the time that should be reserved for oneself.
Companies are now more open to flexibility and benefits
One study by Aon found that 74 percent of firms have enhanced their employee assistance programs to put the various aspects of employee well-being front and center; there is generally more understanding of people's needs and a greater openness towards benefits that specifically target well-being, according to Aon Future of Work Lead Peter Bentley.
Other surveys and anecdotes have noted an increase in family-friendly policies, especially for caregivers such as parents with young children. Some companies shared with People Matters that they have introduced additional benefits specifically to deal with the impact of COVID-19, such as extra paid leave or increased flexibility in working arrangements.
Calling such benefits a step in the right direction to respect better work-life balance, Arthur Willmann, Managing Director of Porsche Asia Pacific, said: "These measures go a long way in helping our employees cope with the added demands of working at home, which were brought to the forefront during this time especially for employees with caregiving responsibilities in their home lives."
The pandemic has also brought conversations around mental well-being out into the open. With the crisis and the abrupt change to remote work intensifying stress on employees, companies have become increasingly willing to acknowledge the need for mental health support—if not through tangible benefits like a mental health day off, then through strong messaging making it clear that employees will be supported in managing their personal situations.
And given that many organizations are giving serious thought to the idea of permanent remote working, these benefits and support, and the attitude driving them, may be here to stay.
"In this new configuration, where working from home and working in the workplace will coexist, new benefits will emerge," predicted Leong Chee Tung, the CEO of EngageRocket. "Organizations are already rethinking their investments to provide enhancements for home offices to improve resource accessibility and productivity—instead of free lunches and fancy pantries."
But 'work' and 'life' have become blurred together
Surveys from around the world are surfacing an unhappy trend: even as people save time on their commute, they are putting it right back into their work. Depending on where employees are located in the world, their working days might be anything from one to four hours longer as they spend additional time in meetings and check-ins, attempt to prove their productivity, or simply lose track of time because the working day no longer has clear boundaries.
Some business leaders are becoming actively worried about the impact on employees. For instance, Adam Reynolds, the APAC CEO of Saxo Markets, told People Matters that some of his employees have been working over weekends and late into the night, and burnout is starting to become a concern.
HR leaders, on their part, have been strenuously trying to reverse the trend by encouraging employees to actually stop working when they need to.
"We’ve made a concerted effort to continuously remind employees that, they know their personal circumstances and needs best, and that they have complete flexibility in terms of how and when they want to work, and that we support them in their choices," shared Amanda Gervay, Senior Vice President of Human Resources for Mastercard in the Asia Pacific.
Calling work-life balance a strategic priority, Sheena Ponnappan, Chief People Officer of Everise, said: "It is important to help our teams find space, both physically and mentally. As with all contributing factors to organizational culture, this is a top-down approach, wherein leaders lookout for impending burnout and poor work-life balance, so we may take meaningful action."
And Deborah Woollard, Cisco's Vice President of HR for the APJC region, described it as ensuring that employees have the permission to balance themselves. "It's our job at the back end to provide the support and tools so that if someone is mentally stressed and needs an outlet, or has financial difficulties, they have some way of dealing with it," she said.
Could better work-life balance broaden the talent pool?
The intensified focus on employee well-being, with the accompanying recognition and acceptance of how personal and family needs may overlap with work, seems likely to spill over into other areas of people management—specifically hiring. The openness and understanding mentioned by Aon's Bentley could well extend to candidates for the talent pipelines of the future.
Preet Grewal, Head of Inclusion & Diversity at Twitter JAPAC, told People Matters that the recent months of WFH have challenged many negative preconceptions around the commitment of employees who desire such flexibility, such as working mothers, part-time employees, or people with disabilities who may find a face-time culture more challenging. "Organizations where the culture did not encourage work from home previously may now experience a shift in mindsets—perhaps on hiring from talent pools that were previously excluded," she suggested.
Agreeing, EngageRocket's Leong observed that telecommuting will broaden the available talent pool and enable greater diversity in the workplace. "For people with personal constraints or disabilities, the opportunity to work from home is a game-changer," he said. "Flexible working hours and shorter journeys remove conventional boundaries that may prevent these profiles from applying for job offers."
And there has in fact been a noticeable shift towards time flexibility among candidates, according to Mastercard's Gervay. "This is potentially widening the talent pool by opening up more opportunities to primary caregivers to be able to work full time jobs while also fulfilling their caregiving responsibilities," she said "Secondly, many candidates are interested in understanding how Mastercard, as their potential future employer, has responded to COVID-19 and how we are supporting our employees during this period."
It's indeed worth remembering that the role of benefits, and what they say about organizational culture, has been recognized in talent attraction and retention for years. In the war for future-ready talent, companies that have been quick to offer their employees support during this stressful period, and that display greater understanding and empathy towards the needs of their people outside the workplace, will have that much more of an edge.