BENEFITS TRENDS FOR 2022
Job flexibility, long-term and short-term financial guidance are in the cards
By Thomas A. McCoy, CLU
The seismic changes to the workplace that began with the pandemic two years ago have rewritten the relationship between employers and employees. The tight labor market has given business owners more reason to pay attention when workers express an interest in certain employee benefits offerings or work arrangements.
Benefits experts have identified three key areas of growing employee interest. They are job flexibility, help with retirement spending decisions, and financial wellness services. In each case, there is evidence that employers are taking these interests seriously.
According to a Mercer survey of employers and employees conducted last August, job flexibility ranks second only to higher pay as the reason why a worker would consider leaving or joining a company. Job flexibility could take many forms, but the pandemic has concentrated most of the attention on remote work arrangements.
Guardian Life’s 2021 Workplace Benefits Study found that employees wishing to work “fully remote” jumped from 4% pre-pandemic to 19% last year; those preferring a hybrid arrangement of at-home and on-site work jumped from 15% to 37%.
Mercer research shows that employers are paying attention: 70% of them say they will offer more flexible work arrangements, mostly (84%) through remote work options.
Business owners are open to the idea of more flexible work arrangements, because their strategic focus has shifted dramatically since the early months of the pandemic. When Guardian surveyed employers for its 2021 study, it found that they were primarily focused on two key objectives: retaining customers and business growth (62%) and implementing safety measures (45%). Only 8% of employers listed “retaining employees” as a top concern.
“Today, it’s all about recruiting and retaining employees,” said Jennifer Schoenig, Guardian’s vice president, Enterprise Shared Services, at a recent Guardian webinar.
“It’s not enough just to offer the remote work option. It has to be
managed in a way that keeps the remote worker engaged.”
Vice President, Enterprise Shared Services
She believes flexible work arrangements are here to stay. The “great experiment” of working from home during the pandemic has given employees a taste of new possibilities, she said. “Work and life intermingled more than they did before. We’ve become accustomed to new behaviors. If you don’t have to commute, you may be able to walk away from work responsibilities at 5:00 or 5:30 and take your child to their soccer game.”
At the same time, Schoenig pointed out, employees gain certain advantages by working on site. “They are able to grow their networks faster and make personal connections. They don’t have to be as intentional about scheduling meetings; they can have a quick conversation in the hallway.
“It’s not enough just to offer the remote work option,” she continued. “It has to be managed in a way that keeps the remote worker engaged.” She provided a few tips to help in-office managers do this.
“Share assignments equally between workers who are remote and those in the office. Don’t just give the assignments with the most visibility to someone who’s sitting right outside your office.”
She also suggested using the video feature on meeting calls involving both remote workers and those in the office and avoiding side conversations among the in-office employees. Moderators on such calls should also make it a point to call on the remote workers early in the meeting, she said.
The way an office schedule is set up can encourage collaboration when remote workers come into the office, she said. For example, an employer can arrange certain days as “core days,” such as Tuesday through Thursday, when some-thing special might be provided such as a free lunch or breakfast or a “wellness day.”
The next area where workers are looking to their employers for help involves their defined contribution (DC) retirement plans. Benefit planners, who for years have coached workers through the savings side of their DC retirement planning, are being asked to help with the spending side of such planning.
Katie Hockenmaier, senior investment consultant for Mercer, told a recent Mercer webinar audience, “Helping plan participants make wise decisions about how they will handle their retirement funds once they do retire is going to be a big focus in the year ahead.
“Helping plan participants make wise decisions about how they
will handle their retirement funds once they retire
is going to be a big focus.”
Senior Investment Consultant
“We’ve seen a growing number of workers, as they get close to retirement, asking questions about actions to take when they retire. They want to know when to take Social Security, how to tap into their 401(k), how to optimize any pension they might have, and how to use their HSA. It all becomes very confusing to plan participants.”
She noted that in a Mercer survey of employees of large organizations conducted in November of 2020, more than 80% of employees in every generation said they were interested in receiving an income stream in retirement.
“A number of new investment products have come on the market to try to address these concerns,” Hockenmaier said. “We think this is going to be an important area to explore in 2022.”
Evidence that employers are responding to workers’ interest in a retirement income stream comes from research by the Plan Sponsor Council of America (PSCA). It surveyed 139 nonprofit organizations with 403(b) plans in 2019 and 2021 to measure their interest in providing their participants with a retirement income stream. Interest jumped from 6.2% in the first survey to 13% two years later.
With employers struggling to attract and retain workers in today’s tight labor market, they have another reason to take special interest in workers’ retirement planning. How do they keep good workers, who may be hard to replace, from retiring sooner than they expect them to?
A Mercer study of 2,000 workers conducted last August found that among workers aged 55 to 64, the top reason they would consider leaving their employer is simply that they are “ready to stop working.” A Mercer report accompanying the research, comments: “This age group is a loyal set of employees with high institutional knowledge, and employers would be wise to try to retain them in a tight labor market.” The report mentions phased retirement or contract working as possible ways to keep retired employees available part-time for mentoring or transfer of knowledge.
Finally, workers have come out of the pandemic with a greater interest in financial wellness services. Separate from retirement planning, financial wellness encompasses advice or products that address short-term issues, such as debt management, as opposed to the longer-term goals of retirement planning.
A recent study by Morgan Stanley, conducted in partnership with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), found that 31% of working Americans reported financial-related anxiety, and 19% reported financial-related depression. The numbers were higher among working women (40% for financial-related anxiety and 24% for financial-related depression).
Financial-related stress also was shown to be higher among younger employees (Gen Zs and Millennials) than for the Gen X and Boomer generations, likely heavily influenced by the student loan debts of many younger employees.
“More disturbing is the finding that they are not getting the help they need,” said Rodney Bolden, field engagement specialist, financial wellness, at Morgan Stanley, at a recent Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) webinar. “Just 9% of working Americans said that they have talked to a medical practitioner (a medical doctor, therapist or psychologist) about the health impacts they have experienced due to financial stress.”
The study found that 91% of employees feel more invested in staying with an employer that offers financial wellness benefits that meet their needs. Yet, only 12% of HR professionals interviewed for the survey reported that their company is offering financial education solutions for employees.
Although financial wellness is in the nascent stage of development as an employee benefit, there is evidence that it is gaining traction among employers. The PSCA survey reported that 12.3% of nonprofit organizations considered financial wellness programs a priority for their plan participants in 2021, an increase from 8.5% in 2019.
Employers with the strongest growth prospects are always sensitive to the needs of their employees. Whether an employer is looking for help with their retirement products, financial wellness services or strategies for flexible work, the perspective and guidance of a benefits broker has never been more valuable.
For more information:
Plan Sponsor Council of America
Thomas A. McCoy, CLU, is an Indiana-based freelance insurance writer.