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Time to Get Ahead of the Curve?
We need to stay on top of all the work-from-home changes that are happening in benefits management

"We’ve all been working from home for the last four months and now it looks like we’re probably never going to go back to working in the office." It’s a statement I’m hearing every day, as more and more workplaces are discovering that working from home is working out better than anyone ever imagined.

We need to be on top of this – to figure out where work and employment and benefits are going. Wherever they’re going, it’s pretty clear that they’re going there fast, and we need to be ahead of the curve.

Consider the following:

– Statistics Canada just reported that 40% of Canadians were currently working from home. That’s four times as many as in 2018, when the report that 10% were working from home caused a stir and generated many articles about the “revolution happening in the Canadian workplace.” If 10% was a revolution in 2018, what do we call 40% today?

– StatsCan also reported that the number of jobs in Canada that can reasonably be performed from home was… yes, 40%. That suggest that basically everyone who can work from home is now working from home. (And it’s not that 40% of workers in the office can work from home – it’s more like almost everyone can work from home in 40% of offices.)

– But here’s the kicker: A June survey by the polling firm Angus Reid reported that two-thirds of people currently working from home do not expect ever to go back to 9-to-5 office work.

Let’s accept that work-from-home is here to stay. So what changes are happening in benefits management? And what changes can we expect to see in the near future, as things shake out and the economy settles into its new normal?

Changes in pay structure. One of the headlines in the news last week was about Facebook – one of the most powerful and influential corporations on the planet. Mark Zuckerberg, their CEO, apparently told his 48,000 employees that, yes, they could probably mostly work from home, but, oh by the way, they should expect “salary adjustments” based on the cost of living in their communities. I’m guessing that not too many Facebook employees will be getting memos from their HR department saying, “Good news! Since you live in downtown San Francisco, where a one-bedroom apartment goes for US$3600 a month, we’re giving you a 15% raise.” More likely it will be, “We see you’ve moved to Dalton Gardens, Idaho, where you can rent a nice bungalow for US$1200 a month, so we’ve adjusted your pay downward by 20%.” As Facebook goes, so goes the world? Maybe. Maybe not. But we have to consider how this – if it becomes a trend – would affect the cost structure of providing benefits.

Contract employment. The simplest, and in many ways most attractive solutions for employers faced with managing employees off-site – especially start-ups – is just to switch to contract work instead. How will this affect benefits entitlement? Do employers have to look at working with providers to create benefits packages tailored for contract employees? Will governments intervene with restrictions on contracting out, and protections for contract workers?

Different mix of claims. As we put more and more months of working from home behind us, and the numbers of claims and expenses during that time start to get big enough to be statistically relevant – as we recognize them as trends rather than bumps in the road — will we see a change in the overall claims picture? More of one type of claim, fewer of another? More or less cost for some claims? New types of claims? Greater administrative cost for some or all claims? For an industry based on actuarial science and predictive analysis of large amounts of data, even small shifts could have a major effect.

Different EAP issues. One of the things that I expect to see change is the profile of employee assistance plan (EAP) issues. This may happen fairly gradually. The types of issues that employees come to the EAP with have always tended to be longer-term issues – things that build up gradually over a fairly long period of time. That means that some issues, related to the office environment, may well go away, while other issues related to coping with work from home will build up and start to be reflected in claims.

New “workplace” stresses: When the home becomes the workplace, a lot of new stresses can come into the picture. One we’ve been hearing about in the news is marital stress. People whose routines used to include nine or ten hours a day apart suddenly find themselves together all day, and not everyone is able to adapt.

Isolation and mental wellness. For a great many people, their life outside the home, the social interaction of the workplace, was a key factor in maintaining a sense of stability. For some, it provided a counterbalance to their life at home, and for many people who live alone, it was a vital link to the rest of the world. Removing the social interaction will leave many people struggling to cope.

Quality of life benefits. One of the issues that we have discussed here in the past was the importance of “quality of life” benefits, and the role they played in employee retention and “the well workplace.” So how do we define the well workplace when it’s a virtual space? What benefits go out the window – besides the quinoa salad in the cafeteria? What quality of life issues can and should employers consider for employees working off-site?

Liability. There are many differences between a situation in which an employee asks for, and is granted permission, to work from home, and an employer who says you have to work from home. Issues of duty of care of employees that clearly apply on the employer’s premises are blurred when the employee works off-site. Workers’ compensation – which already has rules about working off-site – can become an issue for employers covered by the plan.

We can’t yet see the shape of the changes to benefits management we know are happening. And there is always the unexpected that we have learned by now to expect. But as all this plays out, I think our field of benefits management is going to see its share of changes. It’s our time to get ahead of the curve in predicting and responding to change.

In the meantime, with coronavirus hopefully on the downslope and all of its long-term effects just starting to take hold, keep safe, stay healthy, carry on… and Happy Canada Day!aH


The 2020 edition of the Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey is now available. We have gained insights on issues and trends from these surveys in the past, and it’s always an interesting read.


If there is a topic that you would like me to write about, please email me at?bill@penmore.com.

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