Benefits Column Focus on Flexibility

Five years ago, when HRE was celebrating its 25th anniversary, workplace flexibility was not nearly as paramount to employers as it is today.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017
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Anniversaries have a way of making us stop and reflect.

Facebook seemed to understand this pull of memories when it introduced its "On This Day" feature in March 2015. Every few days when I open my app, I find myself looking back at what I was doing six to eight years ago. This practice sometimes makes me pause, particularly as I come upon pictures of loved ones who are now gone.

Lately, I seem to be spending more time than usual contemplating memories and anniversaries. On March 19, I participated in my sixth Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., with Disabled Sports USA's Warfighter Sports participants. This year's event commemorated the 75th anniversary of the arduous 65-mile march made in April 1942 by 75,000 Filipino and American troops on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines.  

Eight of the original survivors attended the 2017 march, including 99-year-old Ret. U.S. Army Col. Ben Skardon, who walked the first 8.5 miles of the course for the 10th time. Throughout the weekend, many conversations circled around the factors that differentiated the survivors from their less-fortunate comrades. Participants often used terms such as resilience, resolve and resourcefulness to describe the survivors' traits.

As I consider Human Resource Executive®'s 30th anniversary and how much human resources has changed over those years, I see similarities between the Bataan survivors' intestinal fortitude and that of HR executives. It's been a long, challenging march of time.

When I wrote about the first 25 years of employee-benefit trends for HRE's silver anniversary issue, employers were becoming less generous with some offerings and more creative with others. We witnessed less flexible paid-time off and vacation policies, greater cost sharing with most insurance products (including health coverage), continued growth in voluntary benefits and a weak embrace of flexible-work arrangements. Simultaneously, some companies moved toward customized benefits that incorporated non-traditional products such as pet, auto and homeowner's insurance and were sold through private marketplaces. Other employers added 24-hour concierge services to help workers handle life's demands more easily.

As I review the last five years, however, I'm more reflective than I had been in the past. I'm as interested in the sociological principles behind employee benefits as economic drivers. Perhaps it's because, as Alfred, Lord Tennyson once wrote: "Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers."

Neil Irwin wrote in his March 17, 2017 New York Times' column, Economic View: ". . . [W]hile economists tend to view a job as a straightforward exchange of labor for money, a wide body of sociological research shows how tied up work is with a sense of purpose and identity." I would add that, as we discussed in my last column, the job benefits and perks employees truly care about are those that offer them greater flexibility, autonomy and the ability to lead a better life.

While Gallup's 2017 State of the American Workplace report emphasized that 51 percent of employees would change jobs for one that offered them flexible hours, a new Pew Research Center study found that paid leave was valued by employees as much as flexibility.

The Pew study revealed that Americans largely support paid leave -- and most supporters say employers, rather than the federal or state government, should cover the costs. Here are some of the data points from the research as they pertain to four key elements of paid leave:

* Eighty-five percent of Americans say workers should receive paid leave to deal with their own serious health condition and 62 percent believe employers should pay for that.

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* Next, 82 percent rank mothers receiving paid leave following the birth or adoption of a child as important and 61 percent want employers to fund this.

* Sixty-two percent of people believe fathers need paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child and slightly more than half think their companies need to pay for this.

* And, finally, 67 percent of Americans want employees to receive paid leave to care for a family member with a serious health condition. Thirty-nine percent want employers to pay for this.

Americans also trust that employers will gain from having robust paid-leave policies and procedures. Almost three-quarters say that companies providing paid leave are more likely than those that don't to attract and retain good workers.

The Pew study also found great confusion among employees regarding their understanding of whether their companies offered paid leave. Forty-three percent of employed Americans said their employer offers them paid leave, separate from vacation, sick leave or paid time off, following the birth or adoption of a child, to care for a family member with a serious health condition or to deal with their own serious condition. However, this percentage is considerably higher than what the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. Based upon its estimates from compensation information provided by employers, only 13 percent of workers received pay as part of family or medical leave benefits paid by their employer (separate from vacation, sick leave or paid-time off).

This suggests that some workers who think they have access to employer-paid family and medical leave may not, in fact, have this benefit. And that's a problem -- especially if this misunderstanding causes people to pass on contributing to employee-paid disability coverage either through a core/buy-up plan or voluntary offerings.

From both sociological and attraction-and-retention perspectives, employees want flexibility from their companies. According to both Gallup and the Pew Research Center, they equally want to schedule when they work (giving full consideration to making certain they accomplish their work objectives) and they want to be paid if they need to leave the workplace to care for themselves or a loved one. They also want the flexibility to work from home and receive paid time off for routine physician's appointments or to deal with minor illnesses.

As we head into the future, HR executives will have little choice but to focus their energies on the overarching theme of workplace flexibility and more precisely, the topic of broad paid-time-off policies.

Carol Harnett is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett and on her video blog, The Work.Love.Play.Daily.


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