How the Pandemic Changed Employee Benefits from Prix-fixe Menu to “Buffet”

Jenny was our first remote hire at hatch I.T.

She interviewed at our Northern Virginia headquarters and planned to move to our newest branch in Durham, North Carolina. Then the pandemic hit, and she found herself trapped in New York City. Our new Durham office was on hold.

Jenny’s experience wasn’t unique. Across America, employees began working from home, and many companies questioned the need to go back to full-time office work at all. Suddenly, benefits like company-sponsored gym memberships didn’t make much sense.

Jenny was the first to ask: why was the company paying for gym memberships we could no longer use, at a gym she couldn’t get to?

The pandemic forced companies to question what benefits they offer, like gym stipends. It also accelerated a fundamental shift in the relationship between employers and employees. Many companies are now exploring ways to let employees personalize perks and choose from a buffet of options. Due to the shift to remote work, unique perks like pet health insurance and “total wellness” (holistic coverage that addresses mental health, nutrition, and more) are rapidly becoming part of a buffet-style benefits menu.

The old, pre-pandemic model worked a lot like a prix-fixe dinner. Benefits packages generally featured a standard list of options with little choice. Most new employees could expect to choose between a few pre-selected healthcare plans that were often accompanied by dental, vision, and retirement benefits. Perks were often limited to the occasional educational, gym, or commuter stipend.

The new model works much more like a buffet. Employees can expect to pick and choose from several unique perks, up to a certain cost. They’ll also have a lot more flexibility to request additions and substitutions. Rather than a DC commuter benefit or Virginia gym membership, employees can purchase a meditation app.

Another DC-area company, Morning Consult, offers employees options like an internet stipend and a one-time bonus to buy home office supplies. Companies like Kohler and Oshkosh use plans like Foodsmart to create more personalized benefits packages.

Foodsmart integrates with food ordering services like Instacart, Walmart, and Amazon Fresh while providing personalized meal plans. On its own, Foodsmart is a noteworthy example of how benefits are becoming customizable. But Foodsmart now integrates into an even larger benefits buffet.

Virgin Pulse brings many personalized benefits into a simple digital solution for employers. These benefits address physical health, mental wellbeing, and even return-to-workplace Coronavirus preemption toolkits.

There are many benefits to the new buffet model. We recently interviewed Hilliary Turnipseed, the founder of Hill Street Strategies, to get her advice on building an inclusive recruiting process and workplace.

Her recommendation: “tailor the environment to [your employees]. … To successfully build a diverse workforce, you want to make sure it’s an inclusive workforce. To make that happen, it’s necessary to establish an environment and culture where employees are heard and valued.”

Employees have different needs and interests. Now they have different offices too – their homes.  One-size-fits-all benefits no longer serve the majority of employees.

The pandemic and shift to working from home have made companies more aware of employee diversity. A prix-fixe benefits menu is no longer enough.

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