Work from Anywhere? Benefits May Not Be as Flexible

by Doug Ramsthel

Women working on a laptop on her dining room table

Working remote has truly come to mean working from anywhere as employees have started to move to their favorite vacation spots, closer to relatives and out of state to lower-cost areas, so long as there is dependable internet. Remote working is now coming to be viewed as a potential perk to offer employees. However, this initial reaction of allowing work from anywhere may be shortsighted when employee benefit limitations are considered. 

Employee benefits are designed to attract and retain employees, and, when they fall short and fail to offer the promised and expected benefits, can become a motivation for talent to leave. Employers should keep potential benefit limitations in mind before embracing a policy of letting employees work from anywhere.

Benefits often are limited by geography: As an example, if Kaiser is a company’s primary medical plan, moving to a location outside of where Kaiser is offered leaves an employee with no or very limited medical coverage. Under a PPO (preferred provider) plan, a less densely populated area may have a very limited network or perhaps only out-of-network coverage, exposing both the employer and employee to significantly increased claims costs. Disability may function entirely differently from state to state due to state-mandated disability coverage. Understanding these limits and communicating these clearly to the employee who is looking to relocate is extremely important to managing employee expectations and, ultimately, job satisfaction. 

Challenges communicating and educating: Technology-aided attention deficit disorder was here well before COVID, but now it attacks with a sweeping vengeance. Video conference call upon video conference call produces attention fatigue. Most people are guilty of answering emails and texts on these calls while pretending to pay attention. Scientists have provided much data over the years that prove multi-tasking and lack of focus limit the ability for best thinking outcomes and reduce productivity. But most people charge on, ignoring this advice and doing as much at once as possible. Employers must cut through all this noise and communicate and develop an understanding of their programs in a fresh and concise manner, beyond just the obvious of conducting all this virtually. Communicating in an entirely different way will be required. 

Mental health: This period of isolation has been tough for all of us, as we are social creatures. Going through this isolation has been very tough for a lot of us and we have experienced, close and personally, the importance and potential struggle of maintaining good mental health. Three out of five American workers reported feeling lonely during the pandemic, according to a Cigna study. The study found that loneliness has a negative impact on work performance; 12% of lonely workers say they believe the quality of their work is not up to par. These workers also reported feeling “less engaged, less productive” and they constantly think about quitting their jobs. 

According to the Mental Health Index: U.S. Worker Edition, employee stress levels, already considered high before the pandemic, rose 22%, and anxiety rose 45% since February 2020. Employees’ risk of depression is up 145% when compared to before the pandemic. Furthermore, general anxiety is up 80%, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is up 77% and social anxiety is up 61% since last year.

Allowing employees to work from anywhere will require an employee benefits package to beef up coverage and resources to promote and maintain good mental health for employees to remain productive and feel connected.

Benefits administration: With the complicated virtual world now and competing priorities, a company’s benefits administration system needs to be clear and easy for employees to understand and use. With the enhancements and improvement of UX (user experience), employers should consider making this tool a magnate for employees as a place to go for learning and development, company community, and company values and culture. Leaning on these tools to fill in the natural office culture and sense of community that occurs when everyone is together in a workplace but is lacking when employees work from anywhere has never been more important.

Managing the many complications and nuances of benefits that work-from-anywhere requires can be overwhelming. Slowing down and taking the process step-by-step will enable employers to consider how, in the long run, embracing the virtual workplace can result in a more productive, engaged and happy workforce than was ever possible within the confines of an office.  

Did You Know: Working from anywhere can improve quality of life and job satisfaction, but employees should not expect an employer to pick up the tab for a new in-home office setup — and the costs aren’t tax deductible.

Did You Also Know: An analysis by Global Workplace Analytics estimates that if an employee works remotely half the time, the employer will have a projected savings, on average, of $11,000 per year. Employees will also save by reducing costs associated with commuting, between $2,500 and $4,000 per year.

Doug Ramsthel is a partner at Burnham Benefits, a Baldwin Risk Partners Company, one of the top 50 employee benefit consulting firms in the United States.

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