I can’t think of any time more critical than now to develop and implement strategies for communicating employee benefits. Your organization is likely to be operating primarily remotely for the first time and stress on everyone is heightened due to COVID-19. I have seen employee benefit communications taken for granted in normal times, so it is really important for business owners and human resource personnel to be intentional and excessive in keeping employees educated about their benefits, health, and safety.
First, it is critical to communicate that city, statewide, and federal rules or guidelines are constantly changing, especially in regard to health and safety. Make sure they understand that nothing is “written in stone”. Though working remote brings new challenges, employees often feel psychologically safe in their own environment. The upside is they may be even more focused on their health and wellness at home than being distracted in an office environment. However, if you have employees who are used to stopping by your office to find out about their sick leave or whether their health plan covers a certain procedure, these times can be very difficult for both them and for you.
Everyday you are probably experiencing a new issue with technology or new IRS notices or the call from an employee that they have two or three symptoms of the coronavirus. As the communicator of information, you need to assess the following immediately:
Do all of your employees have equal access to the technology they need? Reliable internet is key, as many home Wi-Fi systems don’t scale well if there is a large demand on the network, especially when others in the home may be simultaneously watching Netflix or other entertainment venues. Be sure you have someone on your team available to assist employees who may not be savvy about these issues. Ensure that employees also have a solid understanding about the tools you are wanting to use with them. Sounds silly…but communicate how to use the communications tools!
Are you using a variety of communications channels? This might include internal instant messaging, Zoom meetings, a private Facebook group, shared online doc workplaces, and other channels which are managed well and live up to HIPPA and other business practice requirements. Keep in mind that there will be a learning curve when you adjust to using communications channels which have been secondary in the regular workplace. For example, if you typically do not use webinars, email, or phone voice messages, you will want to help employees adjust to your changing communications.
There are many other considerations, but I see these as essential in preparing the “news” and education about benefits your employees need. Addressing concerns and increasing your frequency of messages can go a long way in supporting your employees. Though there are many topics to cover in your communications, here are three that I think are relevant from my conversations with our clients:
Sick Leave and FMLA
Reliable sources you are reviewing must be shared with your employees. All communications should follow the guidelines posted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to the CDC, employers should define their sick leave policy per state-issued public health guidelines. It also suggests that employers actively encourage sick employees who show symptoms of acute respiratory illness and have a fever to stay home. Even if you have employees working on a flexible schedule, part-time or only coming into the office for specific work, this is critical communications. Also communicate with them all of the measures you will put in place to help prevent other employees’ exposure to the virus. While your organization may have a sick leave policy in place, ensure that you restate it and encourage employees to take time off if they start showing such symptoms. Consider creating a special policy to tackle the situation as a precautionary measure. One of our sources for a sample policy in regard to working remote is HR Service, Inc.
With the new paid leave bill, an increased number of sick days become easier to support. Be sure you are up to date on this bill. Your business continuity plan must incorporate flexible working arrangements wherever possible.
Have you communicated the processes and benefits of your telehealth plan lately? Medical offices are using their own telehealth systems to follow up or plan visits with their patients. Encourage workers to use telehealth services, if your plan offers one, unless their symptoms are severe. Employee interest in telehealth is growing, according to a recent statistic from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, nearly 9 in 10 Americans over 40 would be comfortable using at least one type of telemedicine for themselves or a loved one, which is just as likely as those 18 to 39 years old.
If you do not offer a telehealth benefit, this is definitely the time to add one to your employee benefits. The coronavirus is making this benefit essential, and I anticipate telehealth will continue to grow as a voluntary benefit, whether companies pay the very minimal fee or offer it to their employees who cover the monthly fee. For example, the first provider in the United States, Teladoc, and the one which my firm represents, was the first to have a provider credentialing process that is certified by NCQA (The National Committee for Quality Assurance) and provides all visits performed only by a physician who have completed in depth training specific to telehealth.
Telehealth not only offers an opportunity to talk to a physician about the symptoms to watch for the coronavirus, but also keeps your employees and their families out of medical facilities where the virus and others such as the flu are potential for exposure. Many medical prescriptions can be written by the telehealth provider. Diagnosis through telehealth for most minor injuries or a child’s stomach ache in the middle of the night helps our extremely stressed medical environments with their fight against coronavirus.
Wellness Education and Programs
Even though we are several weeks into the coronavirus environment, we know there are employees who are still slow to catch on to the potential impact on their lives and everyone around them. Every chance we get, we need to communicate how to protect themselves and others. Use your communications channels to encourage education and virtual dialogue on sharing ways to stay safe. Show employees how to use good hygiene and take responsible precautions through virtual lunch 'n learn sessions, posters, e-mail campaigns and other channels. Advise employees to wash their hands vigorously throughout the day, for at least 20 seconds using warm water and soap, to use hand sanitizers and disinfect hard surfaces, and—especially—to stay home if they are sick. If you are uncomfortable talking about hygiene make it a topic on the agenda for your virtual team meetings so employees can hear how their peers are dealing with the issue.
Just as important is re-engaging employees in your wellness program. Those employees who may not have signed up or engaged will now be more likely to show interest. They may have more time if they are working remotely, and they certainly have fewer places to go, so this is the perfect time to make some healthy lifestyle changes. In 2017, our firm collaborated with Concursive Corporation, a Norfolk software development company, to launch a new health and wellness app called WellnessTeams. The app, which integrates with Fitbit and Apple Watch, is free in the App Store and Google Play and allows co-workers, friends and family to build their own team and create a wellness program with incentives. Whether employees and/or their families and neighbors decide to compete on exercises at home, 6 feet distance walking, or virtual health recipes, such an app can help us all get back to basics…getting enough sleep, exercise and eating healthy during this crisis.
Overall, keep in mind that the new way we work may last for several months. Employees need to know that their work is important and that you are doing everything possible to assist them. It may mean being more flexible when you can. For example, the CDC advises on to require a health care provider’s note for employees who are sick with an acute respiratory illness to validate or return to work, as the health care provider offices and facilities are extremely busy. Keep in mind too, that you are trusting employees to keep schedules while working remotely and to continue to grow in their careers in different ways. Out of all of this, we may learn better ways to work and engage our employees. Try to keep communications open and positive of the future while managing in today’s environment.
Krys Reid, Principal of Tower Benefit Consultants and Charter Member of United Benefit Advisors (UBA) headquartered in Virginia Beach, provides Consulting and Broker Services throughout Virginia. If you would like to receive TBC’s most recent emails which address these current issues or resources, please email Krys Reid at firstname.lastname@example.org.