As excited as employees may be to throw away their masks, forget about social distancing, and return to their pre-pandemic social routines and norms, they’re far less excited about returning to the brick-and-mortar offices that their employers call home. This is a post-COVID-19 reality that companies need to come to terms with: After more than a year of working from home, a large percentage of employees want to make the arrangement permanent. 

It’s a major turning point that will make it more difficult for companies to hire and retain top performers. It’s a reality that has set HR leaders scrambling to find the right mix of incentives and benefits to support the remote workforce as well as those in the office. As Susan Norton, senior HR director at the job site LiveCareer said in an interview with HRMorning.com, “Free coffee and fruits won’t be enough to retain top talent.” 

 

The numbers are real and deserve your attention

Recent research from LiveCareer found that nearly 30% of remote workers say they’ll quit if they can’t continue working remotely. Another two-thirds say they would prefer to work only for companies that offer options for remote work. FlexJobs, a job listings platform, puts the number even higher. As reported on EBN online, FlexJobs research says:

  • Almost 60% of employees say they would quit their job if they’re forced to return to the office
  • More than a third of employees who are currently working from home want to work from home permanently
  • A mere 2% say they would like to return to the office full time

CEOs seem to be heeding these reports. More than 8 in 10 (82%) middle-market CEOs say they’ll likely allow for a partially remote workforce after the pandemic. Two in 3 (66%) globally are redesigning their workplaces to accommodate a hybrid work schedule, according to the latest CEO survey from Marcum and Hofstra University’s Frank G. Zarb School of Business.

 

The latest recommendations from the CDC inject even more confusion and concern

At the same time, the recent — and surprising — updated guidance on masks and social distancing from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tossed a new variable into many companies’ reopening plans. The CDC’s modified recommendation on May 14 said fully vaccinated Americans can largely go without masks. The change increased confusion for employers who must rely on state and local regulations — and it heightened concerns among the world’s employees who want to continue to work remotely. 

The Wall Street Journal reported that the day after the announcement, Walmart would no longer require vaccinated workers and shoppers to wear masks in stores and warehouses outside of municipalities that require it. Companies in banking and retail are, meanwhile, figuring out how to reopen their offices sooner rather than later.

Other employers are waiting. Technology company Salesforce didn’t change its plans for masking or distancing based on the CDC’s announcement. With 56,000 employees around the world, Salesforce is initially inviting vaccinated workers in the U.S. to come back to certain offices in groups of about 100 people at a time.

The bottom line is that the path for returning to the workplace will have a lot of twists and turns, but they all play out against one common background: The majority of employees would prefer to work from home. 

What’s an employer to do? Go broader with your benefits.

Employers who hope to remain competitive as we move out of the pandemic are paying even closer attention to what’s become an increasing demand from employees: the desire for a holistic, preventative approach to health benefits and well-being. With so many employees wanting to permanently work from home, a key to staying competitive and showing that you have a culture of caring is to make sure your health and wellness platforms meet two critical criteria: 

  • Address the whole person
  • Make benefits and programs centralized, personalized, and easily accessible by any employee, working anywhere

Even before the pandemic took hold in early 2020, the concept of employee wellness was top of mind for HR and benefits professionals, with forward-thinking companies broadening the scope beyond physical health. New benefits ranged from programs to help ease student loan debt to expanded EAPs. More recently, employees are seeking wellness benefits that are even more well rounded and throw a wider net. Employees want support and programs that recognize not only physical and financial needs, but that also address mental health. The connection is undeniable.

Dr. Tista Ghosh, senior director of impact evaluation at Grand Rounds, a healthcare company, put it this way: “The link between mental and physical health has been increasingly recognized in the clinical world. As the clinical realm shifts to a more holistic view of the patient, employers should similarly model their benefits under the same mindset when it comes to wellness benefits. Financial, physical, and mental health are all intertwined.”

Of course, none of that support comes without a cost. But with so many employees wanting to continue working from home and the heightened desire to work for companies that care for the whole employee, the costs make competitive sense.

In its recent study of the global workforce, the research company Rand found that worldwide, companies lose about $2.5 trillion annually on lost productivity, absences, and turnover due to poor mental health. But, the report continues, employers can also expect to receive an average of just over $4 for every $1 they spend on effective mental health initiatives.

In other words, investing in health and wellness isn’t just the right thing to do — it also comes with a measurable ROI. And for the hybrid workforce model that is undoubtedly becoming the new normal for the world of work, making sure those health and wellness initiatives are engaging and provide options and support for every employee, wherever they happen to be working.