How to build an employee benefits package for a distributed workforce

After the widespread uptake of remote working during the Covid-19 pandemic, the majority of businesses in the knowledge economy have continued with at least a hybrid model. This has led to distributed teams that are patched together with different working arrangements – and with different needs. 

This has changed the benefits that employees want from their employer. The previously sought-after perks such as subsidised travel costs or company cars are less necessary for remote staff.

The suitability of employee perks can have a profound effect on performance and morale. A study of 1,000 remote workers by the HR company Paychex found that the 65% of employees whose benefits package had changed since switching to working exclusively from home reported higher satisfaction. Some 73% of those workers reported higher productivity. 

What do employees want? Paychex’s report found that 31% of remote staff want a stipend for home office set-up, while 30% prioritised reimbursement for internet costs. 

A study of more than 10,000 employees across Europe found that many simply want greater flexibility in their working arrangements, be that in the form of adjustable hours (37%), a four-day week (37%), unlimited holiday (27%), or flexible working location (25%). 

Ask the people what they want

Rather than relying on data in the market, HR teams should conduct thorough research to understand what their employees want or risk implementing expensive packages that don’t help with employee satisfaction or retention.

“Involve employees in designing the benefits package. Benefits create absolutely no value unless employees make use of them,” says Dr Rebecca Hewett, an associate professor at Rotterdam School of Management Erasmus University.

“Employees are far more likely to use and value the benefits available to them if they were actively involved in designing them. So start from the perspective that you don’t know what your employees want.”

Any benefits package should be authentically tailored to your people. In other words, benefits are not true benefits unless your people deem them to be so too

Following a few months of remote working during the first Covid lockdown, Dropbox conducted a wide-ranging survey to discover the wants and needs of its workforce. “The office was the daily workplace for our employees – and with this, we had great in-office perks. But that was then and with the sudden shift to remote work, we knew we had a unique opportunity to reimagine the way we work for the better,” says Laura Ryan, director of international HR at Dropbox. “We did a lot of deep thinking and research, including several internal surveys in which we tested the pulse among our employees on their attitudes about different work models.”

Dropbox has adopted a working arrangement described internally as “virtual first”, after 72% of their employees reported they wanted to work remotely on at least “a regular, or partial basis”. 

Its 2,700 employees across 11 countries are allowed to work wherever they choose. Their offices remain open but have been adapted into flexible open-working areas that are primarily used for collaborative work. 

There are no longer limits on the number of days employees can take as paid leave. A perks allowance allows staff to adjust where they attribute their benefits across different categories, which include wellbeing, caregiver support, productivity, ergonomics or learning. All of the company’s new policies have greater than 75% satisfaction within the workforce.

“Any benefits package should be authentically tailored to your people. In other words, benefits are not true benefits unless your people deem them to be so too,” says Ryan. “We made sure that flexibility sat at the core of our remote working experience – and everything around it, so that we could create a culture that people would want to join – and stay in. If a company can’t do this in combination with one another, losing talent is inevitable.”

Small adjustments make a big difference

This adjustable package is similar to a suggestion made by Hewett: a marketplace of benefits that employees can pick and choose from, giving them an allowance to create a unique blend of perks.

“Offer a suite of benefits which employees can buy and sell to tailor to their individual needs but involve a range of employees in the design of what’s available,” explains Hewett. “It doesn’t necessarily cost the company any more and, if you carefully select those which are most valued by employees, they are more likely to create the positive outcomes you’re hoping for.”

Hewett suggests an almost intersectional approach to benefits, one that factors in location and experience but also takes into account an employee’s needs outside work

“Think beyond categories. A working parent in the UK might have more in common with a working parent in Japan than they do with their single British colleague. It’s much better to recognise that everyone is an individual with a different combination of circumstances that are likely to drive their benefit needs,” says Hewett. 

Building a culture of flexibility

Of course, there are still considerations when it comes to location. Some perks will be crucial in attracting talent in some areas – Hewett cites health insurance in the US as an example – that will have less importance in other countries. Keeping abreast of regulation and working norms in each market is crucial to implementing a good policy.

“It’s important to seek advice from experienced HR and/or legal professionals in territories where you have employees,” says Wendie Christie, chief people officer at global social media agency, The Social Element. Christie cites statutory requirements such as minimum wage laws, minimum and maximum vacation allowances and state bank holidays as important details to be across. 

The Social Element employs more than 250 people across 46 countries. It has been fully remote since its inception in 2002 and, says Christie, has the “flexibility of remote working baked into the culture and ethos of the business”. This is reflected in the business’s perks. Employees have recently seen their holiday allowance increased by five days per year and are allowed additional leave for life events such as moving house, as well as pursuing charitable work and volunteering. Wellbeing initiatives include leave for women going through menopause, as well as discounted gym memberships and health plans. 

Employees are far more likely to use and value the benefits available to them if they were actively involved in designing them. So start from the perspective that you don’t know what your employees want

So far in 2022, the team has had two big get-togethers in New York and London. When travel allows it, employees are encouraged to meet up and collaborate as much as possible. This supplements regular team activities held virtually over Zoom. 

“Having perks that build and encourage a sense of community are integral for maintaining culture when we don’t get to see each other all the time,” says Christie. “While perks aren’t the pinnacle of company culture, they do enable us to engage in ways that we would never have done in person, and ensure that every employee is empowered to live and work in a way that sets them up to succeed.”

Ryan shares that view. She suggests that while distributed teams can be closely knit operations with the right culture, a team that is masking a faulty culture with shiny perks is doomed to failure.

“Remote working is like a tipping scale – it’s all about balance. It can both provide the opportunity to make employees happier and at the same time, it can reveal the cracks in an organisation’s culture, communication and technology,” she says. “Without the right environment and tech to support remote working, employees will not be able to unlock its true benefits. So, your benefits package is nothing without having truly established these core elements across the business.”