COVID-19: What should your rewards response be in a crisis?

Re-evaluating the critical role total rewards plays in shaping each organisation’s whole employee experience has dominated reward agendas as businesses considered how best to support varying employment arrangements.

While the range of employment options run the gamut between full-time, permanent staff to gig-economy workers, the goal of enhancing employee engagement while driving business results remains the same.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced reward professionals to go back to the drawing board to make real-time, business-critical decisions to safeguard the immediate health, safety and wellbeing of their workforces, particularly frontline and mission-critical workers.

Martha Cook, EY EMEIA People Advisory Services Total Rewards Center of Excellence leader, agrees. “Companies are realising that the creation of total reward programmes, supported through digital tools, to deliver a consumer-grade employee experience, have evolved from a ‘nice to have’ into a ‘need to have’,” she says.

Companies are realising that the creation of total reward programmes…have evolved from a ‘nice to have’ into a ‘need to have

COVID-19 has exponentially elevated human resources and reward professionals to expand their historical compensation and benefits frameworks into integrated total reward programmes that embrace the emotional, financial, physical and social wellbeing of their employees as they attempt to cope with the myriad ramifications of the pandemic.

For example, Verizon, a New York-headquartered wireless telecommunications business, has launched a COVID-19 specific leave of absence policy for employees who are unable to work due to COVID-related disruptions, such as a COVID-stricken loved one, underlying health condition, or family or childcare disruption due to the crisis.

As the definition of total rewards takes on new life, innovative perks can vary widely across industries and countries. For example, Danish expenses platform business Pleo has introduced virtual Friday bars and remote-morning yoga as part of efforts to drive staff motivation after the business went from having 30 to 200 full-time remote workers overnight.

Jessie Scheepers, head of people at Pleo, explains: “We are a social company and so establishing new ways of teams socialising is crucial for our remote success.”

The foundational importance of employee wellbeing across all dimensions, while managing costs real time, is paramount. Redundancies will not be the only way for HR and reward professionals to reduce costs as they continue to evaluate and implement employer-employee cost-sharing strategies where permissible.

With so many workers becoming newly home-based due to local work restrictions or lockdowns, companies need to focus on optimising remote work, while maintaining productivity and engagement through virtual collaboration. Technology and digital communication tools play significant roles in helping employees interact, stay connected and provide real-time pulse feedback to their employers.

Three-tier strategy

EY’s Cook says companies and their reward professionals are prioritising digital reward strategies into three phases.

“Firstly, ‘Now’, which concentrates on developing safe return to on-site work and wellbeing strategies; secondly, ‘Next’, which evaluates and fine tunes crucial elements of the people agenda most impacted by the pandemic, for example wellbeing, flexibility, resourcing, reward alignment and performance management; and thirdly, ‘Beyond’, which focuses on realising a shift in employee mindset that is adaptive to a changed working world and continues to deliver value to customers, while being smart on costs and sustainability.”

This framework can help companies provide honest and timely information to help maintain staff morale and engagement during these uncertain times.

Organisations must be mindful about innovative ways of evolving their overall human capital management strategy. Katherine Savage, EY partner, People Advisory Services, says: “Organisations really could tear up the rule book on core working hours, hone in on flexible working alternatives and look at different ways to reward teaming, collaboration, innovation and leadership with empathy.”

Christy Pambianchi, chief HR officer at Verizon, agrees. “We have no choice but to blaze a new trail and rewrite the script for communications and operations because our colleagues and their families are counting on us. As the world responds to the rapid COVID-19 changes, we’ll need to stay agile and focus on the most pressing issues affecting the wellbeing of our staff,” she says.

“Given this unprecedented time, we must support our employees by infusing a sense of humanity across our policies, so people can balance work commitments with realities at home.”

Verizon is leading by example, starting every conference call with a reminder to staff that it’s OK, and even expected, to hear their children, partners or pets in the background.

EY’s Savage urges all HR and reward professionals to find a new path as they navigate their way through the COVID-19 pandemic. “We recognise that many HR directors and chief HR officers have tactical stuff they just need to get done, but our advice is don’t go back to the old way of doing things, because it’s a missed opportunity,” she concludes.