Before the COVID-19 pandemic swept over America, most of us had a crisp line demarcating our home and working lives. We built up neat compartmentalizations on either side of the boundary, expressing one version of ourselves with our families and a slightly different, more professional version to our colleagues at the office. To let priorities from our personal lives spill over into our office to-do lists was (then) deemed wildly unprofessional.
But that was before the pandemic forced us to squash our professional lives into the confines of our home offices, couches, kitchen tables or, frankly, wherever they would fit. It hasn’t been a perfect superimposition, and as a result, elements of our personal lives have tumbled onto Zoom screens and interrupted work meetings. Workers’ struggles as parents, family members, and even just nuanced people have become evident — and the sudden visibility has turbocharged a perspective change that was already in effect before the pandemic.
“The effect of COVID-19 hasn’t been one-size-fits all,” People Tech Partners Robby Peters told me. “A lot of companies have struggled. But I would say the businesses that have experienced a positive or neutral impact over the last few months are thinking innovatively about how they can support employees during this time. We’re working, for the first time ever, from home on a massive scale. We’re bringing our personal lives into the foreground. Employers know that they need to step up.”
Peters believes that amid COVID-19, companies have begun rethinking their benefits to suit employees as whole people, rather than unidimensional workers. He has a unique vantage point from which to view the change, too; People Tech Partners brings together the heads of HR 200 companies, technology companies, and other business leaders to find new ways to use innovative tech to create better experiences at work.
“We’re at a pivot point,” Peters said. “With everyone working from home, businesses aren’t using the funds they would normally allocate towards employee lunches, conferences, and extra office space. The question becomes, how can companies shift that budget to take care of their employees?”
“Think of just real estate for a second. Remote work is a trend with staying power. Even if only 30, 40 percent of employees choose to stay at home full-time, their absence could allow a company to significantly downsize their office footprint and shift the unused funds — which could be a substantial amount — towards new employee initiatives.”
Peters has a point. While the amount saved by downsizing or forgoing office space will depend heavily on a given business and its outlook amid COVID-19, some may find themselves with millions of dollars to deploy.
Several major companies — Twitter, Square, Facebook, Shopify, and Slack all come to mind — have announced semi-permanent remote work policies that will continue even after the pandemic ends. Earlier this year, Pinterest paid $89.5 million to cancel its commitment to a $440 million new headquarters, citing the shift towards remote work.
But where will the suddenly-available funds go? Some companies have chosen to consider their employees’ immediate working needs — namely, helping them transition to a supportive at-home environment. Seventy-four percent of office workers aged 18 to 74 are now working from home. However, according to a survey jointly conducted by YouGov, USA TODAY, and Linkedin, over half (54 percent) of those polled didn’t have a remote work setup before social distancing mandates came into effect.
Employees without dedicated offices need to carve out working spaces wherever they could. Another survey recently conducted by Upright found that more than 27 percent of surveyed employees work from their living room, and over 17 percent aren’t even sitting on a chair while they work. Instead, they work on the couch or the floor — both of which are fine places to work for a few hours, but not a few months.
“The biggest thing that employers think about with this is pain,” Ori Fruhauf, Upright’s Chief Commercial Officer, told me. “They worry about their workers developing back or neck pain after hunching over their computers for days on end. But the truth is, the issue doesn’t begin and end with pain. When we talk about working from home, we need to talk about helping employees build working setups that boost resilience.”
Fruhauf explained that where and how we work can have an incredible impact on our mood and, by extension, our ability to handle the work and personal challenges that come our way.
“Remote employees face stress on every front.” Fruhauf pointed out, “Not only are they tackling work challenges in a new working environment, but they’re doing so while supporting kids, elderly family members, and friends through the stresses of a global pandemic. Back pain obviously adds another frustration to the pile — but bad posture also influences how we perceive ourselves and our ability to tackle challenges. When you think about this, the physical element of posture becomes less important than the mental.”
Research underlies Fruhauf’s point. In 2011, researchers from San Francisco State University and Kaohsiung Medical University found that “For persons with a history of depression, energy level may covertly increase or decrease depending upon posture. When individuals have less energy, they feel that they can do less, and this feeling tends to increase depressive thinking.” Other literature similarly suggests that a person’s environment and posture can significantly affect their learning achievement.
In other words: slouching over a lap desk on the couch doesn’t just increase your risk of developing back pain. It can also significantly impact your mood, ability to engage with work or personal challenges, and achieve your goals. Employers want happy and productive staff members — and given that, it’s not all that surprising that Fruhauf’s Upright, a company that provides technology solutions for better back health and posture, has seen an uptick in employer interest.
“There’s definitely been an increase in awareness over the last several months, as employers realize the correlation between supportive at-home environments and employee happiness and productivity. Who knows what the future will bring — but with companies like Google working remotely long-term, I think more employers will prioritize their employees’ mental-physical health,” Fruhauf concluded.
For some employers, the increased focus on supporting employees as people has fast-tracked a sea change that was already underway before the pandemic: namely, realizing that it is imperative to help employees not only from a universal physical and psychological perspective but personally.
“COVID-19 does not discriminate. But what we have seen is a vastly disproportionate impact on LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities,” Colin Quinn, Co-Founder and CEO of Included Health, told me. “Minority populations across all genders, races, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic standings are struggling. Businesses had begun to recognize and address disparities before 2020, but the events of this year have thrown the issue into new and shocking visibility.”
The problem is one that Quinn and Included Health began fighting in 2019, when the company opened with the intent of bolstering care equality and helping businesses create a better healthcare experience for their LGBTQ+ and BIPOC employees. Healthcare has long been presented as a one-size-fits-all fix, but Quinn vehemently argues that it shouldn’t be.
“Employees have different biologies, different social determinants of health, and different needs — so why would we all be equally served by the same solution? Achieving health parity isn’t about offering the same services to everyone; it’s about ensuring that underserved populations have access to the services that they need,” he said.
LGBTQ+ health disparities have often fallen by the wayside in conversations about health benefits design. Amid COVID-19, that lack of attention has had major consequences. Research shows that LGBTQ+ people — and particularly young people — have been harder-hit by social isolation and face more mental health risks than their straight, cis peers.
Earlier this year, the Trevor Project released a report noting that “Even prior to the pandemic, LGBTQ youth have been found to be at significant increased risk for depression, anxiety, substance use, and suicidality. These risks are even more pronounced among youth who are transgender and/or nonbinary.” In our conversation, Quinn added to these findings, noting that one in three of Included Health’s members have asked for mental health support.
The shocking disparity in COVID-19 health outcomes among people of color and LGBTQ+ employees has put this point into perspective; however, Quinn believes that the real sea change began with earlier with the Black Lives Matter movement, and was propelled by the 2020 protests and pandemic.
“When Black Lives Matter began sparking conversations, companies found themselves having difficult discussions about how they were supporting their Black employees — and as they did, they started thinking about what they could do to support other minority groups. Then COVID-19 happened, and business leaders saw the damage that the pandemic wreaked across BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities.”
“It was a wake up call for many,” Quinn said. “Now, more than ever, people are looking for tailored solutions that cater to their unique health needs rather than accepting this current one-size fits all approach. People are actively seeking out doctors and providers who are not only clinically competent, but also culturally competent in the way they interact and provide care. Included Health members are overwhelmingly seeking out providers who look and identify like them, meaning they are selecting providers based on characteristics like sexual orientation, gender, race and ethnicity. That kind of identification and understanding matters more than employers might realize. ”
COVID-19 and remote work brought new awareness to the value of genuinely supportive employee initiatives; however, it is worth noting that, as Quinn explained, these trends were already happening. Employers were already bringing an inclusive, personalized perspective to benefits design and investing in innovative employee solutions. COVID-19 simply sped up the process — and opened a new window of opportunity for businesses that offer supportive services.
Gina Bartasi, founder and CEO of the fertility clinic network KindBody, has seen the perspective shift firsthand.
“I’ve been in the industry for a little more than a decade and can tell you: five years ago, employers viewed family-building services as a nice-to-have. Now, it’s become a must-have,” Bartasi shared. “Macro trends are at play. People are having children later, more same-sex couples are seeking out fertility services, and many workers who want to be parents are single by choice. They need support — and in recent years, companies outside of tech have begun to provide it.”
Bartasi notes that companies’ decision to provide services has a great deal to do with lower costs.
“Up until recently, the cost of subsidizing family-building services for employees was cost-prohibitive,” she explained. “But in recent years, we’ve managed to find ways to cut out costly operational waste. One third — a third! — of all fertility clinics still rely solely on paper charts and oversized call centers. At Kindbody, we shifted to digital records and online scheduling systems and managed to drop our costs by around 20 percent.”
“It’s incredibly easy to pull waste out of the system and pass along the savings to the consumer — or in this case, companies and their employees. Once we did, we were more accessible to the companies that had wanted to provide such services to their team for years but hadn’t had the resources.”
Right now, employers and innovative businesses alike stand at a pivot point. The need for benefits that support employees as people — not just as unidimensional workers — has become all too clear amid the pressures of COVID-19. Simultaneously, social distancing mandates have left some companies with the budget they need to provide new resources for their employees. Now, businesses that offer creative benefit solutions have a window of opportunity to connect with employers and prove the value that they could improve employees’ lives — on and beyond the clock.
We can do better and be more human at work. We need only to reach for the solutions at hand.