Pioneers of the new frontier of next

Welcome to 2021, the year of pure empathy, where 2020 was certainly the year of absolute chaos. If anyone wondered what Human Resource teams do, 2020 expressly spelled it out in no uncertain terms. There were the companies that stood up and the companies that rested on their laurels as if they were waiting for the answers.

2020 was the year of the standouts: the voices, the unvoiced, the parents, the children, the sick, the untreated, the unvisited, and the departed.

And we couldn’t look to the past for answers because there was no relevant past to lean on, there were no, “shoulders of giants” to carry us through. You’ve heard people like me say, “the future of here is now.” Well, the future of now is certainly here, but here it remains. Not out of choice but out of desperation and necessity.

However, out of necessity comes innovation.

And out of desperation comes pure revolution, which is innovation’s best, woke friend ever.    

In 2020 and now in 2021 there are and will continue to be macro- and micro-stressors hitting every single one of us. We are still sheltering in, stressed, lonely, and longing for connectivity. We have hope for a COVID-19 vaccine, which is certainly here and, on its way, but now is not the time for us to stop being revolutionaries. Now is the time where we step up like giants, truth listeners, and new reality makers. Now is the time we powerhouse enable the pivot that may need to happen from moment-to-moment-to-next.

We are now the evolutionary shoulders of giants.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world – indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

This is the time for us to be relentless innovators and to lay the path for what we can be in the moment and for all the moments we don’t know to come. #MeToo and #BLM expressions of truth. Mental health. Physical health. Physical and mental abuse and bruises we can’t see. These may have been taboo prior to COVID. Not now. Inclusion and diversity just became more of everything and more of everyone.

And then the careers of HR got bigger, broader, and more GIANT

“As we think about the importance of humanity today and in the conversations, I’m having with HR leaders around the world,” spoke Nancy Vitale, co-founder and managing partner of Partners for Wellbeing and former CHRO of Genentech. “This notion of human-centered leadership keeps coming into play. Also, how we embrace humanity as leaders and the important skills that are required for empathy, care, and compassion from us at a time when people need it most.”

2021 is the year of how we care as leaders, and again, empathy leads that charge in concert with technology. “Whether or not we go back to the office in the immediate future is irrelevant,” spoke Alex Shubat, CEO of Espresa. “To keep business moving forward, we must keep employee total wellbeing in the forefront of our strategies. And wellbeing is inclusive of everything now. It’s how we support the whole person. And that may not be just one person. It may be a whole family.”

Here’s where the change rubber meets the unforeseen road. Companies are communities. Humans are complicated with millions of variations contributing to the person that shows up to work.

The greatest HR teams are taking charge of business continuity while leading with people and culture benefits first. Technology is key and HR-specific technology is making sure that already stretched and constrained HR teams are not.

Flexible employee reimbursements win

Reimbursements as a benefit have historically been a basic must for attracting and retaining talent. Now, and in the foreseeable future, reimbursements are sitting center stage. Sure, the name itself lacks decent branding – it sounds dry and as inelegant as the term, “401k”.

Press Release: Espresa® Introduces Flexible Global Reimbursement Platform to Support the Multi-Generational Workplace

Emotional intelligence and empathy have led the charge with leaders to take reimbursements – which should be called Small Lifesavers – to new levels. Gym memberships and office snacks are out. Virtual wellbeing programs are in along with reimbursements for fitness equipment, mental health, dependent care, and work-from-home support. Sure, employers must pay for Internet access and phones, or the tools employees require to do their jobs. But what about the peripheral distractions that take away productivity?

This is where we as leaders need to get creative and lead with employee-experience initiatives that help us deliver on those engagement and culture anchors, whatever they may be for your organization.

Watch the Leadership Forum for Global Employee Reimbursements (LSAs) (video and transcript)

Total wellbeing as a primary benefit along with health during COVID has never been more critical in meeting this moment.

While we are arriving at feeling perhaps more normal in this dramatic change to how we live, wellbeing is no longer a yoga mat, some group meditation, and a moment of breathing. Now it’s serious support for mental health, multi-generational families – elder and childcare – and different home ecosystem demands, such as ergonomics. Frankly, there is a new intimacy to how we work. And that has changed the future of the workplace forever.

Spotlight on ServiceNow – quick pivot masters

ServiceNow, following a WFH ordinance, wanted to support their employees and their culture globally and did so by creating a brand new reimbursements and allowance program to meet the moment.2 The Perk Allowance program, led by Tracy Desmond, Global HR, and Total Rewards Leader at ServiceNow, was deployed in just a few months to 15,000+ employees in 27 countries.

ServiceNow partnered with Espresa to deploy an allowance as a crash program2. They were able to support wellbeing, childcare, eldercare, education, homeschooling resources, and work-from-home ergonomic improvements to the tune of $700 in the US and the purchase-power-equivalent globally. Espresa approves claims to enable ServiceNow to deploy without any additional workload for our already constrained HR team. In an interview with Employee Resource Executive, Pat Wadors, former Chief Talent Officer of ServiceNow, and now Chief People Officer of Espresa client, Procore, discussed the argument for HR technologies. “How can HR leaders best make the business case for HR technology investment?” Pat discussed. “Technology enables an amazing employee experience and if we map the employee journey map—tie it to desired outcomes—then leveraging technology to manifest that vision is imperative. Showing how these affect engagement and productivity with real metrics can be the foundation of the business case.”

Here are the new ways in which People leaders at companies like ServiceNow, SugarCRM, Ancestry, and Prosper are ruling total wellbeing and reimbursement benefits in this next normal:

  • Support at home beyond the employee. Reimbursements to help support dependent care and childcare have become more critical to job performance than ever. While there has been concern that productivity rates would drop with people working from home – according to a BBC study, despite everything being thrown at us, productivity is up more than thirteen percent.[1] “In my mind, this is to be expected,” said Alex Shubat of Espresa. “Employees don’t know how to have an off switch in an environment where they are afraid, they are going to lose their jobs for ‘life is literally happening to me right now’ moments. We must apply new culture anchors of flexibility and empathy in the workplace so that employees know they can unplug when they need to take care of real-life priorities. And they need to not carry guilt in that. It needs to be celebrated in the next normal workplace.”
  • The home “office” may be a studio apartment. Extending reimbursements to include the tools people need to be successful with an emphasis on ergonomics is important to an employee’s total wellbeing. The last thing anyone needs is a stress injury during this time. In the office, there is some level of control over the ergonomics of an employee space. Some companies have a certification process on ergonomics – if not, Espresa has a quick tip sheet to lend a hand.
  • Distance learning is all the healthy rage at any age. Employees are engaging in learning via a robust virtual ecosystem of learning that is both free and paid. Consider subsidizing that learning to help employees expand their horizons from a happiness perspective and a professional one.
  • Meal delivery subsidy. Ordering groceries, food, and fresh food boxes have become part of the now normal. If you were subsidizing meals in the office through cafes and healthy snacks, for example, consider an allowance for grocery and meal delivery with services like Instacart, Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, DoorDash, and Grubhub. If paying for groceries is outside your budget, perhaps offer to pay for delivery service charges. “It was something so simple, but integration with Grubhub that Espresa enabled, helped us to do better,” discussed Kelly Ritchey-Davoren, Chief People Officer for Xceed Financial Credit Union. “Because we have what we call Monday Fun Days, and that’s our free lunch benefit, where we get to get together as a community and break bread when we’re all physically together. And we struggled with how to enable that without it becoming some administrative nightmare through reimbursement receipts,” she continued. “Being able to have the interface with Grubhub through Espresa, we still have our gathering, remotely.”
  • Wellbeing – well, there’s an app for that. Without access to gyms and for some, no safe place to move outside, consider recorded and live-stream applications. Also subsidizing physical equipment that supports live stream has become very popular with our client employees.
  • Mindfulness and mental health support. I’m happy to say that the new light being shined on mental health during this time is removing the unnecessary stigmas associated with it. People who have never experienced depression or other anxieties are being hit hard. In addition to having HR reach out compassionately to employees who are struggling, it’s essential to offer employees ways to access help on their own. Consider offering reimbursements on virtual mental health support like TalkSpace, and mindfulness apps like Headspace, Calm, and Sleepio.

Community by the people and for our people

Reimbursements address the bottom line of a person and their family. The community aspects of your company still need to be addressed. You may already have employee resource groups, community, or affinity groups in place with your company. Invigorate it. There has never been a better time than now to embrace that interconnected web of together. Women, Black, and Latino groups, single parenting, LGBTQIA+, and Pride – whether you have formal or informal groups, finding your people among your peers, and connecting has never been more inspiring or mental-health critical. This is the time where culture comes to life – when the community comes together. This is where you find out more than ever what your company is made of. It’s ground up, not top-down – your people define your culture, not the other way around. Take advantage of this historical moment and set the precedence for 2021.

Employee resource groups are a great way to connect people who might be dispersed all over the world,” spoke Susan Lovegren, former Chief People Officer for Juniper Networks, Medallia, and AppDynamics. “From a chief people officer perspective, it can be challenging to scale,” Susan continued. “But if you have technology that can connect people, you can provide guidance, and those groups can self-start and create their leadership groups. It’s a fantastic thing for people to feel genuinely connected, and it is a proof point that I can have a sense of belonging in this company.”

Gamifying everything

It may seem like an overused term, but gamification has got legs and it’s not going anywhere. The majority of our clients and partners are engaging in challenges and achievements via mobile and web and during COVID, at significant levels.

Including employee onboarding challenges, fitness that goes beyond steps, self-reported activities that give back to the community, HR can set up a challenge and automatically promote it.

Within our client employee challenges, sure, they have step goals or fitness goals. However, we also focus on mindfulness and meditation, accessing COVID awareness webinars and videos, volunteerism, and giving back to the community – all things that foster a sense of, yes, you guessed it, total wellbeing. Amber Reed, former Benefits Analyst for SugarCRM, and now with Lyft discussed Espresa Challenges. “Espresa builds these fun ways to get people involved and each month has a topic, whether it’s fitness-related or staying socially connected, or focus on learning and development,” Amber discussed. “They’re so unique in their own ways that it really keeps people engaged. And because of that, we were also able to build our rewards and recognition program on the platform as well.”

Wellbeing is more than counting steps

Total wellbeing – it’s an often thrown-around term in HR circles, but it is critical for us as leaders to focus on right now. “There’s a focus now on total wellbeing. And the digital disruption around wellbeing is so exciting,” discussed Susan. “If people want to have issues addressed around mental health, they can certainly do that in real-time. They don’t have to wait to see somebody through an outdated employee assistance program. They can get access and the help they need right away.”

Total wellbeing is inspiring systemic change at the culture level. And it’s about meeting people exactly where they are, onsite, offsite, and virtually. It includes rewards and recognition and meetups and events that bring your workplace family together, even virtually.

Nancy Vitale discussed how chief people officers’ main concerns right now – employee engagement. “This is where technology can play such a key role. There are great tools available in the market – like Espresa – to help connect communities of people and give them an employee experience that goes well beyond the compensation rewards associated with a job,” she continued. “As leaders, we have an opportunity to create experiences that actually change lives for the better.”

Rewarding performance – it’s still important

Rewards and recognition in remote environments are critical to employee happiness. Because our work environment has dramatically shifted with COVID, we as HR leaders need to think about retaining the awesome talent we have, as well as hiring employees remotely. You may have people coming into your organization who have never stepped foot and maybe never will, in an office environment outside of their own home.  Engaging and recognizing efforts for all employees in a timely fashion helps them and we all feel appreciated for our contributions.

And rewards don’t have to be monetary – they work on every budget, and with younger generations of workers, we’re seeing more and more the desire for recognition, learning, and development for their careers. In fact, millennials and GenZ are more interested in the opportunity, flexibility, and the philosophy and values of a workplace over money. Recognition is the greatest reward you can give – just be sure to make it personal. Generic recognition doesn’t get to the heart of anyone.

Now to those moments that really matter

Life is happening. Work-life integration has never been more important than now. Here’s where we get to the work portion. The lines are significantly blurred on schedules as work from home makes it feel hard to unplug from the office. Co-workers are working various schedules that aren’t adhering to a rulebook. Something we all need to work on as leaders are helping employees cut the cord and really leave that virtual office to spend time being – whatever it is they want and need to be.

We also have an amazing opportunity here to engage employees in sharing those moments together. Anniversaries, life events such as marriage, new pets, new houses, a move, gender transitioning – we need to replace those water-cooler moments with a platform to communicate the amazing things we are doing. Even when they’re sheltering in place.

Plus, these moments create community – think of an employee resource group or community springing up from the home gardener or dog/cat/you name it enthusiast. Picture and video sharing – connections are made, and culture becomes further solidified.

Getting back to the workplace safely in the next normal

While some of our clients have gotten rid of offices altogether, popping up smaller regional offices for the future, or are thoughtfully mapping out returning to campus, there are obvious concerns with timing, office layouts, and the spread of COVID with individuals who, for example, are asymptomatic.

We’ve been supporting clients and partners on back to workplace strategies:

  • Establish group and team office attendance
  • Designate specific workspaces eligible for groups, teams, and individuals
  • Allow employees to RSVP for in-office days, workspace, and designated desks
  • Implement contactless check-in to the office and assigned workspaces or desks

The most important thing you can do for your employees is to give them an environment that keeps them healthy and reduces stress. Working from home for those businesses that can support it, is a carbon footprint winner.

Your culture and your people are the greatest assets you have because your people define it. This is the time when companies can genuinely create a connective and virtual place to work while delivering on strategies that truly support the whole employee with empathy, technology, and whatever is next.






[1] Source: BBC, July 2020

2 Source: From speedier Wi-Fi to new bikes: As the pandemic drags on, companies pay for work-from-home perks beyond the basics – Chicago Tribune


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