Free Coffee or Free Therapy?
How the Employee Value Proposition should change in our post-pandemic world.
Twenty years ago, money was enough. All employers had to do was to dangle a carrot in the form of a fatter paycheck under an employee’s nose and the latter would be compelled to stay, instead of joining another company.
Back then, the best perks available (and not widely, either) were the free flow of coffee and snacks or the occasional free lunch for employees. People were content to remain in their jobs (or pretend to be even if they weren’t) with the meagre benefits employers doled out. Of course, they did this as long as they were paid well and on time and didn’t have to work on weekends or public holidays.
Some years later, employers would introduce perks they thought would entice employers to stay at work longer, such as in-office exercise classes, a games room and sleep pods. These perks were sometimes coveted by employees of companies that didn’t offer them such benefits. However, even employees with fancy perks were still bound by their office environment and long work hours. Remote working and flexible working hours weren’t even on employers’ radar.
Then Covid-19 shook the world and suddenly reality as we knew it was tilted on its axis. Remote and hybrid working became more and more commonplace for employees as well as employers and because of these, the Employee Value Proposition (EVP) had to evolve with the changing times.
According to Minchington (2005), the EVP is a set of associations and offerings organisations provide to their employees in return for the skills, capabilities and experiences an employee brings to the organisation.
Work-life balance and well-being trump money
Money is no longer sufficient to retain talent, as employees now struggle to cope with the blurring lines between their work and personal lives. Research has shown that people want more out of life and work than financial incentives. Covid-19 has made people realise what their real priorities are and employers should get with the programme if they want to retain their top talent.
A study by Randstad on employees from Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong found that as these employees reflected on the benefits, perks and compensation that were important to them, their EVPs changed accordingly. According to Randstad, while an attractive salary and benefits (62%) are still the most important EVP factors that organisations can offer, work-life balance (60%) came second.
Randstad observed that these employees are aware of the benefits of flexible work arrangements. Not only do they save more time and money on commuting, but they are also able to spend more time with their loved ones and have more control over how and when they work.
There are already signs that over-focusing on work is creating real problems for employees. According to Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index, 54% of employees in Asia felt overworked and 38% felt exhausted after more than a year away from the workplace. The survey also found that almost half of Asia’s workforce was likely to consider switching employers, with an even greater proportion of the respondents mulling over a complete career change.
The focus on employee well-being is more important than ever in this post-pandemic world. The uncertainty and feelings of isolation brought about by the pandemic have led to an increase in mental health issues among workers worldwide.
For example, a 2021 Gallup report found that in Southeast Asia, 47% of employees surveyed revealed that they experienced worry, 30% experienced sadness, and 24% experienced anger during a lot of the previous day.
“In this same period of time, 67% of those employed at the time of the pandemic said that they had received less money than usual from their employer or business in Southeast Asia,” Gallup pointed out. Meanwhile, only 26% of employees from Southeast Asia experience thriving well-being, compared to the global average of 32%.
Some employers are stepping up
The fast-blurring lines between work and personal time have led to some multinational corporations changing their work from home policies. For instance, IBM signed off a “work from home pledge” to its employees during Covid that respected their workers’ time, including the option to leave the camera turned off during conference calls and to respect each other’s working hours.
But this is not the case for all employers. Deloitte’s 2020 Human Capital Trends report found that 79% of respondents said that their organisation’s strategy does not seek to integrate well-being into the design of work.
That said, Deloitte cited Microsoft Japan as an example of an organisation that is designing work for well-being. “In an experiment, the company reduced its workweek from five days to four. Employees were asked to use an online chat tool in lieu of emails and meetings. When they did have meetings, the gatherings were limited to no more than 30 minutes, and no more than five people.”
What’s more, the above changes were implemented before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Deloitte noted that following the implementation, 92% of the Microsoft Japan employees viewed these changes favourably. “Compared to the previous year, there was a 39% increase in sales for each worker, a 58.7% decrease in the amount of paper used for printed documents, and a 23.1% decrease in electricity consumption.”
A report by AON titled the 2019 Asia Pacific Employee Wellbeing Study, shows that some organisations in the Asia Pacific region are in fact beginning to prioritise employee well-being.
The AON study discovered that with the rising demand for personal well-being programmes, the market is slowly seeing a demand for health and nutrition coaches. “Other specialist vendors are providing services around pain management, traditional medicine, and financial planning. Digital platforms and applications are generating greater interest, particularly as more employees are on board their well-being journey and seek tools for social collaboration and personalised experiences,” AON highlighted in its report.
AON research indicates that organisations will continually invest in developing “fit for purpose” well-being programmes, both from the perspective of organisational objectives, as well as individual employee well-being goals.
The data certainly shows that well-being is no longer a pipe dream for discerning employees in this region. Employers have wisened up to the fact that employee well-being needs to be prioritised for higher employee engagement and satisfaction to improve talent retention and productivity.
What employers can do to help
The million-dollar question is how do Asian employers design employee well-being programmes in order to retain existing talent, or even attract new talent?
According to Naluri’s People Manager Kristina Teow, what most employers have taken for granted prior to Covid-19 is that employees can work invincibly and round-the-clock. “The pandemic has opened Pandora’s box of issues whereby employees feel that they are no longer well at work. They are no longer travelling, they are at home and not distracted by social events and so they are coming face-to-face with their own health and well-being.”
Teow points out that well-being programmes are yet to be commonplace in places like Malaysia, unlike more mature markets such as Singapore, the US and Europe. “In Malaysia, employee experience and engagement are usually tied to the usual HR policies concerning on-boarding and exits. But now the issues have arisen on whether your employees are depressed or close to suicide...these are questions that CHROs never brought up until last year,” she said, adding that CHROs have since voiced their concerns about such issues and what they could do to support their employees.
“Employees are the lifeblood of the organisation; you don’t see how important culture is sometimes but you can feel how it shapes the company’s journey and takes it forward. Employee well-being is the same, people spend most of their lives at work and the ultimate goal is their well-being in order for them to thrive in their workplace,” Teow added.
She advises organisations to avoid one-size-fits-all well-being programmes. “At Naluri, we have a young workforce with an average age of 29, with different issues than people in their 40s and so on. We offer free therapy as a benefit for employees to manage anxiety, stress and depression, and of course, provide medical coverage.”
“For a multinational corporation or large organisation, the programme needs to be big enough to reach everyone. For example, instead of rolling out a fitness programme for employees when it is not what the majority wants, it is much better to have variety and experiment with what works for them.”
As for companies with limited resources, Teow advises leadership teams to feel and suss out what their employees need. “In the old world, people were happy to persist at their jobs and put food on the table and stay in their jobs, but that is no longer the case. We need to hear all the nuances of what it means for employees to be well and that doesn’t always mean the most expensive programme but the one that suits the employee the most.”
Clearly, times have changed and Malaysian organisations need to similarly evolve if they want to retain and attract good talent and remain competitive in a post-pandemic business environment. Free coffee is a thing of the past; employee well-being needs to be a top priority among today’s employers.
- Written by:
- Sharmila Ganapathy