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The pandemic is changing employee perks

2021 U.S. Perks Study – Key findings and action steps for employers

Health and Benefits|Inclusion and Diversity|Talent|Total Rewards|Wellbeing
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By Vincent Antonelli | October 13, 2021

Perks, broadly defined as benefits beyond core health and wealth offerings, are evolving as employers respond to employee needs.

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About the study

The 2021 U.S. Perks Survey includes responses from 448 U.S. employers, representing 6.2 million employees, across all industries, geographies and sizes. It fielded in early 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a large impact on employee benefit programs. As employee needs have shifted, employers have updated their employee benefits programs, especially in the area of employee perks. Regardless of industry, U.S. employers are elevating the importance of perks as they seek to improve employee wellbeing, enhance their employee experience, and attract and retain key talent.

While “perks” may be subject to different interpretations, we define “perks” broadly to include many components of Total Rewards outside of compensation and core health and wealth benefits.  Specifically, we organize perks into nine categories.

Willis Towers Watson’s perks typology

Education

Examples: Tuition reimbursement programs, student loan assistance

Family

Examples: Family and caregiving leaves, adoption and surrogacy assistance

Financial

Examples: Financial planning, emergency assistance funds, savings accounts

Food

Examples: Onsite lunch/dinner, meal delivery services

Home office

Examples: Home office support stipends, home ergonomic assessments

Recreation

Examples: Discounted event tickets, social events, employee affinity groups

Service

Examples: Volunteer time off, matching corporate donations

Technology

Examples: Help desk support, mobile devices and computer supplies

Wellbeing

Examples: Health and wellbeing apps, virtual fitness classes, alternative work arrangements

The Willis Towers Watson 2021 U.S. Perks Study sought to measure the prevalence of employee perks amid the disruption of the pandemic creating unprecedented needs due to the transition from onsite to remote work, extraordinary demands on parents and caregivers, and new levels of employee burnout. The results provide a roadmap for employer actions as they prepare for the post-pandemic future.

Graph showing the top employer priorities in order of highest to lowest. - Description Below
Wellbeing 81%, Financial 51%, Family 43% Service 29%, Education 25%, Home office 17%, Recreation 7%, Technology 6% and Food 4%.
Figure 1. Employer Priorities

What are the top areas of focus for your perks strategy in 2021?

Source: 2021 U.S. Employee Perks Survey. Percentages indicate “been selected at the most 3 options”

Key findings

  1. 01

    Employee perks are a priority for U.S. employers, regardless of industry

    85% of survey respondents agreed (to a moderate or great extent) that perks are important for recruiting, retaining and engaging talent, and 80% plan to expand or enhance employee perks because of the continuing impact of COVID-19.

  2. 02

    Employer investments and employee preferences for perks are aligned

    Employers’ top areas of focus — wellbeing, financial and family perks — are aligned with employee preferences, based on data from Willis Towers Watson’s Global Benefits Attitudes Survey.

  3. 03

    New virtual perks replaced onsite services in 2021, and they are here to stay

    Most employers suspended the provision of onsite perks, such as food, gyms, fitness classes and social events over the past 18 months, and supplemented them with virtual perks, like access to health and wellbeing apps, telehealth/therapy and virtual social events.

  4. 04

    Employers offered new perks in 2021 to address remote work and home offices

    Two-thirds of employers offered computer peripherals (keyboard, mouse, printer, etc.) and monitors to support remote work. Around two-fifths of employers offered subsidies for office furnishing (chairs, standing desks) and about one-quarter provided virtual ergonomic assessments for home offices.

  5. 05

    Investment in traditional perks to attract and retain key talent segments continued

    In addition to the growing focus on wellbeing, financial and family perks, employers continued to offer many traditional perks, such as training and education assistance, technology (laptop/cell phone) and giving (matching donations).

  6. 06

    Employee perks support broader human capital goals

    Education, family, wellbeing and financial perks can strategically support diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and employee wellbeing strategies. For example, caregiving perks help address the unique needs of employees with families and student loan counselling can improve an employee’s financial wellbeing.

Key actions for employers

Heading into 2022, employee perks will continue to be an agile component of an employer’s benefits portfolio as employers can quickly respond to the changing need by altering perks, even outside of open enrollment, to target unique employee needs. During the past 18 months, employers quickly offered virtual wellbeing apps, back-up childcare services and pandemic leaves, among other perks, to immediately facilitate the transition to remote work and help employees balance the new necessities brought on by the pandemic.

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Get prepared for RTO

As we plan for return to office (RTO) and hybrid work environments, be sure to evaluate your investment in onsite perks and determine the right mix to address employees’ needs and equity regardless of work location. For example, virtual fitness classes and health and wellbeing apps support all employees regardless of where they work.

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Take stock of what you offer

If you plan to make new investments or modify your perks strategy, take a step back and inventory the perks you offer today across the nine categories to ensure they still provide value. Use the findings to identify any gaps and make prudent investments and modifications. For example, work from home stipends are likely to become mainstream in the future and can be funded by savings from eliminating underutilized onsite perks. You can also use this analysis to step up communication for those perks that are underused because your employees may not know enough about them.

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Be strategic with your future investment

Think about the employee segments you are trying to attract or retain and how you can use perks to meet their unique needs. Don’t be afraid to talk to employees formally or informally to ensure your investment is aligned with their changing preferences and needs.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the world has looked different to all of us. As health conditions and new ways of working continue to evolve, perks are an essential tool to help you and all your workforce segments adapt to the future – whatever that future may hold.

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Senior Director, Health & Benefits

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