It goes without saying that, for HR and reward leaders, the last 18 months have been extremely challenging. Gradual trends in workplace transformation, such as the move to remote and flexible working, have been accelerated by years – even decades – by the pandemic. But for those HR and reward leaders in multi-national companies, the last 18 months has presented even greater challenges and, as a result, many of these new workforce dynamics have been amplified.

To learn more about the ever-evolving world of work, we brought together senior benefits leaders with a global remit to talk about their responses to the challenges they’ve faced, and the emerging expectations around international benefits and reward.

The stresses of the pandemic haven’t gone away

HR has been in survival mode. Helping people stay safe, connected and mentally healthy have been the priorities. Now, we’re seeing a second phase of people struggling with their mental health – particularly as remote employees try to manage the boundaries between work and personal life.

HR and reward leaders report that people are struggling more now than at the beginning of the pandemic and our group cited reasons for this such as dwindling resilience or organisations taking away some pandemic response activity as it was felt things were ‘going back to normal’. Our attendees noted that use of EAPs for emotional support has rocketed, alongside PMI premiums which are increasing due to more claims for mental illness.

New ways of working = new complexity

The group agreed that attempting to manage, support and motivate a global workforce across multiple countries has been incredibly difficult. As we’re still witnessing today, every country has endured a very different experience through the pandemic, with lockdown rules continually changing based on local infection rates. For business and HR leaders, this produced massive complexity and an urgent requirement for greater speed and agility in how their organisations respond to changing employee needs and concerns.

Our group discussed global approaches to new working patterns and overwhelmingly reported differences in ‘organisational nationalities’ which were driving divergent approaches to coming back to the workplace and an imperative to offer more flexibility around working patterns and locations. How do you adjust to the new world of work in territories like Asia where people are used to turning up to a certain place for a certain amount of time? For example, in Hong-Kong the only reason you’d work from home is if there was an extreme weather event, like a typhoon.

That said, hybrid working is becoming the new norm for most countries, and employees will expect flexibility - especially new entrants to the workplace. Companies who have been forced to work flexibly and now expect to go back to how things were are simply going to be left behind.

Attendees also reported an increased workload around managing employee mobility and using technology to align benefits to global principles as people think about relocation in the light of hybrid working models. How can employers align global benefits to their organisational principles when people are sometimes getting different benefits as they move to different territories? Holistic employee benefits schemes which can move and grow with your people are the answer.

Increased employee expectations

While employees have enjoyed the autonomy of hybrid working, many within large global companies have also become far more demanding of their employers during the pandemic. Employees are focussing more on their own wellbeing and looking to their employers to provide increased flexibility and choice in the benefits to support this.

As a result, our attendees reported they had even greater levels of focus on employee experience, and even higher levels of commitment to increasing investment in areas such as employee benefits, wellbeing and recognition.

Our discussion group reflected the findings of our wider New Reward Director research, which shows that employees in global companies have become far more engaged with benefits during the pandemic and are increasingly prioritising benefits that protect and enhance their personal wellbeing.

Following the pandemic, employees know the support they can receive from employers – and they won’t accept anything less.

Using benefits to support global wellbeing

Everyone at the event agreed; wellbeing now firmly falls on the shoulders of the reward director. A common experience was also that wellbeing issues are magnified when you’re working internationally. For example, global employees reporting to multiple territories can end up overworking to deliver to stakeholders around the globe in different time zones. Progressive companies are understanding that they need to promote flexibility and trust in employees to manage their time and get the job done.

Some additional observations from the group include:

  • As global HR professionals they’re being expected to solve wider organisational problems of burnout. Taking on additional briefs around communications, culture and facilities.
  • Organisations everywhere are looking for ways to support their people better – for example, wellbeing funds to encourage people to focus on their wellbeing and work/life balance.
  • While organisations can put in many benefits, they still need the right culture and to have buy-in from managers.

Attendees also reflected the findings from our New Reward Director report which showed how international organisations feel held back by the quality of their employee communications and the effectiveness of their communication channels. Here, there is a great opportunity for organisations to review their global communication strategy (in reward, and beyond) and bring it into the digital, hybrid-working age. The role of communications is to show how relevant the benefits are to different people and situations – colleagues on the day noted the impact of using personal testimonials to show relevance.

A return to the paternal employer?

One of our attendees described how, in some ways, they’d gone back to being more paternal in their approach to reward and benefits. For example, mandating a one-week holiday so employees would take a proper break. The group discussed how some national regulations make this standard practice, such as the financial services sector in France, where employees take a 10-day block of holiday and have no access to any systems during that time.

Creating a balance between allowing choice and doing the right thing for employees was a strong topic of conversation – some companies have removed holiday sell to encourage employees to take holiday.

Using global benefits to differentiate the Employer Value Proposition

Many HR and reward leaders are grappling with the challenge of taking what they have in the UK and offering it internationally. It’s easy to become overwhelmed with the complexity involved in creating global equivalence. The group agreed that having consistency for consistency’s sake led to more difficulties; the project needed to be driven by a strategic imperative based on the culture of the organisation and the principles that it stands for.

For example, one of our guests gives 16 weeks parental leave to everyone. A broker might say that is over-market in some territories, but the bottom line comes to what is right for the organisation and the employee experience you’re trying to deliver. It’s about looking at wider corporate goals and bringing that into the benefits strategy. Nonetheless, it’s important to keep it simple and deliverable. The group discussed what the elevator pitch for their global employee benefits might be.

Closing thoughts

Without doubt, HR and reward leaders managing international workforces have been dealing with a whole extra level of complexity through the pandemic.

Going around the table, the feedback concurred with our wider New Reward Director research which found that global organisations are largely more sophisticated in their approach to employee wellbeing and benefits provision and are more able to align their strategies to changing employee needs. However, the balance between consistency and standardisation on the one hand, and localisation on the other, has become even more difficult to achieve over the last 18 months, as employee needs and expectations have differed between countries, and evolved rapidly. Meanwhile, many global organisations remain siloed in their approach to wellbeing and benefits.

That said, there was a clear positive theme in the room about how progressive global organisations are using technology, data and analytics to support global HR and reward leaders to standardise strategy and processes across territories, and to align benefits provision to wider organisational goals and values.

And our cohort of reward directors aren’t going to give up their efforts any time soon – a parting remark from the morning: “It’s on us to represent the people of our organisation; to go to the purpose of the organisation and represent that in our benefits provision. To build differentiators around that and make the employee experience as good as it can possibly be.”

Thank you to everyone who joined us for breakfast and such an insightful and valuable discussion. If you’d like to attend one of our future Global Benefit Leaders’ breakfasts, please drop a line to our Events & Community Manager, Laura-Jo Dredge, on laura-jodredge@benefex.co.uk