Q&A With … Polly Thomas of CBIZ

The president of CBIZ’s Employee Services Organization addresses the impact on businesses and their benefits structures in a world transformed by global pandemic and social unrest.

Q: What are the biggest challenges your clients have seen in the run-up to this enrollment period?

A: With so many employees working remotely, it’s been figuring out to how to deliver open enrollment with the same level of experience; companies are having to get creative. We have a number of clients that have done open-enrollment fairs and set up call centers, where employees can call one-on-one to ask questions. There’s been a lot more video technology to communicate vs. in-person meetings.

Q. Why is that an issue? Aren’t employees getting the same kind of infor-mation delivered to them?
A: Yes, but it’s because employees are so used to having those in-person meetings to communicate. Some people are historically reticent to talk about their health benefits with specific questions; they view their health-care  decisions as pretty personal. Interestingly, though, I think this experience will change open enrollment forever. The feedback so far from employees is they feel that these virtual solutions are more private and allow more personalized conversations. It has also allowed them to include spouses in the decision, and they are able to get the same information. An in-person meeting between an employee and an employer is not the same.
Q: Getting that non-employed spouse into the same conversation isn’t an issue?

A: Not really. If you think about it, it’s the spouse at home who often makes the health-care decision or manages a lot of that. 

Q: Has the move to more remote working presented any issues that employers should consider with their benefits structures?
A: There are a couple of things here. You have to connect in different ways. We are social beings by nature, and there’s only so much online Zoom or Go to Meeting you can tolerate in a day. So they are spending time, making sure they’re connecting via phone or otherwise to keep that morale up, finding ways to get creative in how to do that. The other is rethinking space needs. I think for many companies, ourselves included, it has taught us that we might not need the same space we once did. 
Q: It also allows companies to re-think the concept of geography, doesn’t it?

A: If you think about what that might do from a recruiting standpoint, if you have someone who can do that work from anywhere, you’ve really expanded the pool of candidates you can recruit from. And it kind of wraps back to that concept of mental health in the workplace and burnout, and really giving employees benefits that address mental health stress, how to walk away, not have work bleed into the entire time you’re at home. Companies are spending a lot of time on that employee-engagement piece.
Q: Are you finding that companies have gone too far with remote working, where they’re losing some of their corporate culture because of the dissociation? 
A: That’s a concern especially in work that involves teams—it still requires collaboration. Some of that human element needs to be there. Are there ways to still foster that? Absolutely. The simplest things, with remote work, you’re going to be on camera so your team can see your body language and read facial expressions, some way to get some human connections. For us, what we’re trying to do is have people reach out for no reason once a day to a handful of colleagues, just to keep that communication open. It’s a way to stay connected. 
Q: Other tools that have proven effective?
A: We’ve rolled out collaboration software in Microsoft Teams early in the pandemic. When we were 100 percent in person, we’d do a Lunch Lotto, draw names out of a hat, and everyone from different departments would get together for lunch, get to know colleges you don’t work with on daily basis. Taking those virtual, now we’re doing Coffee Lotto. I think the key message is, we have to do things differently, but that doesn’t mean everything we used to do has to stop. It just has to be in a different format. We have to think about ways to improve on the things that gave us a healthy culture to begin with, rather than just give up until this pandemic is done.
Q: In terms of overall benefit design, where are you seeing shifts?

A: There is a much stronger focus on mental-health benefits, really helping employees deal with the stress, anxiety and Zoom fatigue they may have. Also, there is a lot more focus on how to help dual working parents, single working parents, those who are still balancing kids that might be at home because they are doing virtual school vs. in-person classes. These are not benefits that people have spent a lot of time thinking about before, but have had to now to help employees be able to work.

Q: Is suicide prevention becoming more visible aspect of that process?
A: Absolutely, but it’s really just mental health in general. A lot of people report much higher numbers of employees who are struggling with anxiety and depression in general. Suicide prevention is one piece of that; the other is helping provide tools so employees are not even getting to that point; the day-to-day stress management.

Q: Is the social-justice movement affecting the way companies are thinking about their benefits, in terms of equity?

A: Companies are definitely thinking about it and realizing the need to provide education, tools and courses on why diversity, equity and inclusion is important, and how to have healthy conversations in the workplace. That doesn’t change traditional benefit design, but there is a reallocation of dollars spent on training, development and education.

Q: The corporate diversity movement can trace its origins back several decades by now. What’s making this such a high priority at this stage?
A: We live in a different political land-scape that contributes to that; this is just the next evolution. We’ve educated on diversity for many years. What we’ve learned is, we focused on the educational piece for a long time, but not on putting things into practical action. Now the focus is how to make diversity, equity and inclusion—more focused on the equity inclusion pieces. Most companies are setting very tangible goals tied to those things. And the evidence suggests that companies that practice and have inclusive and equitable workplaces are higher performing. There are not only economic reasons to do it, in terms of helping maintain a level of competitiveness; there’s a philosophical aspect in that it’s the right thing to do.

Q: The president recently issued an executive order restricting some types of diversity training within federal agencies. Will that blow back on the private sector and corporate world?

A: What we are seeing across the companies we work with is, they are leaning into it even further in terms of commitment to provide a diverse and equitable environment. We’re seeing that in the executive-retained-search practice, and we do a lot of board searches. Boards are absolutely now more than ever wanting diverse candidates, and they are intentionally selecting diverse candidates. That’s certainly a leading indicator that we will see that follow within the rest of the ranks of a company.

Q: Given the lack of diversity in executive suites, are those efforts hitting a supply and demand issue?
A: That’s right. They do not have enough diverse candidates to fill those needs at this point. So what a lot are foc-used on is identification, how to find those individuals within the work force and work to give them the development they need to accelerate and advance their careers.


Q: Does that portend some changes in corporate commitments to seek out diversity earlier, even at the high-school ranks or younger?
A: Absolutely. Even at CBIZ, we’re providing internships to students through Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Cristo Rey is another program. Many companies across the area have students from diverse environments working while they are still in high school. They are viewing this as an opportunity to develop a talent pipeline. For a child, it opens their eyes to all the opportunities that exist, and provides mentorship at a time when they are making critical decisions about college, career and their next steps.

Q: What’s the upshot of all this with costs—both for programming, and for internal staffing needed for companies to administer these?

A: One of the things we’re seeing is that many companies name a diversity or inclusion officer or executive; that’s a position that didn’t even exist just a few years ago. That’s an investment in costs in terms of resources but also an indication of how important people view this. The other thing is, there is more willingness for more companies not large enough to do that with a position exclusively, so they are looking to outside consultants to bring in that level of expertise and training.

Q: With Millennials now accounting for more than half the U.S. work force, are there any new generational issues emerging?
A: With the Millennials, and the Gen-Z who are now working, when you think about the things that work, they absolutely embrace technology and aren’t afraid of learning new tech—that is great. They are willing to be teachers of tech, and they have helped some of our longer-tenured associates embrace and get comfortable with tech—they are the experts to help figure out how to do things. On the flip side, those tenured associates enjoy teaching about the business side of things, the things you really learn with time and experience. They focus on, “Hey I can help with this, you can focus on that, so we can make a good team.” 
Q: So what’s the overall thrust of messaging to the troops in such a challenging year?

A: Forward, always forward. We’re all paddling in the same direction. This will be behind us at some point. It is challenging, but all of us have faced lots of challenges from a business perspective over the years, and we’ve always been able to come out the other side. We will here, too.