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The best benefit options for business owners to keep staff happy and engaged while working from home

woman doing online therapy at home
  • Offering paid leave and flexible scheduling options are both needed and on the rise amid the coronavirus outbreak. 
  • Additional employee benefits, such as increasing access to mental health resources, are also important for the happiness and safety of your employees. 
  • Consider mental health support apps, online fitness classes, lunch credits or gift cards, and employee resource groups to aid workers from afar.
  • Review how the law for employee benefits and time off has been changed under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
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Many small business owners have had to make tough decisions in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, cutting staff hours or implementing layoffs as the demand for their products and services declines.
But for the businesses still operating, employee needs have changed, and there's a lot that employers can do to help.
One of the best ways to show employees that you support them is to offer paid leave that goes above and beyond what's required by law. (Don't forget that the law has recently changed — the Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires employers with less than 500 workers to provide paid sick and family leave to workers under certain circumstances. SHRM has a sample policy available here.)
According to new research by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), one in three employers are offering additional paid or unpaid leave to employees in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
"Many employers are providing paid time off," said Amber Clayton, knowledge center director at SHRM. "It's not that they're saying, 'We're giving you X number of paid days or vacation,' it's 'You're off and we're going to give you your salary during that time.'"

Use what you have when it comes to benefits and flexible schedules

Employee benefits can extend beyond additional pay or paid time off, however. Check out your existing offerings and remind employees of what's there.
For example, many businesses already have Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), which are designed to help employees weather personal problems that might impact their work. Some EAPs include unlimited sessions with mental health professionals.
"It's not necessarily always about increasing offerings but about making people aware of it," said Bernard Coleman, head of employee engagement at payroll software company Gusto. "A lot of it is revisiting what you already have if you're already paying for it."
Business owners might also consider offering employees flexible work schedules if possible. "A lot of parents aren't accustomed to homeschooling and trying to do their jobs," said Coleman. Employers should be "thinking about what parents need, or what other caregivers need," he said.
There's no one-size-fits all solution. "It's about getting really creative with what you have and understanding what your staff needs are, really putting your ear to the ground and finding out where the pain points are," Coleman said.

Consider mental health resources

More than a third of employers are offering resources to support healthy adjustment to remote work, including mental health resources and EAPs, according to the SHRM report.
"We're all dealing with anxiety and stress because of the uncertainty," said Clayton. "That's something that employers should and can do."
Ginger, which provides on-demand virtual mental health care via mobile phones, has seen a dramatic rise in interest from companies thinking about mental health support in the past month, according to CEO Russell Glass. The company is also seeing an uptick in use of its app.
"We're seeing a 130% increase in the volume of clinical sessions over the last four weeks or so," said Glass, adding that "average active users are up 90%."
For companies with less than 500 employees, Ginger charges a flat annual fee of $30,000 to $40,000 per year to provide employees and their adult dependents with access to the app. For larger companies, Ginger charges per employee per month.
"For those who can't afford something like this, we're also making our activities available for free," said Glass. The company has posted a slew of mental health resources on its website.
Talkspace, another company that provides online and mobile therapy, offers vouchers for small businesses. Like a gift card, business owners can buy a pack of therapy vouchers that they can pass out to their employees. Businesses must buy a minimum of 20 vouchers, which range from $225 to $945 per employee depending on the length of service and type of therapy included.

Weigh other low-cost options like online gym classes, gift cards, and employee resource groups 

There are a range of other creative ways that small business owners can show their support for employees during a time of crisis.
Since most gyms are closed across the country, businesses might purchase online fitness classes or memberships for their employees. While people are out of the office, employers can also still provide lunch with gift cards to services like UberEats, Doordash, or a local restaurant.
Business owners can also set up affinity groups or employee resource groups on a dedicated Slack channel, or facilitate virtual water cooler hours.
At maternity apparel company Latched Mama, all but three of 32 employees are parents, most with young children. Even in normal times, the company tries to foster a supportive environment. Now that everyone is working from home, maintaining a support system is even more important, according to founder and CEO Melissa Wirt.
"We have a daily Zoom call at 10 a.m.," she said. "10% of that time is work related, but the rest is devoted to supporting one another as parents by offering advice and best practices." Recently, employees gave each other advice on which kid supplies and activities they'd recently purchased to help manage the extra down time at home.
Coleman, who has three daughters, said he's been active in a parenting affinity group at Gusto, where he's learned about tricks and tips for the challenges of isolating at home with kids.
"It's a latent employee benefit, to have community," he said.
SEE ALSO: Disaster recovery experts and IT specialists offer 8 steps companies should take before reopening the office to protect their team's health and business' safety
NOW READ: The action plan employers should follow to secure protective equipment for staff ASAP as they consider reopening their offices
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