Digital benefits were growing significantly both in availability and popularity before the coronavirus pandemic began. Our Health on Demand survey at the beginning of the year found that 40 per cent of workers said they were more likely to remain with an employer that offers digital health solutions while 66 per cent of businesses were planning to invest in virtual solutions over the next five years.


Of course, as the virus swept the globe and businesses were required to work remotely, providing benefits remotely moved from the preserve of more innovative organisations to a necessity for all.


Before the coronavirus, just 32 per cent of workers said they would rather use online virtual care than see a doctor face-to-face if it meant shorter wait times. Now many people are either unwilling to go to the doctors because of safety concerns, or finding that no appointments are available. For many, digital solutions are the quickest and safest way of accessing healthcare for non-Covid-19 related issues.


The crisis has forced businesses to adapt quickly – many scrambling to deal with the impacts of employees having to work from home. But some organisations have seized the opportunity to revamp their strategies – embracing digital opportunities, improving engagement and reframing the conversation about employee benefits.


Organisations already embracing digital have found that responding to the pandemic required much less change. Joanna Bean, Head of People at Thomsons Online Benefits explains: “We have always had a strong culture and focus on employee experience (both digital and offline), and our benefits package was already very good. Where we have focussed as a result of the coronavirus has been on highlighting programmes to people who wouldn’t necessarily have needed to use them before, and signposting them to the options that were already available. To help this we also added a new coronavirus hub on Darwin – our proprietary benefits technology – so our people can instantly access all the help and resources we have available for them.”


The business made practical changes to benefits too. For instance adding a coronavirus category to its spending account, a flexible pot of money allowing employees to spend on what they choose to improve their wellbeing. The update to policy means that people can now claim for taxis to do the shopping, or for caring for relatives or neighbours.


Communication has been a key cornerstone of the company’s approach to employee engagement. Naturally, they manage and communicate their benefits to their people through Darwin, as well as through an enhanced set of wider internal comms to help keep in touch with people, including new weekly internal newsletters highlighting benefits available and featuring “a day in the life of” stories from the leadership team.


Another example is the “Exec chat” breakfast briefings – previously held quarterly in each office, now these are run weekly online for the whole organisation and the attendance is huge. Bean explains: “Our exec team had very specific ideas about how we would get through this together – putting our people first was absolutely paramount. The exec chats are giving people the chance to ask questions and to help allay fears, and we have had all sorts of questions. It has been so important to make sure that people had chance to ask what’s on their mind and feel supported by open and honest answers.”


Thomsons’ people first approach has been critical to ensuring employees have valued their benefits even more highly during the coronavirus. Mental health has taken on an even more prominent role and a core benefit offered is the use of Unmind – a digital mental health platform, specifically focused on helping employees improve their mental wellbeing. On top of that, the organisation’s medical insurance benefits allow staff to access private mental health support and services which can speed up access to treatment, reducing worry over ill health.


Promoting physical health has been less straightforward, but Thomsons was quick to adapt some of its existing fitness classes such as yoga and bootcamp, replacing them with online classes instead – and even allowing employees’ friends and family to join in.


Considering employees’ individual needs is key to providing an excellent experience and Thomsons’ diversity and inclusion initiatives – named “Everybody Thrives” – have really flourished during the pandemic. Slack channels for parents trying to balance work with home schooling and sharing tips and tricks, and other channels for diversity groups such as LBGQT+ and accessibility and neurodiversity have really helped people to connect and share their experiences – as well as to build allies in the business.


Looking to the future, Bean explains that Thomsons’ focus will be on supporting staff into a new phase of flexible working. The company was already developing a new flexible working policy, but the pandemic has heightened its importance. Part of that will be supporting people to ensure that office morale and camaraderie stay high, something the company is already working on with Totem – a corporate social media platform – a key strand of its strong internal communications programme.


However, Bean believes that the benefits innovation and flexibility Thomsons puts its energy into should be matched by employee benefits providers. She concludes: “The pandemic has shown some brilliant initiatives, as well as where things are lagging behind. Some providers are truly embracing the digital world, but many aren’t. As an HR leader, I’d love to see more movement from the market with digital offerings that are truly flexible – there is so much untapped potential in solutions that simply don’t exist in the marketplace and would help me tick as many boxes as possible for every single one of our people.”

Jo Bean
by Jo Bean

Head of People at Thomsons Online Benefits

Nicole Passmore
by Nicole Passmore

Principal, Strategy & Research