Digital benefits were growing significantly in both availability and popularity before the coronavirus pandemic began. At the beginning of the year, our Health on Demand survey found that 40% of workers were more likely to remain with an employer that offered digital health solutions, whereas 66% of businesses were planning to invest in virtual solutions over the next five years.


As the virus swept the globe and businesses were required to work remotely, providing digital benefits shifted from being the preserve of only more innovative organizations to becoming a necessity for all.


Before the coronavirus, just 32% of workers said they would prefer to use online virtual care than see a doctor face-to-face if it meant shorter wait times. Now, many people are either unwilling to visit a doctor’s office because of safety concerns or are finding that no appointments are available. For many, digital solutions are the quickest and safest way to access healthcare for non-COVID-19-related issues.


The crisis has forced businesses to adapt quickly, leaving many scrambling to deal with the impact of employees working from home. But some organizations have seized the opportunity to revamp their strategies — embracing digital opportunities, improving engagement and reframing the conversation about employee benefits.


Organizations 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. As a result of the coronavirus, we have focused on highlighting programs 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.”


Thomsons also made practical changes to benefits, such as adding a coronavirus category to its spending account — a flexible pot of money for employees to spend on whatever they choose to improve their well-being. The update to this policy means people can now use these accounts for taking taxis to do the shopping or for caring for relatives or neighbors.


Communication has been a cornerstone of Thomsons’ approach to employee engagement. Naturally, the company manages and communicates its benefits to its people through Darwin. It also uses an enhanced set of broader internal communications to keep in touch, including new weekly newsletters highlighting available benefits and featuring “a day in the life” stories from the leadership team.


Another example is the “Exec Chat” breakfast briefings. Previously held quarterly in each office, these are now run weekly for the whole organization online, and 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 people have a chance to ask what’s on their minds and to feel supported by open and honest answers.”


Thomsons’ people-first approach has been critical in ensuring that employees value their benefits even more highly during the coronavirus. Mental health has taken a prominent role. One core benefit is access to Unmind, a digital mental health platform focused on helping employees improve their mental well-being. The organization’s medical insurance benefits also allow staff to access private mental health support and services that 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 boot camp, replacing them with online classes — and allowing employees’ friends and family to join.


Considering employees’ individual needs is crucial for providing an excellent experience. Thomsons’ diversity and inclusion initiative, “Everybody Thrives,” has flourished during the pandemic. Slack channels for parents trying to balance work with homeschooling, allowing them to share tips and tricks, and other channels for diversity groups such as LGBTQ+, accessibility and neurodiversity have helped people connect and share their experiences — as well as build allies within the business.


Looking to the future, Bean explains that Thomsons’ focus will be on supporting staff in transitioning to a new phase of flexible working. The company was already developing a new flexible working policy, but the pandemic has heightened its importance. A vital part of that policy is supporting people to ensure office morale and camaraderie remain high. The company is already working on this with Totem, a corporate social media platform and a key component of its strong internal communications program.


However, Bean believes 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 Cohen
by Nicole Passmore Cohen

Principal, Advice & Solutions, Global Health & Benefits at Mercer