Steps to help small businesses emerge from COVID-19 challenges

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The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted small businesses across the country in numerous ways. From new health guidelines and supply chain woes to hurdles with hiring and retaining employees, weathering the dramatically altered business landscape continues to be challenging for small businesses.

This has been especially difficult for small businesses of 100 employees or less. While the pandemic has affected each organization differently, navigating the tight labor market amidst the pandemic is a shared problem without a simple solution.

“A close connection to an organization’s mission and a more personal work environment used to be enough for people to want to work at small businesses, but expectations have changed,” said Zarifa Reynolds, Head of Strategic Growth Markets & Small Business Segment at Guardian. “A mission-driven intimate work environment is no longer enough to attract talent and retain employees as they are looking for employers to provide them with a great place to work as well as provide resources to address their health, wealth and lifestyle needs.”

This evolving reality for small businesses is highlighted in the 10th Annual Workplace Benefits Study from Guardian titled “Inflection Point: How Small Businesses are Emerging from COVID-19.” The report highlights some of the strategies small businesses should consider to help them attract and retain talent, including:

Flexible work policies

The pandemic accelerated the trend for flexible work policies. Investing in collaborative technology and communicating regularly with employees helps maintain workplace connectivity and boosts productivity, whether a workforce is in-house, remote or hybrid.

In fact, nearly six in 10 small firms plan to continue remote work in some capacity in the future. Continued agility as work cultures change is essential.

Additionally, changing work dynamics during the pandemic has prompted small businesses to focus on disability programs and paid leave policies, including paid sick time. Offering flexible scheduling allows employees to adjust their work hours to accommodate their personal lives, such as for caregiving responsibilities, childcare needs, or personal health conditions.

Voluntary benefits

Many small firms have faced revenue and staffing losses during the pandemic, yet overall have improved employee benefits. These important actions directly impact hiring and retention, making small businesses more competitive as they look to attract and retain talent.

While small business owners might have ideas about noteworthy benefits to add, most are seeking strategic guidance from a benefits broker, consultant, or individual agent. Specifically, small business decisionmakers have leveraged the deep knowledge of industry professionals for guidance on voluntary benefits and technology solutions that will help them standout in the competitive marketplace for talent.

A notable trend within the small business segment is the growing interest in voluntary benefits, also known as supplemental health, which can either be a shared cost between employer and employee or paid solely by the employee. Voluntary life insurance products have been increasingly popular as employees seek to protect themselves and their families. Additional voluntary benefits such as accident insurance, hospital indemnity, and short- and long-term disability are also gaining traction among small businesses.

Mental health and well-being

Nearly half (46%) of small firms offered a wellness program in 2021 compared to only 23% in 2018, showcasing a trend of small businesses prioritizing employee health and well-being. Most small firms also took some action to help improve employees’ physical (65%) and mental health (76%) during the pandemic.

Some top wellness programs for small business employees include:

  • Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that offer a range of services such as mental health and substance abuse counseling, financial guidance, and legal advice.
  • Wellness initiatives that promote better nutrition, fitness, and overall health awareness.
  • Telehealth medical and dental consultations for evaluations, diagnosis, and treatment through digital channels.
  • Mental health resources, such as access to counselors or meditation apps.

Technology

Offering benefits has become increasingly important for small businesses to attract and retain employees, but many are overwhelmed by the complexity of the process and ensuring that their employees receive a good customer experience. This is especially true for organizations that don’t have a dedicated HR manager. Fortunately, technology can help overcome barriers.

In addition to investing in technologies that support remote work functions such as employee collaboration and customer service, many small businesses are offering technologies for human resource functions as well. In fact, nearly all (96%) of small firms now outsource one or more HR functions to an external third party, including payroll (91%), benefits enrollment (78%) and ongoing benefits administration (75%).

“Small businesses are the lifeblood of the U.S. economy, but the pandemic has hit them particularly hard. Sharing these insights on how small businesses have continued to support their employees by providing needed benefits has helped these businesses and their employees to thrive,” said Reynolds.

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