As the coronavirus crisis moves into an endemic phase, employers are diligently rebuilding their workplaces to suit the new working environment that’s emerged from this cataclysmic disruption. In the meantime, Canadians are facing the rising cost of living and trying to balance the responsibilities in their work and family lives.

In the face of all of these challenges, the labour market has shifted to employees, so organizations are using a range of incentives to help with their attraction and retention efforts. According to Benefits Canada‘s inaugural Future of Work Survey, half (51 per cent) of employer respondents are focused on increasing salaries and/or offering signing or retention bonuses, 44 per cent are implementing programs or policies promoting flexible working options and 41 per cent are improving general employee well-being programs and initiatives.

Read the inaugural Future of Work Survey report.

Attraction and retention is a two-headed beast at the same company, said Nita Chhinzer, associate professor of leadership and organizational management at the University of Guelph’s Gordon S. Lang School of Business, during the Future of Work Survey webinar, hosted by Benefits Canada and sponsored by RBC Insurance.

“When it comes to recruitment, they’re looking at the employer brand, external equity, how they’re paying relative to others in the industry and actually looking at the vision of the organization. . . . However, retention is much more about internal dynamics. We hear the saying over and over again in research that people leave managers, they don’t leave companies, and retention is more about the management focus or the manager behaving in equitable ways.”

Employers are also increasingly thinking about the employee as a whole person, which includes their mental health and well-being, said Chhinzer.

Among the survey’s employee respondents, half (51 per cent) said their employer prioritizes and supports employee well-being initiatives and a similar percentage (52 per cent) said their employer prioritizes and supports work-life balance. About a quarter (26 per cent) also ranked flexible or hybrid working arrangements as the top priority their employers should focus on when supporting employee well-being and 39 per cent ranked flexible work arrangements as a top priority for employers regarding supporting work-life balance.

Read: Pandemic affecting employee well-being, work-life balance: survey

In terms of learning more about employees’ well-being priorities and needs, engagement surveys can offer a wealth of knowledge to employers, said Jackie Wheeler, talent people lead for Canada at Mondelez International. She has also seen the need for extending paramedical benefits, especially around mental-health support. “If organizations are going to talk about wellness as a cultural pillar, it needs to be backed up with policies, procedures and supports in their benefits plan.”

Indeed, a robust benefits plan is an important tool for employee attraction and retention, said Julie Gaudry, head of group insurance at RBC Insurance. Since there isn’t a single way to reach people or an easy way to demonstrate a wellness culture, employers need a variety of ways to connect with their employees, she added.

But while the younger demographic has put a particular emphasis on mental health, it’s also important to consider generational diversity, said Tracy Fogale, senior benefits manager at Kraft Heinz Canada, noting this has to be baked into diversity, equity and inclusion perspectives. “We need to get creative, examine our workforce and their needs and think outside the box as to how we can get messages across to everyone.”

Looking at DEI initiatives, the Future of Work Survey found 51 per cent of employers have a documented DEI strategy in place or are currently working on one. This group ranked diversity and inclusion training (76 per cent), gender equity (53 per cent) and pay equity (44 per cent) as their top priorities around DEI.

Read: Webinar coverage: How are employers incorporating DEI into their benefits plans, HR policies?

Employers that are implementing a DEI strategy have to make sure it’s authentic, said Gaudry. “But in order to do so successfully, DEI needs to show up in everything — from the way employers communicate with their employees to the policies they put in place and even when it comes to benefits plans.”

Another important consideration for employers in this latest phase of the pandemic is how they’re going to interact and collaborate with employees who remain working at home, said Paul Dhillon, director of total rewards at Hootsuite Inc.

Indeed, as organizations turn their attention to the return-to-work journey and what that looks like, issues of the most concern for those with a flexible or hybrid workforce are ensuring equitable opportunities for growth for both in-person and remote workers (53 per cent), ensuring meetings are inclusive to both cohorts (45 per cent), making benefits and perks equitable (34 per cent) and establishing new goals and targets for employee performance assessments (28 per cent).

If employers want better collaboration, they need to make personal connections, added Dhillon. “And once you have that, make sure your communications don’t detract employees from wanting to collaborate — or from being their authentic selves.”

Despite many employees still continuing to work remotely or in a hybrid model, it’s worth noting the serendipity of conversations that occur when people are in a physical space together, said Neena Gupta, partner and employment and human rights lawyer at Gowling. There’s richer and better conversation that leads to opportunities that are missed when working entirely from home. “However, remote work is increasingly attractive to people with dependants, which largely and disproportionately affects women.”

Read: New study calling on permanent reforms to Canada’s sickness, caregiving leaves

Indeed, among the survey’s employee respondents who are also caregivers, nearly all (92 per cent) strongly or somewhat agreed that remote working has provided them with better balance between their work and caregiving duties.

The survey also found nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) of employer respondents said a significant number of their employees are working from home or remotely. A majority (84 per cent) said they’re planning to keep their workforce partially or fully remote, while just 16 per cent anticipate a return to the pre-pandemic workplace with almost all employees onsite. Among the employees polled, nearly half (49 per cent) have been shifted to working remotely or at home more within the last two years.

Tina Dacin, professor and Stephen J.R. Smith chair of strategy and organizational behaviour at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business, said hybrid work — a mixed model of some onsite and some remote working — is here to stay.

Because of this, she cautioned employers to think about the bigger issues of trust and fairness, noting they need to customize their benefits in order to meet employees’ accommodation needs, whether they’re working from the office or at home. “One set of benefits doesn’t achieve anything for an entire workforce. We need to figure out how we can accommodate all employees.”

Read: Employee well-being critical to return to work after pandemic