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COVID-19 cases are dropping and vaccine counts are rising. The economy is reopening and we can expect to be back at the office soon. But the new normal won’t be the old normal.

While this might be obvious to many, some leaders don’t understand, thinking the way forward is to simply bring everyone back into the office. Forward-thinking leaders recognize the need to be flexible and that employers that want to attract and retain the best talent will be best-served by a hybrid return to the office that lets people pick the working style that’s right for them.

The new normal will bring new challenges. Just as employees now expect a working style that suits their individual circumstances, organizations are freer to set aside geographic restrictions in hiring, casting their recruitment net nationally and even internationally. The talent pool to find the right employees with the right skills has expanded immensely.

Read: Head to head: Should a hybrid work model be the new normal post-pandemic?

In this more competitive environment, employers must take an inclusion-based approach to employee attraction and retention. By recognizing that diverse needs require diverse approaches, leaders can make it clear that employees belong in their organization. In this context, how does the total rewards package — and overall employee value proposition — hold up? How can employers ensure employees feel they belong with the organization?

Here are three principles to help guide this decision-making:

1. Strengthening the link between compensation and skills development.

A geographically dispersed workforce will be spread across areas with different costs of living. In certain labour markets — specifically in the technology sector in the U.S. — some employers have mulled reducing compensation to adjust for cost of living. By contrast, the coming labour market in Canada is a tight one and organizations should enhance their compensation packages to attract and retain the best and brightest.

This is true of salary, but it’s also true of benefits, as together, they form the total compensation package. Skills are becoming more important than ever — and compensation needs to recognize it. This doesn’t just mean staying competitive with the market. It means staying ahead of the curve and providing employees with more control over their careers with flexible career development options.

Read: Employers returning to office post-pandemic, but view flex work favourably: survey

When employees are at home, there’s a risk of organizations adopting an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality. Companies will need to work harder to ensure employees’ have sufficient opportunities to develop and demonstrate their skills. It’s important to consider what tools and processes are required so employers can make it clear that no matter where employees are, they’re a valued member of the organization and can see a clear path to skill development, career advancement and increased compensation.

2. Ensuring equal access to benefits.

Over the past year, corporate Canada has seen an awakening with respect to diversity and inclusion. Different people have different ethnicities, gender expressions and family structures — and a progressive and relevant benefits package will take each into account. A similar approach should be taken to a geographically dispersed workforce. While it should go without saying that equal benefits should be extended to all employees, the reality in many organizations often falls short.

In a recent Mercer survey on inclusive benefits, only two per cent of companies said they’re taking an innovative, disruptive approach. More than half of companies remain in a passive process when it comes to benefits equity, relying on local practices or developing their inclusive benefits programs under uneven global strategies.

Read: Diversity and inclusion, education support increasingly part of total rewards: survey

For example, employers should ensure their benefits are equally accessible to people inside and outside major urban centres. A benefits plan that only covers in-person visits or requires in-person assessments isn’t equally accessible. It also means identifying barriers to access and removing them. For a workforce that’s partially at home, this includes barriers of space, such as requiring in-person visits, but also of time, as employees in different time zones must stretch to accommodate.

3. Embracing digital transformation.

Digital transformation will help do for the benefits plan what it did for the office — make it equally accessible and effective, no matter where employees are. This goes beyond virtual doctor’s visits. Employees, especially younger generations, want the same user experience with benefits that they have with technology to shop, work or commute; that means digital-first, interactive and personalized, app-enabled platforms that are available ‘on the go.’

These new platforms and other digital communications tools can also help increase direct communication and engagement with a more dispersed workforce. This provides an opportunity to help employees better understand and value their benefits while being more empowered to maximize them. These platforms have the added benefit of generating data that gives employers better insights into what their employees need so they can continue to adjust and improve the benefits available to the workforce.

Read: A look at consumer-grade benefits plan technology, communications

The idea that to be productive an employee must be in the office has rapidly shifted. The old way of working ended in March 2020 — and if employees have anything to say about it, it’s never coming back. Employers that want to hire and keep the best people need to adapt to ensure employees feel a true belonging to their organization. While the old workplace might be gone, if employers adapt, the new one might be even better.