Insights from Gallagher’s HR & Benefits Technology Consulting Practice

We are living—and working—in strange times. Most of us get up each morning and walk 20 or so steps to newly fashioned offices in our basements, living rooms or bedrooms. Big projects that were on our agenda in January have been put on the back burner as we focus on keeping our people productive in a safe environment while figuring out what all this means for the organization’s bottom line. At times it feels like everything has changed. But what has not changed is that your people are your most important asset.

No doubt you are facing some new workforce challenges. This is true whether you are hiring or furloughing, and whether you operate remotely, employ essential workers or something in between. Regardless, now is the time to get very strategic about how you manage and support this important asset—likely in the context of a leaner budget.

Technology is a must-have partner in all this and there are a wide array of solutions available to support your people strategy. We hear from employers with technology-related questions ranging from “What can I do with what I have?” to “What can I add at a low or reasonable cost?” to “Can we talk about how to be better prepared for the next time?”

Technology solutions for today’s challenges

To assist employers, we have organized HR technology solutions into four buckets associated with pandemic-related workforce challenges: hiring, downsizing (layoffs, furloughs, reduced hours), optimizing (to conserve cash) and—underlying each of these—compliance. 

Supporting technology may be available in software you already own, e.g., employee communication and engagement functionality, and you may find new services available from your HR technology providers. For example, some spending account administrators are helping employers take advantage of Section 139 of the Tax Code to make tax-free payments to employees while claiming full deduction for the payments under specific conditions associated with COVID-19.

Following are examples of HR technology and services that can help employers maintain normal operations under abnormal circumstances.

  • Candidate screening. While the headlines are all about layoffs, some organizations are hiring, but struggle to do so in a way that is safe for workers and hiring managers. They also may be facing an exceptionally large pool of applicants, putting pressure on lean HR departments. Video interviewing tools accommodate social distancing and online candidate assessment functionality can help hiring managers overwhelmed by applications. Don’t let new hire processes cause you to deviate from your brand. You want to connect with individuals who fit your target profile—not just warm bodies, which can become dead weight when things return to a more familiar state. 
  • Onboarding. You can replace that three-pound binder used to onboard new employees with a completely online experience that supports forms (I-9s and W-4s), videos from the CEO and gamification tools to help a new hire hit the ground running on Day 1. Onboarding platforms can save time, ensure compliance and support a remote workforce. While many integrated HR and payroll systems (and some benefit administration platforms) have onboarding functionality, you can also purchase standalone solutions. 
  • Benefits. “Benefits” encompasses online enrollment, decision support tools, ACA compliance, spending accounts and more. There are solutions to support remote open enrollment and life events throughout the year and even to help collect premiums from employees whose paychecks are insufficient to cover the cost. Employers do not have to adopt a full benefit administration system to enhance their remote benefits education/enrollment experience. Standalone technology is readily available. Among the more interesting tools are virtual benefits fair platforms that take the concept of carrier booths, presentations and meeting rooms into an online environment on a one-time or ongoing basis. 
  • Workforce Planning and Time & Attendance Software. This category of solutions helps two types of organizations. First, for employers with an hourly workforce, time and attendance systems address challenges associated with compliance and monitoring productivity in a remote environment. These solutions also help with scheduling and schedule swapping. For large employers hiring or downsizing, some workforce planning analytic platforms include a modeling tool to calculate the cost or saving of different workforce scenarios, e.g., redistributing or eliminating positions, or the cost associated with scheduling specific individuals (think overtime). These tools help employers understand capacity constraints and the impact of current workforce challenges on their bottom line. Expect to see growing interest in this technology as employers shift their focus from workforce decisions for today, to the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  • Leave Management. Managing leave is a big challenge for employers given the need to reconcile the growing number of state and local laws with FMLA compliance. With potentially more employees taking leave due to COVID-19, employers face a compliance nightmare. There are numerous software and outsourcing firms that support leave management for even the smallest clients.
  • COBRA Alternatives. For employers that are downsizing and want to offer medical coverage to their offboarding employees, the “individual” or “individual exchange” market is an alternative to COBRA. Although there may be issues for employees who have met their out-of-pocket maximums or deductibles, the individual market may be a less expensive option for some. Your COBRA and/or benefits administration provider may already have something in place. Gallagher has relationships with several individual exchanges that offer COBRA alternatives that accommodate specific geographic markets. 
  • Unemployment Claims Outsourcing. Companies that have significantly downsized can outsource their unemployment claims processes. This service pertains to eligibility confirmation and can take a large burden off an employer. This is especially valuable at a time when you need to focus on the people strategy surrounding remaining employees.

Be a smart buyer

Many HR technology service providers have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic—some with innovative and useful solutions to help employers through these difficult times. But we also see offerings that we don’t believe are particularly helpful to employers right now.

Some providers are offering their software free for a limited time—typically three months. We caution that signing up with one of these providers for a short time does not make good sense unless it is a provider that has already been vetted against your requirements and you’re prepared to stay with them long-term. Also, some providers’ “free” offering is more expensive than their standard offering because of restrictions placed on the “free” portion.

Changing platforms can be expensive and painful. Evan a great financial deal may not be worth the upheaval of implementing a new system—especially if the implementation needs to happen in a remote environment where change management will be challenging. On the other hand, if you were ready to make a change and had vetted a specific provider, you may be able to take advantage of a special offer. Carefully review the technology and service against your requirements and consider areas of risk. We help employers evaluate risk using a seven-point proprietary risk framework that looks at everything from cyber security to business and client-specific attributes. 

The COVID-19 pandemic will end, but don’t expect a return to the “old” normal. From all this will come new ways of working as employers strive to minimize risk to their people and to organization wellbeing. Although we collectively face a great deal of unknowns, we are confident that HR technology will continue to be an essential tool to help employers respond to today’s challenges and those to come.