September 8, 2021

"Value the Work, Not the Location": Navigating a New Era of Remote & Hybrid Work with Airbnb's Tracy Desmond

The Nava Team

When it comes to developing thoughtful benefits plans and programs for companies both large and small, Tracy Desmond has explored it all, testing and scaling solutions across industries. Her benefits career spans over 20 years and includes leadership roles at some of the world's most admired companies, including Tesla and Box.

Now in her position as Head of Global Benefits, Wellbeing and Mobility at Airbnb, she's determining benefit & wellbeing strategy for the future of work environment. And as a new Nava Advisor, she's already jumped headfirst into sharing perspectives and guidance on the future of work with Nava's clients.

We're thrilled to welcome Tracy to the Nava Advisory Board. Read on to learn more about Tracy, what she thinks about this new era of remote and hybrid work, and her vision for broker-lead change in the healthcare system.

You're joining Nava with years of rich experience in HR leading Global Benefits functions at organizations both large and small, quickly scaling and adapting your playbook along the way. You probably have so many stories and lessons to share — but if you had to choose three "golden rules" of effective benefits leadership, what would they be?

First, know your market. Have a handle on market data (for example, what benefits do similar companies offer? What kind of cost increases are expected across industries? How will general healthcare trends like the pandemic affect your offering or your employees' plan utilization?) and understand how that might impact your organization come renewal season and the annual budget planning cycle. Also, keep an eye on benefits trends; they can be a good indicator of what your employees may want from their own offering.

While keeping tabs on these external factors, employers shouldn't overlook the value of employee sentiment. Whether it's direct employee feedback, anecdotal data, or survey responses, understanding how your employees feel about and value their benefits plans and programs can help you understand your offering's overall effectiveness.

And finally, communicate, communicate, communicate. If you plan to make a change to your benefits offering, make sure you're transparent with your employees. Communicate how this change may impact their plan, when it will go into effect, alternative plan options, and how your team arrived at this decision. For example, if a change is being made to a carrier or to a plan such as HDHP or PPO, what are the alternatives? Or if you are introducing a new benefit, walk your employees through how to use it. Too often employees feel uninformed or confused about their benefits and plan choices — but a transparent communication strategy can help.

Employers across industries are choosing to adapt to a hybrid model. But of course, hybrid work isn't right for every employer. When making that decision of whether or not to go hybrid, what factors should employers consider?

The decision should be based on several factors including (but not limited to):

  • Company culture
  • Employee sentiment
  • Where employees are located 
  • Whether your teams can work asynchronously
  • Whether your teams are spread over multiple time zones, and if there would be enough crossover working hours to keep communication strong and productivity high

I read something the other day that resonated with me: "Value the work, not the location." At the end of the day, you need to look at how your teams work together today, and reimagine what that may look like under a remote or a hybrid format.

And once they make that decision, one way or the other, how should HR leaders communicate it to their employees?

This will depend on the size of the company and the type of communication channels you already use. I would recommend that you meet employees where they are in terms of their day-to-day communications — so if they use Slack, for example, use that platform to share updates. Other companies may use multiple channels, including team meetings, intranet, or company-wide all-hands.

When developing the messaging, you'll want to give transparency on how you arrived at that decision. It also helps if you reflect on your company culture and values and use that to frame your message. If you're a very employee-centric company that regularly takes employee input, for example, you can cite employee feedback or survey results. Or if this decision is based on customer experience, you should describe how your leadership team came to that conclusion.

Before you launch any new updates, though, be sure your leadership team is aligned on the messaging. You want everyone moving in the same direction and reinforcing the message with their teams, so make sure all key leaders are equipped with the information and resources they'll need to do so.

Depending on the size of your company, you may have talent or other business partners who also need visibility into the decisions and messaging. Loop them in early on so they can carry the news to their teams as well.

Many SMBs making the switch to hybrid work are operating with some limitations in terms of budget or capabilities. Are there any low-lift changes they can make now that make a big difference for their employees' comfort or productivity?

Rather than committing to a permanent change, you could introduce hybrid work as a pilot program. Set a specific timeline, see how well it works for your employees, pivot along the way, and then reassess the path forward. If a company-wide pilot program is too drastic, you could try limiting the experiment to one department or team, or to certain days of the week.

If you want to strengthen the impact of your message, you could pair that with another announcement, like a wellbeing day, or an enhancement to the employee assistance program. This will increase the likelihood that your employees feel appreciated and well-supported through the change.

Mental health has been identified as a priority for employers across industries this year. Anecdotally, we've heard that supporting mental health and wellbeing is especially a prime concern in the transition to remote or hybrid work. Beyond simply offering healthcare coverage of mental health services, are there any ways that employers can think outside the box to support mental health among its remote or hybrid employees?

For many employers, most mental health support and services added in 2020 were implemented as a reaction to what was happening due to the pandemic and other events around the world. Employees needed support, and employers had to react quickly. Now we have the opportunity to be proactive and strategic in our approach to mental health and wellbeing.

While some companies' first instinct may be to increase their investment in these benefits, you don't necessarily need to up your spend to bolster your mental health support. Check out your existing vendors first and see if any offer any helpful services — whether that be webinars, discounts, content, or other educational resources. Communicate these programs to your employees so they know they exist and are clear on how to use them.

You could also schedule some themed programming addressing different topics related to mental health. For example, one quarter could be focused on avoiding burnout, or another quarter could be on stress management. See if you can partner with your vendors to provide valuable resources on the subject.

One interesting thing about your background is that you used to be a benefits broker yourself. How has this "peek behind the curtain" impacted the way you approach benefits now?

Seeing how brokers and employers interact, how their relationships are developed, and how books are built — all of this helped my understanding of the benefits ecosystem. It's obvious to me now that a broker can make or break the level of impact an employer can create through its offering.

This experience has also influenced how I make internal decisions, particularly in determining which skill sets I want to build out in my team versus what I want to rely on my broker for. There are some situations where I want to build out the skill set within the team, but others where I know I'll want to leverage my broker. For example, if I’m navigating a complex RFP (request for proposal), I know I can lean on my broker for data, illustrations, and knowledge, as they’ve already completed the same or similar exercise for a broad range of clients/customers. Or if we’re seeking deep expertise in a particular topic -- such as life/disability, mental health, LGBTQ+, or self insurance -- we may look to our broker to get our team up to speed quickly so we can determine what’s right for the organization.

The exact skills you'll need will depend on your company, but you should consider your broker to be an extension of your team, filling in any skill gaps where necessary to make the benefits process easier.

What role do you see brokers playing in transforming and reforming the benefits space, post-Covid and beyond?

Right now, benefits, perks, and onsite services are changing. Brokers should be sharing trends and learnings they're seeing in the marketplace to help strengthen their client's approach and innovation to adapt to these new circumstances.

Brokers should also play a major role in keeping costs contained over time. Any dollars saved can go towards meaningful additions for their employees' benefit plans, improving the employee experience and support in the long run. With that extra budget, employers could consider adding a benefit allowance, changing employee contributions, evolving mental health programs or caregiver support, adding onsite services -- overall, evolving a particular offering to meet the needs of employees. 

And how can Nava lead the charge to make this vision a reality?

Listen to your clients, and see if you can identify any trends. If you're hearing the same questions over and over, or notice multiple clients bringing up similar topics, then that could be a clue towards a solution or tool you could recommend to your client. And being able to "tell the future," so to speak, can help a broker be more proactive in their support.

My favorite brokers, the ones I stay in touch with (even when they're not actively my broker), are the ones who are proactive, innovative, and forward-thinking. They're not waiting for me to ask a question — they are coming to me with ideas, suggestions. 

They have a bird's eye view of the landscape we're dealing with, and consider where we as a company fit into it based on our unique culture, leadership team, and employee base. They'll reach out and make suggestions — "hey, have you thought about XYZ?", or "I read about this particular thing," — instead of just responding to our inquiries as they come.

That kind of strategic approach, being willing to lead with innovation, that's what sets a broker apart. That's what first attracted me to Nava. I'm thrilled to be a part of a team working together to disrupt the existing system.

Have a question Tracy didn't answer? Our team can help.

Learn more about this healthcare renewal season — and how to get ahead — on our renewals hub.

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