Benefit and commuting trends coming out of Silicon Valley in 2019

Interested in benefits trends and how the most innovative companies are tackling commuting? We sat down with Kaleana Quibell, one of Employee Benefit Advisor’s Most Influential Women in Benefit Advising and in the top 20 for the Corporate Health and Wellness Association’s Wellbeing 100 Awards.

The HR benefits consultancy that sees it all

Kaleana Quibell,
Director of Wellbeing at Sequoia Consulting Group

Sequoia Consulting Group holds a unique position among HR benefits consultants. Headquartered in the heart of Silicon Valley, perhaps it’s not surprising that Sequoia has carved out a niche serving high-growth tech companies, helping companies such as Dropbox, Cloudera, Baidu, One Medical Group, and MongoDB select and implement the employee benefits that enable them to attract and retain talent and enable their employees perform at their best.

However, the challenge of this unique vantage-point might be even more interesting. By serving high growth companies in one of the most fierce talent markets in the country, with generally younger tech-savvy workforces, Sequoia sees HR trends first and advises on the toughest benefits challenges - which is no easy task.

And within Sequoia, there is one woman who sees it all - Kaleana Quibell, the Director of Wellbeing. She advises companies on innovative programs to support physical, emotional, financial, and social wellbeing of employees and their families. In this capacity, she assesses company needs, supports vendor selection, and helps rollout competitive benefit and wellbeing programs for some of the world’s most innovative tech companies.

Given Kaleana’s unique perspective, we recently sat down to learn about general benefit trends and how innovative companies are solving commuting for their employees.

Benefits and commuting trends for 2019

The full transcript is below, but for those who would quickly scroll to the bottom, we have summarized the highlights here:

  1. The most successful companies are building a benefits philosophy grounded on their core values to drive consistent decisions. Fringe benefits are currently experiencing a renaissance with new offerings being introduced to the market every day. These address diverse employee needs targeting everything from emergency childcare, to financial wellness, to mental health, to commute. And benefits managers are increasingly being challenged which to select based on impact. When comparing benefits that might be apples to oranges, Kaleana explained, “deciding the benefits philosophy is really important. For some clients it is going to be to reduce cost. Other clients with a larger budget want to do the best job at taking care of their people. Some want to give employees a lot of autonomy to choose what's important to them. Others want to gather feedback to make core decisions and slowly add other benefits. We help clients figure out their objectives and company values so they can make decisions in a consistent manner. Otherwise, adding a random benefit will seem favoritive. Whereas, when a company chooses a benefit in alignment with their philosophy it's usually better accepted by everyone.”
  2. Companies are moving beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to introduce benefits that will have the greatest impact for certain functions. In giving a detailed example, Kaleana explained, “they have to support a wide variety of people: from high stress call center employees to their sales team. To do that, they gather feedback from managers and relay that to the benefits team to evaluate programs that will help serve the diverse needs of departments or locations [...] Rather than approaching it as spend this much on the company as a whole we thought about which vendors would offer their services as pilot programs to the subset of people who needed it most.”
  3. The most progressive companies are introducing flexible spend accounts to support employees with commute. Increasingly employees are expressing less tolerance for long commutes and requesting flexible work arrangements (e.g., work at home, flexible hours, etc.). As a response, companies are responding to commute challenges by evolving from a centralized office model to smaller distributed offices to reduce commute times. Further, they are introducing commute benefits to tackle the commute itself. As Kaleana explains, “it’s all about giving people flexibility in their lives [...] Recognizing that they can’t make assumptions on how people commute, progressive employers are striving to create a seamless reimbursement system. They provide flexible funds that their employees can use. It’s a great idea but I don't think there is a perfect way to do this yet.”

Full Interview with Kaleana Quibell

Voy: In 2017 you were recognized as one of Employee Benefit Advisor’s Most Influential Women in Benefit Advising. This year you were recognized in the top 20 for the Corporate Health and Wellness Association’s Wellbeing 100 Awards. What drives you?

Kaleana: I've been leading the Wellbeing efforts at Sequoia for four years. Prior to that, I studied organizational psychology – understanding what motivates people and how they work together.

I noticed that many workplaces struggle to understand the actual needs of employees beyond their salary and basic medical benefits. So when I came into this space, I was really passionate about the total wellbeing of employees - not just as a worker but as a person, a friend, a family member - recognizing their physical health, emotional health, financial health and overall sanity as it relates to all aspects of the job. I'm motivated by finding solutions that would help myself, my friends, my family, knowing all the struggles they go through.

I enjoy connecting with vendors that are offering solutions to those challenges and bringing them to our clients. I’m super motivated when I hear stories of how meaningful benefits have made an impact on an employee going through a really hard time or struggling to find a resource for their family or dependents.

As an employer, you want to retain your employees. As the market becomes more competitive, they have increasingly realized that catering to a person on an individual level has the biggest impact. That's why they stay with an employer. I'm motivated when employers say, "because we had this resource or benefit in place we were able to not just retain this employee but they have preached that they will work here forever because they are so grateful for the things we did for them."

We know you have a unique role here. What does it mean to be the Wellbeing Director at Sequoia?

When I tell people my role, I start by defining wellbeing. A lot of people think wellbeing is just about health. That's where I distinguish between wellness and wellbeing. Historically, wellness was related to physical health. Folks in wellness roles are generally focused on taking care of medical conditions, helping employers with claims data, and other related activities. At Sequoia, the Wellbeing Director is responsible for designing programs to support an employee’s total wellbeing - physical health, emotional health, financial health, and family programs.

Sequoia’s primary responsibility is to help negotiate benefits each year on behalf of employers and make sure that they have solid core medical, dental, and vision programs. In my role, I look for additional meaningful benefits a company can offer. Our job in the wellbeing department - and my role leading that team - is to look at the total needs of employees, and help design total rewards programs that support wellbeing.

Sequoia is different because we work with people in the technology industry that tend to be younger - the average age might be in the 20s or 30s. They are pretty tech savvy. They push the envelope on traditional programs and policies. That causes us to be innovative with our approach and the vendors we work with. We've been able to connect with and design some really cool programs that other more traditional companies or brokerage firms don’t have.

How do you collaborate with clients to figure out vision or total wellbeing for employees? How do you design that?

Our approach with employers starts with understanding them from data and their culture. These are the two really important things. As a broker, we usually have the capability to get claims data and a census report. But this is only useful in the context of culture. We start by looking at programs offered, current spend on medical, and demographics: where employees are located and average age. Then we layer in survey data from their employees, company values, corporate goals, and projected growth. By understanding what people actually need and what is going to work culturally we make better program recommendations.

What are some of the biggest challenges that HR is facing as they decide on benefits?

The market for vendors is saturated. There is a boom in benefits, HR solutions, systems, perks, and wellbeing offerings. It has become really hard for them to navigate that space. HR is approached by so many vendors but at a surface level, sometimes their offerings really aren't that different. It takes a lot of digging and references to determine which are great benefits, which are good sales pitches, and which are just not good at all.

As this space grows, there are many types of solutions and benefits they're trying to stack-rank that are sometimes apples to oranges. There's a big challenge with trying to find the right solution that impacts the largest amount of people while also trying to serve the needs of a diverse population. Companies might be approached with a parenting offering, a commuter offering, and an enhanced medical offering. It can be hard to know how to rank a health-related product over a parenting product over a financial wellness product when they're all so different and impact different people.

In an apples to oranges situation, how do you help clients figure out where they can best dedicate spend to have the most meaningful impact on employees?

It starts with the exercises that we do with our clients right when they come on board as a client. We try to define their benefits philosophy.

Deciding the benefits philosophy is really important. For some clients it is going to be reduce cost. Other clients with a larger budget want to do the best job at taking care of their people. Some want to give employees a lot of autonomy to choose what's important to them. Others want to gather feedback to make core decisions and slowly add other benefits. We help clients figure out their objectives and company values so they can make decisions in a consistent manner. Otherwise, adding a random benefit will seem favoritive. Whereas, when a company chooses a benefit in alignment with their philosophy it's usually better accepted by everyone.

The other important input comes from surveying employees to assess the needs of the total population. Additionally, we're getting better at building a community of references and referrals to better inform benefit selection.

What cutting-edge clients could other companies look to for inspiration and best practices around innovative benefits for their employees?

It's really refreshing to work with clients that aren’t just looking at the needs of a population as if they're all the same–clients that dig into the needs of different roles and functions.

I've worked with Dropbox for a few years. They're well known for the types of on-site benefits they offer, like wellness weeks. I've worked with their team to respond to total health - whether it's on-site screenings, mental health workshops, fitness classes, or parenting support. They do a really, really good job of that.

I have another great client with ~2,000 people that I've worked with on a few programs. They have to support a wide variety of people: from high-stress call center employees to their sales team. To do that, they gather feedback from managers and relay that to the benefits team to evaluate programs that will help serve the diverse needs of departments or locations.

We were just talking with a company who struggled to resolve what kind of a commute benefit could support everybody. Parts of their organization have different challenges with commuting. She talked about how engineers were pushing hard for a shuttle, operations wanted a subsidy, and how people taking the train with a 20 minute walk to the office were requesting a ridehail benefit.

When confronted with similar diverse needs, how did this client with ~2,000 people navigate designing their benefit program?

In that particular case, we were looking at on-site wellness weeks and services. To implement those well, we had to consider the employees’ ability to take advantage of benefits during work hours, after work hours, etc. So we did an analysis with this company assessing how their employees’ needs varied.

Then we looked at budget. Rather than approaching it as spend this much on the company as a whole we thought about which vendors would offer their services as pilot programs to the subset of people who needed it most. Think of a case where you may want to roll out a mental health therapy benefit. But you can't afford to do it for the whole company or maybe it just doesn't make sense for the whole company, but for the call center employees it does.

That's been an increasingly popular trend for many of our clients. A lot of them push back on PPM (per employee, per month) because they know a certain benefit isn't needed for the whole population. This trend will change how vendors structure their offerings when pricing for a company’s entire employee-base across the United States might not make sense.

Every year Sequoia releases their annual benefits Benchmark Survey. What were some of the most exciting insights that came out of this year's report?

Our benchmarking is broken down by chapters: physical, emotional, financial health, etc. Let’s talk about the wellbeing section.

The biggest insight is how much mental health is on the rise. Last year, we had at most 40 or 50 percent of companies focused on it - I want to say lower 30s. This year it was almost 80 percent. To unpack the trend of mental health, we asked what is causing stress to employees. It turned out to be everything: financial concerns, life planning, parenting, physical health and fitness, and their actual jobs.

To help employees focus at work, employers learned they would need to consider all stressors in an employee's life. It’s actually those employees advocating for their company to take better care of their total health and needs as a person. Looking at the actual programs employers have rolled out, we found everything from fertility benefits to therapy coverage to third-party benefits taking care of everything from how they get to work, to what do they do at work, to what's needed after work.

Employers are taking on the responsibility to take care of their employees–in a way that's unrelated to their job and rather their health, who employees are as a person, and the stressors they are exposed to.

How has the role of commuting changed in the past 5 or 10 years?

From an employer point of view, we find that a lot of our clients are recognizing that commute is a huge reason they lose employees. As a company, they either end up opening additional offices or offering creative solutions to enable remote work. From my experience as an employee in the Bay Area, I can say that people don't look for jobs that are much further from work than they need to be. It takes a toll on people if their commutes are longer than an hour. That’s a big deciding factor when choosing a job.

From an employee perspective, there's just a huge variety of new commuting options. A lot of services have popped up trying to take on the challenges of commuting. When I moved to San Francisco nine years ago, my only option to get to work was the bus or flagging a taxi. There wasn't Uber. There wasn't Lyft. Now I can even rent a car for the day through Zipcar-like services.

Assessing the current state of commute benefits and programs, how could they be better?

For employees it’s about understanding and comparing commute options coupled with learning about an employer’s programs that apply to those options. Currently, you really have to do it all on your own. I live in San Francisco and have to commute to San Mateo. I know we offer commuter benefits to our own employees at Sequoia that could relate to parking or could relate to transit. But even as someone in the benefits space here, I wouldn't even know the best way to start. You try driving; you try driving at different times of the day. You try taking the train and then taking a shuttle. But it could be cheaper to take an Uber from there. Or to carpool. But that can be tricky for employees who have a schedule that changes frequently. All you can do as an employee is trial and error to figure out the best way to get to work.

What's the most innovative thing you've seen an employer offer to help with commuting?

It’s all about giving people flexibility in their lives. Employers hear from their talent that, “a shuttle would be great,” but everyone leaves at different times or, “we'd love to do a carpool,” but when they are running late or want to go to the gym they can't because they have to catch a ride.

Recognizing that they can’t make assumptions on how people commute, progressive employers are striving to create a seamless reimbursement system. They provide flexible funds that their employees can use. It’s a great idea but I don't think there is a perfect way to do this yet. I’ve seen programs that support all kinds of commute forms: a fund to rent a city bike or for Lyft or Uber, even for gas. It’s that flexibility that is well received. Employers who understand that there's not one great mode of transportation are doing the best in that space.

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In the coming weeks, we'll continue to dive into innovation in the commute space and how to holistically design commute benefits to best support your talent and business strategy. Stay tuned and join our mailing list to be the first to learn about what you can do to solve commuting.

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