Flexibility, choice, a sense of belonging—these aspirations for a well-balanced life took on added meaning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their relevance for the workplace and group health benefits has also never been greater.

“If you want to create a sense of belonging in your organization, if you truly want to be a great place to work, does your health and wellness plan live up to that? If it doesn’t, you’ve discredited yourself as an employer,” says Marlene Higgins, senior vice-president, human resources, at Structurlam Mass Timber Corporation based in Penticton, B.C.

Strong expansion and a new leadership team in 2019 prompted Structurlam to re-examine its health and wellness offerings for the 75 employees (made up of executives and associate team members) on its corporate benefits plan (the balance of its employees, about 125, are unionized). The pandemic reinforced the growing recognition that there was a need for flexibility and choice.

“The company is more than 60 years old and had been very traditional in its approach,” says Higgins, who joined Structurlam in 2019 as part of the new leadership team.

Before changing the benefits plan, in October 2020 the company implemented five flex days off per year. “They were a massive hit,” reports Higgins. “They can be for appointments, mental health, childcare, elder care, whatever—no explanation required.”

The flex days were also a win on the business side. “We could implement a big give without changing fixed expenses. I was able to manage my resources well,” summarizes Higgins.

Next: group benefits

Structurlam signed on the advisory firm of CapriCMW, member of the Benefits Alliance Group, in February 2021. Benchmarking conducted as part of their benefits audit revealed that most of the existing plan was in the top 50th percentile for the industry, except for paramedical and vision benefits, which were in the bottom 50th percentile.

“We wanted to be better than market-competitive without going to the well to ask for more money,” recalls Higgins. “The question was, ‘How can we redistribute what we’re currently spending for greater impact?’”

The answer, a flexible benefits plan, was readily apparent. “It would provide more meaningful benefits that match the lifestyle needs of our workforce,” says Higgins.

However, were flexible benefits possible for fewer than 100 employees? “It’s a myth that you must be a large organization to take on a flex plan,” responds Higgins. “If you think it’s too cumbersome or not possible, that’s because you don’t have the right advisor.”

With a process already in place to transition clients to a flex plan, CapriCMW walked Structurlam through the steps. “We took the complexity out of it and broke the changes down into bite-size pieces,” says Chantell Arsenault, advisor for Structurlam. “It was a bit of a challenge to determine the defined contribution amount attached to the flex plan coming from a defined benefit program. We coined it as ‘PEPY,’ per employee per year, and by keeping it simple and including the CFO in our discussions from the start, everyone was pleased with the outcome.”

Employee input was essential to map out next steps and ultimately ensure feasibility. Results from an initial survey confirmed that while associates were grateful, their benefits didn’t meet their lifestyle needs. “The generational differences were strong. They essentially said, ‘Please don’t give me a plan that’s good for someone else’,” says Higgins.

A second survey by CapriCMW in April pinned down that orthodontics, vision care and paramedicals were the main points of differentiation. “By then we were already in the process of renegotiating the benefits, and that survey provided the evidence to cement where we needed to go,” notes Higgins.

The new flex plan has two options—Premium+ or Premium Flex—and launched on June 1. Premium+ includes enhancements to paramedical and vision benefits and excludes coverage for orthodontics. Premium Flex, to which associates contribute through payroll deductions, includes coverage for orthodontics, higher coinsurance levels and higher maximums for paramedicals and vision care. For both options, deductibles were eliminated.

After negotiating a marketing budget with the insurer, CapriCMW outsourced printed materials as part of the communications plan. CapriCMW also built a permanent website for Structurlam to help associates select their plan ahead of the online enrollment process with the insurer.

Internally, team leaders championed the new plan during regular “Weekly Fast Forward” sessions, says Higgins. “These always kick off with a conversation about the big picture and our aims as a company. Our new benefits plan ties right into our aim to be a great place to work.”

When asked what advice she’d give to employers considering a switch to a flex plan, Higgins boils it down to having the right partner. “I am smoking busy and benefits are not my main area of focus. You simply must have the right advisor to walk you through and ease your rollout.”