How perks and benefits can help win and keep talent

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Salaries will always be the star of any remuneration package, but to gain an edge in the ongoing finance talent war, you need to go the extra mile and offer attractive benefits and perks.

“It’s very important to get your benefits package right,” says Louise Tallboy-Wood, Associate Director at Robert Walters UK. “Having well-thought-out and comprehensive benefits emphasises the sense of value firms have for their teams.

“On the flip side, we see that those who pay little to no attention to this often give the sense to their teams they’re replaceable, which usually correlates to lower levels of employee loyalty and productivity, and in turn, lower profits for the firm.”

Yet while offering competitive benefits might be essential for attracting and retaining top talent in a competitive job market, it can be pricey, especially for SMEs and smaller practices, and especially if not done right.

“Businesses may struggle to identify the right benefits to offer that will appeal to their employees and help them stand out from their competitors. Finding a balance between offering competitive benefits and managing costs is a key challenge,” says Callum Laurie, associate director at Robert Walters UK.

Know what people want

It therefore makes sense to take some time to understand the market. For example, every January East Anglia-based Scrutton Bland do a market sweep of all the benefits. “We look at competitors and beyond to see which benefits are in and which are not; also, what the economy is telling us — is it cash people want, or is it more holiday, or more of a work-life balance?” says the firm’s HR director Caroline Bixby. Their increased headcount in a challenging climate suggests the system is working.

Alongside this, Laurie suggests talking to industry and recruitment specialists, reading their white papers and employee surveys to ensure the benefits you’re offering are competitive.

You also need to talk to your employees, getting to know their concerns and ambitions via internal surveys and educational talks, something Scrutton Bland also do on an ongoing and annual basis.

“Every year we do a benefits questionnaire to understand what people want,” says Bixby. “We also do a massive amount of communication. We have a project plan from January through to May that involves webinars, Q&As, on-site presentations and information sessions around benefits”.

Lifecycles and lifestyles

There’s no one size fits all to benefits, but neither do they need to be too complicated. Understanding that your staff are people with differing needs and at various stages in their careers is a great place to start.

For example, a 19-year-old apprentice might be less interested in paying into a pension than receiving financial support for education, study days and learning and development (L&D) pathways, while more senior people will be interested in retirement, health plans and equity schemes.

“It’s about packaging your benefits offering in a way that people can pick and choose what’s best for them,” says Bixby. “As an organisation, we can get better rates than the employee, for example, private healthcare is cheaper through the company than going direct. Family members can also benefit; I have life insurance and income protection for my husband, two things I’ve chosen as optional extras that are relevant to me at my time of life.”

Other common pick’n’mix benefits include gym memberships and brand discounts, while third-party platforms such as Benefit Hub are offering businesses a one-stop solution for perks and rewards.

A solid core

But getting your core package right should be the priority, otherwise any perks and benefits may end up being viewed with cynicism. The core package is usually made up of salary and annual leave, with pensions, study support and healthcare also common. Combined, the core package should reflect people’s greater awareness of and desire for well-being and work-life balance.

Holidays: “People get this really wrong,” says Jason Reynolds, Operations Director at recruiters AJ Chambers, overseeing the Audit, Accounts and Taxation teams. “I’ve seen lots of people turn down offers because of the holiday.”

Indeed, don’t scrimp and make it a benefit that grows with the employee. “We close between Christmas and New Year, and we offer additional holiday, so if you’re coming in at ground level you get 36 days a year (28 days plus the eight bank holidays). As a manager you get 38 and directors 41,” says Bixby.

Flexibility: This needs to be taken seriously. “Despite companies driving a return to the office, many professionals still expect at least two days working from home – if not more,” says Tallboy-Wood.

Indeed, businesses that don’t offer flexible working are now the outliers and will struggle in the talent marketplace, says Reynolds. “Whereas three years ago working from home was the anomaly, now it’s completely flipped. A hybrid structure: three days in the office, two at home is becoming the standard.”

Scrutton Bland don’t consider hybrid working a benefit, it’s just simply how they work now.

Study support and L&D: When hiring for junior positions, study support can trump salary. Reynolds knows of candidates being offered a higher salary to self-study or a lower salary but with study support (courses costs, membership fees, study leave), and the lower salary winning out. “Employers should want their juniors to pass the exams as much as they do, but it does come down to cost considerations for very small firms,” he says.

Relocation bonuses are ok, but careful with signing on bonuses: While Reynolds has noticed an increase in firms offering retention and signing on bonuses since the pandemic, which might seem an attractive carrot to dangle, it thankfully isn’t yet the norm. “Most business owners want to stay on the right side of desperation, and they want people to want to work there,” he says.

However, relocation bonuses have their place, as they can help broaden a business’s geographic reach, especially when looking to fill more senior positions with people who may have families to uproot.

Health and well-being: This can be a great area for the pick’n’mix approach. Scrutton Bland, for example, offer a cash plan — a type of insurance scheme whereby the firm pays £1 per week to enable their employees to gain £810 worth of benefits per year. These can range from massages to physio, from dental check-ups and eye tests to 24/7 telemedicine.

They also provide an employee assistance programme – a 24/7 legal and support helpline, as well as up to six online or face-to-face counselling sessions per year.

Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.

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