Do you know what they want; what they really, really want?

Rachel Meadows, director of pensions and financial planning at Broadstone looks at how companies can identify just what their people really want in the way of effective benefits.

With an ever tightening market for the best talent, companies of all sizes are trying to offer cost effective yet tempting employee benefits and reward packages. But one of the greatest challenges facing management teams and HR directors is understanding what their staff genuinely want. And, in a really competitive labour market, it isn’t enough to simply tick the traditional benefit boxes and hope for the best!

To date companies have used all manner of ways to get staff feedback on what they really value. A well-designed survey can be a simple and effective way of understanding your current employees’ benefits ‘wish list’ or priorities. Surveys can be anonymous or otherwise, and the best surveys don’t just ask staff to tick a list of options, but instead try to drive further understanding into how they would rank these in terms of importance. A good survey also will also offer some questions which give staff the freedom to volunteer their ideas and requests in their own words.

And once you have got them writing and talking, putting in place working groups and roundtable discussions is a great of making sure that you are receiving real and meaningful staff input. From this point you can start the crucial step understanding the nature of your workforce.

Future talent

Given the aforementioned ‘war for talent’, it can also be worthwhile getting a wider understanding of where you are as an employer operating in a tough sector in terms of attracting future talent. This can include close liaison with recruiters, but also building into your interview processes questioning around what candidates might be ideally looking for in terms of benefits and overall remuneration package. Showing that you are an employer that is interested in what staff actually want at this stage is also a great way to portray yourself well as a potential employer to candidates!

Of course, working with specialist employee benefits advisers and providers can be a massively useful source of data in identifying and understanding what benefits employees’ value. If these advisers make sure that the options that you are suggesting are likely to be of interest it makes it much more likely that staff will engage in the conversation. For example, if most of your staff are a little older, they are less likely to be interested in benefits that are designed to support young families and more likely to be interested in financial wellness checks, health and wellbeing and protection benefits.

The most common result of these data gathering exercises is that employees feel much more engaged and involved in their benefit package. Simply being asked what they think and what they want helps workers to feel valued by their employer – they become actively interested stakeholders in your benefits project. In addition, I think that many would agree that the results of these exercises can sometimes be very surprising! No two companies or groups of staff are the same and going through an exercise like this proves beyond doubt that there is no effective ‘one size fits all’ in the benefits world.

Diverse workforce demographics

Once you have data and insights the next challenge (or opportunity) is the in increasingly diverse demographic of the workforce. Unless you have a particularly non-diverse group of employees it’s almost impossible to design a suite of employee benefits that appeal to all of them across the board. There are some benefits that are universally valuable (pension, life insurance etc), but even there your strategy to help staff to understand and engage with them will need to take a slightly different flavour for staff at different ages and stages.

The most effective benefit strategies offer some element of choice for benefits that aren’t core. Excitingly for SMEs, developments in the voluntary benefits market in recent years have made this possible and affordable for employers of all sizes, not just those with thousands of staff which might have been the case a few years ago. Offering choice enables your employees to vote with their feet – they can personally select the benefits and options that they would value and benefit from and disregard those that they wouldn’t.

The final piece in the employee benefits jigsaw is reconciling what employees want with what are the most useful or beneficial products or services that employers can offer. It isn’t surprising that often employees would like a lot more than employers can afford to offer in one go and this shouldn’t always be viewed as a negative.

Knowing that there are more things that your employees would like to see you provide gives an employer a great opportunity to put together the beginnings of a longer term strategy – what are the top priorities to implement immediately within your available budget and what might work well for ‘round two’, three or four. Engagement is a long-term project and your staff will understand and appreciate being involved in a long-term partnership to create a really valuable employee benefit package.