Amid an increasingly competitive talent market, nearly one-third of businesses increased overall employee benefits offerings in 2017, and total spending on benefits ballooned to 32 percent of all employee compensation costs, the Society for Human Resources Management reports. Benefits include everything from free beer Fridays to pet-friendly offices. But can free beer truly keep employees happy?
The answer is “no.” Free beer is a nice perk, but it won’t quench your top performers’ thirst for meaningful work, opportunities for continued advancement, and a culture that is fun, challenging, and thrives on openness and mutual respect. The key ingredients? Culture, character, and cause. Along with these intangible benefits, offering tangible benefits such as health care, tuition assistance, workplace flexibility, and professional development can help keep your employees truly happy.
For many employees, purposeful work ranks above all other reasons for job satisfaction. That includes salary and the typical tangible benefits. John Izzo, PhD, a leading voice on finding personal and professional purpose, and Jeff VanderWielen, PhD, an expert in major change strategies, explain that there is a growing consensus that businesses exist today to make the world a better place. However, in their book The Purpose Revolution, Izzo and VanderWielen write that most leaders “have been schooled in the philosophy that business exists primarily to make profit and increase shareholder value.” Does that sound familiar? If so, even the best benefits programs will struggle to keep your employees happy—and to retain them.
How can your organization leverage purpose to make benefits programs more successful? High-character, servant-minded leaders must embrace the purpose revolution—and help employees embrace it, too. “To truly accelerate performance and win over the emerging workforce in the purpose revolution, leaders must consistently work hard to help all employees see their work not just as a career but as a calling,” Izzo and VanderWielen write. Without the three pillars—culture, character, and cause—employee benefits programs are bound to fizzle.
What are the benefits your employees really want?
What do American workers fear above all else? The availability and affordability of healthcare. In fact, a Gallup poll found that 55 percent of Americans reported that they have “a great deal” of fear regarding healthcare. Another 44 percent of Americans said they had a great deal of concern about the Social Security system. So, it comes as no surprise that excellent health benefits and retirement savings plans were the most coveted benefits in a Monster hiring survey. Most employees expect healthcare and retirement benefits, and they won’t compromise. Here are three more benefits that will keep employees happy:
1. Student loan payoff
Another benefit that can help your organization attract talent—and young talent in particular—is student loan payoff assistance. The average American household has about $49,000 in student loan debt. That weighs heavy on the minds of many millennials, too. According to Forbes, research shows that $25,000 is the “tipping point” in which personal debt shifts from “acceptable investment” to “source of existential dread.” More than 85 percent of the workers responding to a survey by American Student Assistance, all of whom were between the ages of 22 and 33, agreed that they would commit to stay with their employer for five years if the employers helped pay their student loans. Not only can student loan payoff assistance make employees happy, it can be used as a great retention and recruiting tool, too.
2. Workplace flexibility
Work-life balance has always been important, but the very definition of “work-life balance” has shifted in recent years. That is largely due to the rise of technology and distributed workforces. Today, work-life balance includes benefits such as paid time off and family leave, but it also carries new meaning for millennials in particular. Crystal Kadakia, an expert on effective multi-generational workplaces, explains that millennials are often (falsely) stereotyped as being lazy. In reality, they’ve redefined productivity and the traditional 9 to 5 workday. They’re constantly connected to work via technology, and they’re comfortable “blending” their personal and professional lives. “Shift the focus from strict 9 to 5 work hours to a flexible structure that still gets the work done and promotes teamwork,” Kadakia writes in her book The Millennial Myth. “The objective is not to lose all workplace structure, but to allow people to operate during the hours that best work for their unique life situations.”
3. Professional development
Opportunities for career advancement have been identified as one of the leading contributors to good employee morale. And it’s good for business, too. In fact, developing new leaders can set the tone for innovation, build consensus and cohesion among team members, and forge a path for a positive company culture.
It’s not hard to figure out the benefits employees really want. Just think about what matters most to them: health and happiness, time with family and friends, and a bright future to look forward to. Your benefits program should reflect these priorities.
Benefits that add a lot and cost a little
Giving employees respect doesn’t cost much—but it can pay big dividends. In fact, a survey by Harvard Business Review, Georgetown University Professor of Management Christine Porath, and CEO of The Energy Project Tony Schwartz found that employees who feel respected by their employers enjoy 56 percent better health and well-being, like their jobs 89 percent more, and are 92 percent more focused on their jobs. So, how can you turn respect into a benefit? By establishing a process to tell employees how much they’re appreciated and to learn about what they really want from their jobs on a regular basis. Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans, experts in talent management and employee engagement and retention, describe these regular check-ins as “stay interviews” in their book Hello Stay Interviews Goodbye Talent Loss. Although many leaders are afraid to ask employees what they really want, Kaye and Evans argue that leaders should be afraid not to ask. These steps can help:
- Take the time to listen.
- Reiterate how important the employee is.
- Be honest about limitations and challenges the employee’s request presents.
- Convey that you’ll advocate on their behalf.
- Ask “what else” and keep the conversation going.
Establishing an employee recognition program is another cost-effective and overlooked benefit. In fact, Walt Disney World Resort saw a 15 percent jump in employee satisfaction after establishing an employee recognition program. HR Morning offers a few strategies to make non-cash employee recognition programs effective: Get creative with weekly or monthly rewards and add a personalized touch by catering rewards to individual team members. In the end, it’s hard to lose with benefits that convey respect and appreciation.
The final word on benefits programs that keep employees happy
Trendy benefits such as free beer are a poor substitute for purpose when organizations typically prioritize profits and shareholder value above all else. Employees want their work to be fun, challenging, and rewarding. Without those elements, benefits programs will likely fail to keep employees happy. By embracing characteristics of the new leadership paradigm, including openness and mutual respect, you’ll set the stage for effective benefits programs. From there, core benefits such as health insurance and retirement savings plans, paid time-off and flexible schedules, tuition assistance, and professional development are essential to keeping your employees happy.