A new generation of workers requires a fresh look at benefit programs

John Robak
Executive Vice-President, Human Resources
Greeley and Hansen
Chicago, Illinois

Employers that rely on their benefits package as a way to attract and retain qualified workers will no longer be able to apply a one-size-fits-all approach. As Baby Boomers begin to leave the workforce over the next few years, a new generation of workers will soon take their place. This changing workforce means employers will need to take a fresh new look at how they structure their benefit offerings.

Anyone who runs a business or works in human resources knows that organizations are required to provide certain benefits to their employees. With few exceptions, employers pay the required social security premiums, unemployment insurance and workers compensation. Additionally, most organizations offer their employees benefits such as health insurance, vacation pay and retirement savings. While these traditional benefits have become standard offerings expected by most employees today, younger workers are also placing significant value in a broad array of new convenience benefits aimed at easing time pressures and balancing work and life demands. An organization's future success may now largely depend on its ability to satisfy the changing needs and wants of these workers.

Changes in the employee benefits landscape
Many of today's benefit innovations were first launched by dotcom companies struggling to attract and retain talent at the height of the Internet revolution. Those companies have irrevocably changed the employee benefits landscape. While it's true that many corporate nap-rooms and espresso bars have disappeared with the short-lived companies that built them, other innovations made more common by the dotcom hiring frenzy are now almost taken for granted by the new generation of workers.

In an effort to attract the best talent and keep top performers, many companies are continuing the trend toward progressive, worker-friendly programs and policies. As more non-traditional employees enter the workforce, many firms are adding convenience benefits, such as flexible work hour scheduling, compressed work weeks, sabbatical leave, employee discounts for health clubs, time off for family obligations or community service, even paternity and newlywed leave.

Designing the right program
While it's true that convenience benefits often lead to a more productive and satisfied workforce, it's important that before an employer changes its practices, the organization should make sure new benefit programs are in line with its culture and business objectives. All too often organizations implement programs on a whim because everyone else has them, or because they sound like good ideas, without first determining whether they really match the specific needs of their workers or fit the environment of the organization.

An effective approach is to talk with workers first to find out what benefits are of most value to them. A number of techniques exist to obtain this information, including employee questionnaires, personal interviews or focus groups. Once an employer better understands what its workers desire in a benefits package, it can then begin to design a program that directly targets those needs.

Generally, employers will find that employees' priorities for benefits fall into two primary areas: work-life balance and demographic-specific benefits. Time-off programs such as vacation, personal days and holidays are often the most valued work-life balance benefits among today's younger workforce. Additionally, demographic factors such as age and gender can have important consequences for the types of benefits staff desires. For example, an older workforce is more likely to be concerned about medical coverage, life insurance and retirement. A workforce with a high percentage of women at childbearing age may care more about childcare, maternity or disability benefits. Workers under 30, on the other hand, tend to be more interested in flexibility and training, and favor higher wages over many of the traditional benefit offerings.

Managing costs
In addition to employee interests, employer cost obviously plays an important role in determining which benefits to offer. Depending upon your budget, new benefit offerings can be as elaborate as onsite childcare, concierge services or generous paid time-off programs. However, they certainly do not need to be expensive for an organization to meet the diverse needs of today's changing workforce. Even simple programs that extend beyond traditional benefits such as flexible work schedules, life advice programs and unpaid leaves of absence can make a benefits program more attractive without adding significant costs.

Since managers should regularly encourage employees to maintain a healthy balance between job demands and personal priorities, another cost-effective technique is to provide managers and employees with work-life awareness seminars. Such seminars might include a special focus to help employees better achieve a harmonious balance in their lives and find individual ways to make work more meaningful, productive and flexible. In addition, these seminars provide an opportunity to train managers on recognizing the warning signs of stress and job burnout.

Communicating your benefits
Employees and their families are often unaware of the various benefits available to them. To help keep employees informed about benefit programs, organizations must use a variety of communication vehicles. This should include providing details on an organizational intranet site and distributing frequent informational letters and memos at the office, as well as directing some benefits information to employees' homes and families. Effectively communicating benefits to employees reinforces that the organization is a great place to work, while making sure that the employer realizes sufficient returns on their benefit investments.

To remain viable today, organizations must begin to develop more flexible benefit programs that better meet the expectations and desires of a new generation of workers. Doing so will better position an organization to attract qualified staff, improve employee morale, help keep staff turnover to a manageable level and ultimately enhance its image as a preferred employer in the community.

John Robak leads the human resources activities at Greeley and Hansen, including staffing, employee relations, compensation and employee benefits, and workplace learning. As a result of his work, the firm was recently recognized by the National Association for Business Resources as one of the "101 Best & Brightest Companies to Work For" in Chicago. He can be reached at (312) 578-2350 or jrobak@greeley-hansen.com.