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Frills and thrills: What benefits do employees value?

On-site gyms, gourmet food, children’s daycare, doggy daycare… employee benefits at some IT companies are the stuff of dreams in other sectors. Despite these luxury perks, when employees are asked which benefits would be most valuable for them, a majority opt for benefits that help combine work with quality of life. And this search for work-life integration cuts across generations.

Looking ahead to the next five years, millennials, the generation born after 1980, will account for more than half of the global workforce. Large numbers of baby boomers will be nearing the end of their careers, with Generation X, encompassing all 30- to 40-somethings, sandwiched neatly in between. Despite the age differences, these generations have clear expectations of work and, surprisingly, prioritise many of the same work benefits.

Flexibility and work-life integration

At technology company Atlassian, named Australia’s best place to work for the second year in a row by BRW magazine, the main requirements are autonomy and flexibility. Fifty per cent of Atlassian’s workforce is composed of millennials, who are trusted to organise their work in their own time.

Kelly Kirby, the company’s HR business partner says: “People work from home; they work from a cafe; they come in at 10 and work until four. As long as they are there for team meetings and the team can depend on them, we are outcome based and it doesn’t matter how they do it. We have a baseline of trust.”

In her global role managing the company’s HR across offices in Sydney, Manila, Austin, Texas, San Francisco and Amsterdam, Kirby says she often makes an early conference call to California from home, then goes for a run, comes into the Sydney office for a few hours, then back home again for a late call to the Netherlands.

“Getting the balance right between my work and my life is left up to me,” she says.

A survey of 1550 companies in Australia and New Zealand by RedBalloon and AtlusQ, ‘Employee Engagement Capabilities Report 2013’, found that of the companies with employee engagement scores of 80 per cent or more, 70.9 per cent of them provided flexible work arrangements and flexible leave.

It’s not just millennials who crave flexibility – for baby boomers it’s also top of the list. At Blackmores, the vitamin and supplement manufacturer, nearly a quarter of the workforce is over 50 years old. Richard Henfrey, chief operations officer, says older workers have options as they head towards retirement: they can transition from the production side of the business, which is more physical, to an office role or adopt flexible hours. Any employee can also take up to a year of unpaid sabbatical.

Gen X is also well-served at Blackmores. Most companies in Australia give their employees a minimum of 12 weeks paid parental leave. Blackmores offers employees up to two years unpaid maternity leave and full-time male employees can take two weeks paternity leave. The gold standard for parental leave is Netflix, of course, which received widespread publicity when they announced unlimited paid parental leave for their staff in the first year following the birth. Tawni Cranz, chief talent officer says: “Parents can return part-time, full-time, or return and then go back out as needed. People perform better at work when they’re not worrying about home.”

Learning curve

Coming a close second after flexibility and policies around work-life integration are opportunities for learning and career advancement. In its most recent ‘Millennials at Work: Reshaping the Workplace’ report, PwC surveyed 4364 people under the age of 31. The study found that young people want opportunities to get ahead in their career even more than they want competitive wages. One of the top reasons most people quit their jobs was lack of opportunity to advance, according to other research from Ernst and Young.

But training isn’t just in demand at the youthful end of the spectrum. In 2013, Westpac launched a specific ‘Prime of Life’ program for its workers over 50 years old with an internal education web hub: Your Experience, Your Future. This training and resources program focuses on older workers’ issues around money, career, relationships and health, and includes assistance in financial planning to transition them into retirement.

Expanding employee horizons is also important to the not-for-profit Starlight Children’s Foundation, which was the highest ranking charity in the BRW’s best places to work study in 2014. To enhance their 300 employees’ skills, experts lead two-day workshops in targeted areas including performance, leadership, fundraising or sales, says Sue Henry, head of people and culture.

Healthy bodies, agile minds

Investing in a new state-of-the-art workplace from the ground up, as Westpac are currently doing at Barangaroo in Sydney, gives an employer the opportunity to design in factors that will attract and retain talent. Once they open for business, Westpac employees will enjoy an onsite centre that offers physiotherapy, massage, a dietician and podiatrist. Facilities also include a dedicated exercise area, yoga and Pilates’ space, showers and lockers for lunchtime sports enthusiasts, and 400 bike racks. Incorporating health and wellbeing into workplaces is an important step, says Jane Counsel, Westpac’s former head of diversity who now works as a consultant.

Starlight’s Henry also takes a holistic view of wellness. “We need to take care of our own wellbeing, make sure we are flourishing before we can help others,” she says. “It’s helped our personal relationships enormously and we’ve brought that back into the workplace and achieved more productivity.”

Beyond supporting physical and mental health, Professor Robyn Johns, a senior lecturer in the management discipline group at the University of Technology Sydney, argues that because work is now only a part of how employees identify themselves, companies must do more to support employee interests.

“Because of the integration of work and life, millennials especially want their values to align with their employers’, so the philanthropic causes their company supports are important to them,” Johns says. “They want to be part of a company that is not internally focussed, but externally focused and is part of society at large.”

For example, Atlassian offers staff five paid charity days a year to work in the charity of their choice and employees can also do pro bono tech work for not-for-profits, organised through a fun speed-dating session.

At Starlight, employees working in management, administration, sales or fundraising, who are not working in the hospitals with children and teens, get to spend four half days a year on the frontline. “It gets them connected, to understand the impact of their work and hear stories that they can then share back with donors,” Henry says.

Of course everyone, no matter their age, appreciates a pat on the back, and showing gratitude is definitely on-trend, says Jane Counsel.

At Atlassian, employees or managers across continents give each other ‘kudos’ – a thank you card and a small $30 gift – to highlight a team or individual’s accomplishments.

For someone who is “a living example of company values”, Atlassian also has ‘big kudos’, gifts worth up to $500. This could include a shopping voucher at their favourite store, a fine-dining experience or even skydiving, says Kirby. Loyalty is also applauded; when they have worked for the company for five years, Atlassian sends employees and their families on a paid holiday.

The payoff for companies that make these investments in their employees through rewards, flexibility, training and benefits is that, in most cases, it results in increased company loyalty and low staff turnover. “By giving our staff freedom, to take off and act in a play, travel or study, they stay enthused and engaged – they come back to us,” says Henry.

Counsel agrees that making this investment strengthens a company’s brand and encourages loyalty among employees. “Many large companies provide opportunities for people to have a fluid career,” she says. “There is no longer the idea of a ‘job for life’ but many employees will leave and come back if it’s a brand they love and respect.”

This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the February 2016 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Frills for all’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here

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