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Think you can't offer cutting edge benefits?
Think again.

By Elaine Varelas, 5/7/2007

HR managers sometimes get a bad rap as the people in organizations who always say "no." But imagine for a moment that the word "no" was removed from your vocabulary for a day, and you had to answer "yes" to every question.

Next, imagine that this is the same day that you asked employees to report back to you about their "wish list" for benefits-the perks they would want if they could have anything. What would you do (after the heart palpitations and hyperventilating stop)? There may be some outrageous requests: Can we have on-site pet day care? Yes! Can we get massages everyday? Yes! Can I work from Tahiti? Yes!

The next logical question is, "How can HR managers realistically make it happen?" This exercise can be liberating for HR managers. Instead of an automatic "no" and a list of reasons to justify the decision, they can ask, "Is it possible?"

It might help to look at why HR managers have traditionally said "no" in the past. The stock response was because benefits programs and policies were too costly or too difficult to manage. In fact, these reasons were cited by company leaders when employees first started asking for flexible schedules. But employees persisted, and slowly organizations started to offer part-time and flex-time hours, and something interesting happened. The excuses were debunked. Managing part-time employees wasn't complicated or expensive.

Why should companies say "yes" to employees' requests? It keeps employees happy - especially the right employees. Employees no longer want to be just another cog in the wheel. They want flexibility and options. That means offering individualized benefits, where employees are empowered to design packages that meet their needs and address their values, and create work schedules that fit their lives.

In more progressive organizations, employees are able to draw up blueprints for their jobs, incorporating all facets of work life: days, hours, location, vacation, holidays and pay. Employees are permitted to make choices about benefits depending on what is important to them.

To meet employees' needs, companies can offer a broad spectrum of options where there is something for everyone. Some items, such as medical coverage, would appeal to nearly all employees, while others, including long-term care insurance and retirement planning, would only appeal to specific groups.

Ideally, benefits would be assigned a dollar amount and employees could choose a la carte from a list to tailor their own benefits packages. Do you want a commuter rail pass, partial payment toward parking, or money toward an environmentally friendly hybrid car? Do you want a matching charitable contribution or time off to work in the community? These benefits could be phased in over time, similar to how vacation days are accrued as employees progress in their jobs.

While it may seem daunting for companies to individualize benefits packages, it really isn't tough. They can start by working with affinity groups (groups within a company that have similar interests) to gear benefits towards a subsection of employees.

For example, those just out of college may be looking for tuition reimbursement, key educational experiences, or time off to work with a non-profit organization, while Baby Boomers may want financial planning assistance and fewer hours. What is important to the populations your company most wants to attract and retain?

This new approach to benefits may be more complicated than the one-size-fits-all policies of years past, but organizations that can fill this need for flexibility and customization will be more competitive when it comes to recruitment. We know that providing individualized benefits keeps employees happy, and satisfied staff are easier to hire and keep.

Are there other advantages organizations can reap from this benefits structure? Look at the organization's business plan and goals. What is the employer's wish list? Is there a way that benefits policies can help a company reach their goals?

For instance, a company may want to save on real estate costs by cutting down on space. That goal can be achieved by giving employees the option to work from home or work part-time. Part-time schedules can allow for several employees to share one office on-site.

Or an organization that wants to expand its customer service hours so clients can reach a live person 24 hours a day could do so by expanding the definition of the work day. Some employees could work in the evening or overnight, while others could keep traditional daytime hours. With creative thinking, both the employer and employees can profit.

Ask employees for their wish list for benefits, either through informal conversations or a survey - and imagine that you have to make those requests happen. While some may be cost-prohibitive or just not feasible, others may generate revenue, and the exercise will create many possibilities. And you just may surprise your employees by saying "Yes!"

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