Top 5 employee benefits and perks

Nick Stanley
By Nick Stanley

We first published this piece back in 2018, which probably seems a very long time ago to most people. Since then, our working and personal lives have been through an intense period of disruption, challenge and change. 

Yep, COVID-19 and the resulting lockdowns and restrictions have rewritten the script (and who would bet the uncertainty is all done and dusted?).

For most companies, 2021 is a quite different place to do business. While some industries are thriving in the rebounding economy, others are still in recovery mode, and others are just holding on. 

Revenue and budgets for many are tight, but what we know hasn't changed is the value of skilled, loyal employees. They are integral to the success of any business, because they know it, work hard to contribute, and can help identify and pounce on new opportunities.

Just as 2021 is different for employers, so too is it for employees. Some have found the changes unsettling, while many have got used to working from home, more flexible schedules, and balancing the priorities of work and personal life.

So we thought it would be a good time to revisit the best benefits and perks that you can offer your star workers as part of their employment package. Attractive benefits demonstrate that people and their wellbeing matter, and that the company wants to see them succeed. This in turn helps improve performance, employee retention, and company morale. The business will also be more attractive to other highly-skilled workers.

So what are the 5 best benefits and perks to offer your people in 2021?

1. Pay increases and performance bonuses

This was and still is #1, despite the economic conditions.

Pre-COVID research into the best benefits for attracting and retaining employees found that salary increases and performance bonuses were most effective, and this has been backed up by more recent studies:

Of course, not every company will be in a financial position to offer a pay raise or bonus to their best workers right now (and there’s no legal requirement to give a pay increase, unless you’re paying your employee less than the minimum wage!). But the conversation should still be on the table.

You might need to be creative and look at things like incentive plans that pay in shares in the company. This not only provides a great chance for employees to share in the company's success, it also gives them a lasting reason to help build it.

If you can’t afford raises or incentives, be honest. People will usually understand if the business has been doing it tough, and may well be fine revisiting the discussion at some later stage. But if you muck them around or deny them a bonus on false pretences, don’t be surprised if your employee’s performance takes a dive and they start looking for new opportunities.

2. Work-life balance

Prior to the emergence of COVID-19, maintaining a balance between working life and other personal activities was a priority to most workers and the pandemic has only reinforced this.

People have got used to working from home and juggling work and personal responsibilities. Remote work is now very much a norm for many, and that change is here to stay.

Smart employers realise that every employee’s idea of what work-life balance means is different, and that certain measures work better for some roles more than others, so it pays to provide a range of options to choose from.

It may be flexibility in working hours and location, part-time contracts, or the ability for workers to scale their hours up or down when they become parents, get older, or want to further their studies.

It does take some faith, flexibility, and commitment as an employer. But offering options that improve your employee's work-life balance shows you trust them and in return you can expect increased commitment and performance, higher job satisfaction, and reduced absenteeism.

2.5. Employee wellbeing

Putting some extra effort into employee wellbeing is an important consideration in 2021, as many people have found the changes caused by the pandemic, and having to adapt to them, unsettling (MetLife’s Employee Benefit Trends Study found that 70% of Australian employers rated mental health as the most important aspect of employee health to focus on in the wake of COVID).

Everyone wants to know that their employer takes their health & safety seriously, whether they are working on site or remotely. COVID-19 vaccinations will be free for everyone in Australia, so look at ways to support your workers getting vaccinated and think how you can look after the physical and mental health of remote-workers.

This includes being straight with your people about the company's situation, its plans and goals. They will have a good sense of the state the business is in anyway, and will understand if you can't afford some of the benefits you previously could.

Having an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that provides free, confidential counselling and support can really help employees deal with stressful problems, whether they are work or personal issues. EAP services are also good to have in place if you’re considering making changes to the business that will affect team members.

The good news is that in the 2021 Robert Half Salary Guide, the two most common new employee benefits offered by Australian companies as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic were wellness programs and mental health resources (at the office and/or remote).

3. Professional development

In our modern working lives, people need to be able to develop their skills and career, and employees increasingly expect the company they work for to provide an environment that encourages learning and progression.

A 2020 study by SEEK and Sidekicker of over 8,000 Australian and New Zealand workers found paid professional development was the 4th most appealing workplace perk for employees.

For the most part, Australian employers are good at this and understand that by working with team members on professional development plans provides them with a clear path to grow with the company. Remember to offer this to everyone in the company, not just managers and star performers.

Offering various options works best, as it will enable your employees to select the things that inspire them. For some it may be gaining formal qualifications. For others it may be attending workshops or hearing from inspirational speakers.

The changes brought about by COVID-19 mean there are an increasing number of online training and certification programs that are free of charge, so upskilling is more attainable than ever.

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4. Increased leave

Beyond the paid leave that all permanent workers are legally entitled to, many companies now give their staff more than the minimum and also provide other leave options.

Giving extra days of paid leave for staying with the company for a predetermined period improves long-term employee retention. Offering longer periods of paid or unpaid parental leave encourages parents to return to the company. Giving people time off to recharge or pursue volunteer work shows you support their values and the wider community.

It's about demonstrating to your employees that they matter. By showing them you are willing to go above and beyond, they will be much more likely to reciprocate.

5. Discounts and freebies

This is a broad category and could cover anything from discounted health insurance, travel, or gym memberships to providing free food and espresso coffee.

Travel expenses – especially if your business is in a city – can be a major cost for your people, so providing lease vehicles (not just cars), parking, or public transport subsidies can be a big plus.

Many companies offer their own products at little or no cost. It may not cost much to the business, but it may mean a lot to your workers. It will also give them first-hand knowledge of the products or services the company provides to its customers.

Other popular benefits to consider

  • Health insurance and wellness programmes, including personal health checks, flu shots, and work-life balance seminars.
  • Retirement and savings planning.
  • Social perks, such as organised events and outings, regular lunches, and Friday drinks.

Provide options

Your workplace doesn't have to employ an in-house masseuse or have slides for getting between office levels, but you should ensure the benefits and perks you offer are of value to your people.

Understanding your workforce and providing a menu of benefits that people can customise will enable you to better enhance their working lives.

The popularity of different benefits changes over time too, so keep checking with employees to see if you are able to offer what they expect.

Of course, the prime consideration for most businesses will be which benefits and perks you can afford to offer. Transparency is key because failing to deliver on promises will leave employees feeling they have been short-changed and, potentially, resentful.

Be clear and fair

Doing right by your team members is always the right thing to do.

If you are proud of the way you treat your people, let others know of the benefits of working for your company. It will help attract potential employees.

But remember: all the perks and benefits in the world won't count for much if your workers don't feel you value them, treat them well, or they don't have any direction in the job.

Learn more effective employee retention strategies.