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By now employers have figured out that the right benefits package can clinch the deal when it comes to attracting – and retaining – desirable employees. Things get sticky, though, when it comes to defining “right.” Which benefits your company offers matters more than simply beefing up the list. Quality over quantity, if you will.

That said, the menu of options must be broad enough to appeal to a diverse workforce. Benefits have to align with the demographics and lifestyle of your employees as well as company culture. Oh – and, of course, whatever benefits you offer have to fit within the company’s budget and HR’s ability to manage the portfolio.

With that in mind, let’s look at what is trending this year in the world of benefits.

The fundamentals are still favorites

Health insurance remains the most-preferred benefit. It is now considered a requirement, not a “perk,” by most employees because they cannot obtain affordable coverage on their own. For the same reason, workers and employers are increasingly interested in dental, vision, and other insurance options such as telehealth access.

The Society for Human Resource Management predicts this year more large employers will begin the switch to health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs), where employees can purchase individual coverage rather than the company purchasing the same group coverage for everyone. It’s a complex move, from an administrative and employee education standpoint, so HRAs aren’t expected to become a reality for a few more years. Employers are also considering another alternative – directly contracting with hospitals and health care providers.

On the financial front, 401(k) plans are still highly-prized by employees. They see companies that offer retirement savings as forward-thinking, for employees as well as the business. By adding the perk of matching contributions, companies can demonstrate even more convincingly that they want to help individual employees build and protect their financial future. The match encourages more people to participate, and companies say the cost is less than they might spend on something such as a weekly team lunch.

In some industries, at least, employers say signing bonuses are key to closing the recruitment sale. And if candidates don’t expect it, a bonus tells them you want them . It’s good to land a good job, but it’s even better to feel singled-out. That can get the new relationship off to a positive start that bodes well for job satisfaction and retention.

Voluntary benefits allow creativity and flexibility

With the basic necessities in place, companies are pulling out all the stops to offer workplace and personal benefits, hoping to find the combination that lures and retains top talent.

While not new, work-from-home and flexible scheduling options are gaining traction because they benefit both companies and workers in multiple ways. Employees save time by avoiding a commute, and money by not having to purchase business attire. Employees who have kids or elders to care for can adjust their daily schedules accordingly. All employees can easily work around doctor or other random appointments without having to get permission or take a day off. On the administrative side, HR saves time and frustration by not having to juggle time off requests and paperwork.

Likewise, “casual Fridays” have morphed into daily routine in many companies. Employers say it helps create a less hierarchical atmosphere, in turn fostering creativity and teamwork. If nothing else, casual dress enables employees to choose less expensive clothing options and show off their individuality.

With so many younger employees and candidates bogged down with student loan debt, benefits that help reduce that burden are growing in popularity. Student Loan Hero , a debt management assistance organization, says the average borrower between 20 and 30 owes $351 per month in student debt repayment. Companies are offering benefits from linking indebted workers with professional advice to actually paying a stipend toward loan repayment.

Some employers are offering across-the-board debt-management consulting for employees, because the stress of heavy debt can negatively impact at-work productivity and even personal health.

Free food, anyone?

The concept of offering free snacks or full meals for employees has been in play since the 1990s. However, a recent article in the New York Times notes that the practice is being adopted by more and more companies, small as well as large.

The Times reports that “businesses go to extraordinary lengths to provide food without charge, or at a sharp discount. The offerings have grown in size, scope and specificity — some tailored to a company’s mission, others unwittingly reflective of it and still others that seem oddly random.”

Some employers hope that by offering a free lunch, employees can save money and time on off-site meals. Other companies say free or inexpensive food is an effort to encourage their people to eat healthier. For example, financial services company Fidelity uses a sliding scale of discounts to promote healthier menu items. And, they report, the system works. As a nod to its Muslim employees, LinkedIn offers halal meat choices at its facilities in the San Francisco Bay Area.

However, many employers don’t hesitate to provide high-calorie goodies. Ben & Jerry’s, where every employee is entitled to three free pints of ice cream daily, has had to add an onsite gym to help counteract what’s affectionately known internally as the “Ben 10” pound weight gain.

Assessing the ROI of benefits

Benefits provider Unum reported in August 2018 that 49% of American employees spend just a half-hour (or even less) reviewing their benefits. Jenelle Tomazin, the company’s director of Consumer Marketing, says that’s because “navigating the sea of coverage options can be overwhelming for employees.” said. The company suggests that employers auto-enroll everyone instead, with the choice to consciously opt out.

They cite the experience of Vanguard, whose own research shows that auto-enrolling workers in retirement plans doubles participation.

While Unum’s poll focused on insurance, the fact is that employees often don’t review any of their prospective benefits very carefully, if at all. To help combat this problem, Unum suggests another proactive approach: giving workers a comprehensive list of benefits and requiring them to deliberately choose yes or no for each one. Doing this can increase benefits awareness as well as participation.

It’s a matter of marketing

Benefits usage ultimate determines return on investment for any company’s benefits package. And employers are concerned. It seems that, no matter how creative and trend-conscious benefits become, too many workers do not take advantage of them.

Unum’s idea of a checklist might be a start, but many employers now augment their benefits package with a multi-faceted marketing effort. Companies are adding detailed education about benefits as part of their initial on-boarding process, but they are also using ongoing training and reminders from lunch-and-learn sessions to email and text reminders to keep benefits options top-of-mind with employees.

Companies are also using HR management platforms to deliver online benefits education and ongoing access.

The bottom line is that companies no longer view their benefits package as a cost center but as an investment in the workforce happiness and productivity. Especially since voluntary benefits are typically low- or no-cost for employers, the expense of benefits administration outstrips the costs associated with turnover. To realize that kind of return, however, companies will need to remain flexible, staying in tune with the latest benefits trends.

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