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You’ve probably seen the recently-released results of a Unum poll that asked employees to rank their preference for a variety of benefits options. Paid family leave was a clear #1 (58%), paid time to volunteer took “last place” at 12%. As an employer or benefits manager, you may well have scanned the entire list and sighed. Who could offer all that?

You can do more than you think.

Admittedly, it takes money and manpower to manage any benefits program. The broader and more complex the options, the greater the investment. But even the largest organizations have a budget. And even small employers can offer worthwhile, popular benefits. So let’s get creative here.

You Can’t Be Everything to Everyone

It’s not reasonable to expect or assume that any company would offer everything on the Unum Top 15 list, even if you were so inclined. Aside from time and money considerations, organizations vary widely in terms of corporate culture and worker demographics. Therefore, some of these benefits may be very relevant or desirable to your employees, while other items may be meaningless.

Furthermore, maybe your employees would prefer something that isn’t even on this list. Participants in Unum’s poll were not asked an open-ended question about their preferences, they were given this list of 15 and asked to rank them. Maybe they, too, would have preferred options other than, say, healthy snacks or pet insurance. We’ll never know, but you can easily ask your own workers what matters most to them.

So what good is Unum’s list? It’s a terrific jumping-off point. A conversation-starter, you might say. Instead of getting depressed about what your company cannot afford to offer in the way of benefits, you can adapt ideas to fit your people and budget.

Keep an Eye on the Trends

Reviewing Unum’s Top 15 list highlights how crucial it is for employers to keep their menu of voluntary benefits up to date. Just look at how many of these items would never have been on anyone’s radar even just a few years ago:

  1. Paid Family Leave
  2. Flexible / Remote Work Options
  3. Professional Development
  4. Sabbatical Leave
  5. Gym Membership / Onsite Fitness Center
  6. Student Loan Repayment
  7. Onsite Health Snacks
  8. ID Theft Prevention
  9. Financial Planning Resources
  10. Fitness Goal Incentives
  11. Public Transit Assistance
  12. Pet Insurance
  13. Pet Friendly Offices
  14. Health Coaching
  15. Dedicated Volunteer Hours

58% Wanted Paid Family Leave

Not surprisingly, this was the top choice on the Unum list. Young adults who are starting families want time off to bond, whether they’re having a baby, adopting one or fostering a child. Older adults need time to care for aging parents. In a large company, there are usually people to handle the work while someone is away for an extended period. For SMBs, that’s rarely the case. Even standard vacations can cause strain. Small business budgets cannot support paying for time that doesn’t result in work product.

But what if new parents could stay home for a while and remain productive? The second-most popular benefit on Unum’s list (55%) was flexible/remote work options. Smaller companies could creatively adapt work-from-home to accommodate family leave. For that matter, so could many larger enterprises. Ostensibly, this could morph into a long-term opportunity, depending on the individual’s job.

39% Wanted Professional Development

Most people want to do well in their job, for personal satisfaction and/or because they want to move up to a more responsible (and more remunerable) position. Some employers used to assume that employee development was counter-productive because employees would simply take their new knowledge and skills elsewhere. In reality, stagnation and boredom are much more likely to generate churn.

Giving people chances to improve technical skills, gain new knowledge, and become better leaders can build a workforce that gives your firm a significant competitive edge.

38% Wanted Sabbatical Leave

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, only 5% of employers (think Facebook) currently offer this as a benefit. As with other types of paid leave, it’s expensive. And here’s the thing. Employers complain that their people don’t take the time off they already have available. Would having a longer period – say, a month at a time – motivate employees to actually renew themselves in this way?

This benefit was most popular with millennials (42%), so if you employ lots of young adults, you might want to learn more about their reasons. Is there some other way you can accommodate this desire?

36% Wanted Paid Gym Memberships or an On-site Gym

This could be a real boon as part of your company’s wellness program. No room in your budget or facility for this benefit? Well, 18% of poll participants said they’d like to have incentives for reaching personal fitness goals. That’s a lot less costly, it’s based on actual achievement, and it could be a lot more fun for your workers. Many employers have already adopted this concept. As an example, Unum suggests you could do a prize drawing for everyone who completes a health assessment or biometric screening.

Or how ‘bout a health coach? Fourteen percent in the survey thought this was a good idea. Could your company form a marketing partnership with a local gym or personal trainer to make exercising and coaching a benefit reality?

35% Wanted Help with Student Loan Repayment

Millennials are coming out of school with a whopping debt for that education, so 55% of them rated this benefit as essential. Older employees are often grappling with repaying student loans taken out for their kids. The New York Times recently profiled a pharmaceutical company that is making a deal with employees: you make a 2% contribution toward student loan repayment, and we’ll contribute 4% to your 401(k). This creative solution enables employees to pay down their loans without sacrificing their ability to accrue retirement funds.

Many employers are offering counseling and other services aimed at helping employees address their student debt. And since 27% of those in the Unum poll rated financial planning assistance as desirable, this makes even more sense.

Last on the List: Dedicated Volunteer Hours (12%)

When employees volunteer for special causes and community events or serve on committees or boards of directors for local or professional organizations, everybody benefits. Many companies field entire teams of volunteers.

All these efforts can boost teamwork and group morale, expand networking and reinforce your brand. They help individual employees support their favorite cause and acquire greater personal and professional development skills. They certainly support the community. Plus, they’re fun. Who doesn’t want perks that are fun?

Make It Everyone’s Job

Ultimately, it’s up to management what benefits, voluntary or fully paid, will be available. However, involving employees in the selection of benefits and finding innovative ways to adapt otherwise-unattainable options offers multiple benefits to employers. It stimulates creative thinking. It builds morale and job satisfaction, by showing everyone’s opinion is valued. And it helps educate employees about the true cost of their benefits, which may make them more understanding the next time you have to say no.

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