A company benefits package can be an effective differentiator for IT departments looking to attract and retain excellent staff.
At Birmingham Midshires, part of the Halifax and Bank of Scotland (HBOS) banking group, the philosophy towards company benefits, says Andrea Hackett, head of support and governance in IT, "is to take a common sense and flexible approach. We do what's appropriate."
Benefits at Birmingham Midshires, which was highly commended in the Banking &Finance category of the awards, "have to be both valuable and valued," says Hackett. "On an individual level staff feel they are appreciated and become more committed to the organisation. They feel Birmingham Midshires treats them well. Our benefits package makes us more attractive as an employer; it's a differentiator for us."
Inevitably, a benefits package will incur an administrative overhead but this can be minimised by running the scheme centrally.
"A lot of the costs are held centrally and individual departments don't have to put in their own money," says Hackett. "Many of the Birmingham Midshire benefits are HBOS-wide, including subsidised health and dental care, and get driven from the centre."
Some benefits may even bring in revenue. "We offer staff discounts on HBOS financial products," says Hackett.
Others cost little more than negotiating discounts with other companies, either on a corporate-wide or local basis. "We make our own local arrangements," says Hackett. "For example, with nearby florists, travel agents and a sports centre, we have a big, flexible, umbrella approach."
An effective benefits scheme must be flexible. "You need to offer what the mass of employees want," says Hackett. But there is also room for individual choices. "People can pick and choose their benefits, depending on their level of seniority," says Hackett.
Work/life balance has become a key aim at Birmingham Midshires. "We allow staff to buy and sell holiday time of up to five days a year," says Hackett.
However, as work/life balance becomes more standard practice, offering flexibility as a benefit may cease to be a differentiator. Another area where boundaries can blur is between benefits and rewards. "We are very keen as an employer to say that when you have done well, you get performance benefits," says Hackett.
These can be corporate-wide, departmental and individual. "If we have done a great job on IT deliveries we hold events for all the department," she says. "For example, we are shortly going to hold a barbecue. And, as Birmingham Midshires turned in good financial results, the whole company is having a family day out."
On an individual basis, the company runs Star Awards. "Each manager has a budget so they can give recognition to staff who do something out of the ordinary, to receive, say, flowers or wine," says Hackett.
One challenge facing all companies in respect of their benefits packages is that their perceived value may erode. "It can be easy to take benefits for granted," says Hackett. "That is why performance-based benefits, such as the Star Awards, must always be given on merit, and not too frequently or they become the norm."
Corporate-wide benefits, as opposed to local or departmental ones, can also be seen as more impersonal and therefore less valued. For that reason, Hackett says, Birmingham Midshires makes a point of highlighting to staff the benefits they enjoy in addition to their salaries. "We run a staff survey every year, and in it we remind people what we have done for them," says Hackett.
This was first published in August 2005