Flexibility is the key to an effective staff benefits scheme. "When benefits are flexible it shows employees that their employers are trying to think from the employee point of view, rather than just what is easy or convenient to provide, and that helps generate loyalty," says Nick Russell, associate director at consultancy and research group The Work Foundation.
"Companies can be quite blatant about having an amount of benefit available from which employees can choose their own permutations. There is usually a core level of provision, which can then be added to."
Michael Dean, director for membership at the National Computing Centre, says, "You need different packages for different stages of life."
Singletons, for example, will not need child care, but may welcome a higher car allowance, whereas those with families may prefer broader health insurance.
However, cautions Dean, "It can be challenging to put together an effective benefits programme because it depends how staff are incentivised across other departments." Benefits should not be seen as divisive between different staff, risking resentment and distrust.
"It can cause misunderstanding, so companies need to be transparent about their reasons for how they are allocating benefits," he warns.
Benefits packages also need to adapt to changing social needs. Flexible working hours, for example, is increasingly regarded as a benefit.
Certainly all the Best Places to Work in IT 2005 winners and shortlisted candidates place the emphasis on flexibility when it comes to staff benefits.
At shortlisted Avon Cosmetics, for example, the package, which includes pension scheme, private health care and life insurance, can be tailored to individual staff needs and preferences.
Benefits packages need to adapt to changing social needs, incorporating arrangements such as flexible working time. At the Department for International Development, "We offer flexible working arrangements consistent with our core value of diversity and work/life balance, including flexitime and home-working," says Simon Jones, head of IT.
At Kingston Communications staff can gain up to 35 days' extra leave a year via flexitime, and staff at Bucknall Austin can buy or sell an extra week's holiday.
Benefits can help staff balance work and family commitments. Compuware helps employees find childcare, care homes and schooling, plus legal advice and counselling. Land Registry employees receive counselling, health screening, relocation packages, an on-site nursery and gym, and flexible working.
A pleasant working environment or location can be a benefit too. WSAtkins provides IT staff with a rest area and a visiting massage therapist. ITRM employees get free breakfast, and at The Corps there is an informal area with plants, subdued lighting and classical music.
Small touches show an employer's consideration for its staff too. Cobweb Solutions and Gartner have found their family summer barbecues with fairground attractions prove perennially popular with staff.
IT employees at Bucknall Austin get free beer and wine on Friday afternoons. Fishburn Hedges closes its office at 5pm on Fridays and provides pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and ice-creams on hot summer days.
From pension schemes to pancakes, the unifying factor for a benefits package is clear; it must make employees feel appreciated and valued. The advantage to employers is also clear. "If employers do not spend on benefits they end up spending on recruitment," says Russell. "It is an excellent retention tool."
Dean agrees. "If other employers offer a better deal, staff will leave. Benefits may be a financial cost, but if they help retain employees it's worth it."