When recently asked to rank their benefits priorities, most employers (83 percent) chose retaining employees as their top objective, a new survey reveals, and over half (51 percent) said that using benefits to retain employees will become even more important in the next 3 to 5 years, reflecting a tighter labor market.
The findings are from MetLife's 15th Annual U.S. Employee Benefits Trends Study report, released on April 3 at MetLife's Annual National Benefits Symposium in Washington, D.C.
"Employees have very distinct wants and needs and expect their employers to meet them," said Todd Katz, executive vice president for group benefits at MetLife, a provider of life insurance and other employee benefits. "To attract and retain top talent in this new era, especially during a time of decreasing unemployment rates, employers have an opportunity to adapt their workplaces to address the unique needs of their employees."
The survey was conducted from October 2016 through November 2016 and comprised 2,504 interviews with benefits decision-makers at U.S. companies of all sizes and 2,652 interviews with full-time employees.
[SHRM members-only how-to guide: How to Design an Employee Benefits Program]
For the past several years, "invariably, the top three benefits challenges have been attracting, retaining and controlling health and welfare benefit costs," said Randy Stram, senior vice president at MetLife. But in the latest survey, "while retaining employees continues to be the No. 1 challenge, controlling health and welfare benefit costs has dropped to No. 4, and attracting employees has dropped to No. 5."
Among the benefit objectives that have risen in priority: improving employee productivity and increasing employee loyalty and engagement.
"About a third of employees hope to be working for someone else in 12 months, and young Millennials—those coming out of college—will work for four different employers by the time they reach age 32. And the growth of the gig economy is going to make it even more challenging to attract, retain and engage employees going forward," Stram noted.
While benefits are more strategically important than they've ever been, "the bad news is they're even more challenging due to [a] diverse employee base and the uncertain regulatory environment."
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Designing and Managing Flexible Benefits (Cafeteria) Plans]
Seventy-six percent of Millennials said benefits customization was important for increasing their loyalty to their employers, compared to 67 percent of Baby Boomers.
"Today, our lives reflect our preferences. We choose how our coffee is made, create personalized playlists and decide which apps we have on our phones," Katz said. "The same ability to make choices to meet our unique needs should apply when it comes to benefits."
"Figure out how employees, as consumers, are using the benefits program," recommended Lisa Mrozinski, director of total rewards at Baird, a wealth management firm based in Milwaukee, during a panel discussion at the symposium. She advised benefits managers to:
Confront the stigma of people feeling they can't ask simple questions by providing basic answers through clear, straight-forward resources.
Survey employees on whether they find benefit options useful.
Know your population. Understand who is and who isn't taking advantage of benefits offerings.
Hold employee focus groups that "talk about real-life everyday needs," noting how these differ based on employee demographics such as the needs of low- versus high-earners.
If possible, assign a member of the HR team responsibilities over communication, advised Mrozinski. And keep in mind, "You don't need to say everything in one piece."
Teresa Dax, benefits manager at Schneider National, a trucking and supply chain management firm based in Green Bay, Wis., said she stays focused on offering "a benefits package that provides value to Millennials and to those still working in their 70s."
Dax also recommends holding employee focus groups to discuss how the benefits package is viewed, along with holding Facebook Live chats and putting benefit surveys on the organization's Web portal.
"How many are interested in pet insurance? Who is interested in retirement planning or budgeting advice?" are the kinds of questions that can be asked, she noted.
When it comes to benefits communications, "less can be more," Dax remarked. "Pick a topic of the month, then do a campaign around it. For instance, you might want to encourage retirement savings up to at least 6 percent of salary."
Consider using quick, three-minute YouTube-type videos that hone in on a particular issue, "rather than trying to talk about five different topics," she said. "Keep the branding of employee benefits communications consistent."
"Bring employees together to talk about their financial challenges," advised Dan Harding, director of total rewards, MVP Health Care, a health insurance brokerage and services provider in Albany, N.Y. "Have a financial advisor answer questions such as 'How do you get out of debt, save $1,000 in a reserve fund, start to prepare for retirement?' "
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