More firms offering flexible benefits

Such schemes make staff feel valued, and the bosses, more engaged

More firms offering flexible benefits

A GYM membership or a spa package, the choice is yours if you work for us.

If you are not into fitness or beauty treatments, let us pay for your maid levy, childcare fees, monthly carpark charges or your condominium fees instead.

How does that sound? Many employees would jump at the chance to count one of those perks as part of their employment deal. And that is the beauty of a flexible benefits programme, where employees get to pick their own benefits.

Giving employees such a tempting array of choices, say human resource consultants, is the 'in thing' these days. Singapore companies are slowly but surely catching up with their Western counterparts in offering employees choices.

Just a couple of years ago, employers rarely offered staff the option of claiming for items such as a maid levy, says Ms Tham Yein Mei, Singapore business leader, health and benefits business at Mercer. But it has become more commonplace. Health-related benefits are also very popular here, she says.

Increasingly, smaller firms are also keen to offer flexible benefits, she says.

Still, cost could remain a deterrent to some employers otherwise eager to do what they can to attract and keep staff.

Many firms simply offer a conventional employment plan for all staff, with no choice involved. The traditional benefits programme is a 'one size fits all', says Towers Watson's benefits leader in South-east Asia, Mr Mark Whatley.

'You have the same benefits for all. It's typically in a handbook offered to employees when they join.'

These usually involve core benefits such as health insurance and dental care.

Not surprisingly, there can be a mismatch between how much employers spend on benefits and the value attached to them by employees.

Mr Whatley says Singapore firms started to offer flexible benefits programmes around the late 1990s and early 2000s.

A Towers Watson survey done last year found that 19 per cent of the 42 respondents from different sectors now offer flexible benefits. There are no figures with which to compare that finding in other years. However, Mr Whatley says '19 per cent is quite high by Asian standards'.

If so, then this is to be encouraged. Flexible benefits can only benefit employees, to make their employment conditions more the way they like them.

When people get to pick their own employment benefits, they 'feel they are respected', says Ms Tham. 'They think the company value them as an individual.'

It works well both ways. The employer will feel more engaged, experts say.

I know a former job-hopper who joined a firm here with a flexible benefits programme. She enjoys her company's perks so much that she is staying put.

She gets up to $2,000 a year of benefits that she can tap on to pay for medical visits, for instance, or to buy that coveted pair of sunglasses.

Not everyone gets the same level of benefits. A friend at a local firm gets just $450 a year for medical, dental and other expenses, be they for books or contact lenses. Still, at least there is a choice.

At other firms, these flexi-dollars can also be used to pay for enrichment courses. Mr Whatley says they have seen more firms keen on encouraging employee self-development in lifestyle areas such as cooking and wine tasting, which can benefit both the employee and the firm.

Ultimately, cash is king, as salary will be the big draw. But, with the war for high-performing talent still on in Singapore, benefits can be used as a differentiator when it comes to boosting retention and attracting staff, says Mr Whatley.

One important message for employers is to consider whether the perks they are offering make all their staff smile.

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