When salaries tend to be similar, it is the culture and benefits that separate one employer from another.
In the first quarter of 2018, workforce contraction combined with strong corporate growth drove the unemployment rate down to 3.9 percent, the lowest it has been since 2000. This has created the most competitive job market we’ve seen in recent history — one in which companies must craft some creative ways to differentiate themselves and the employment “opportunities” they hope to fill. But that’s not always the easiest thing when a tax accountant or auditor at one company performs essentially the same functions as one at another. But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost.
While today’s job market is making it harder than ever for employers to attract and retain top talent — especially those looking to fill increasingly commoditized accounting and finance functions — winning tomorrow’s workforce comes down to a few key things.
“When salaries tend to be similar, it is the culture and benefits that separate one employer from another,” explains Jeff Zinser, principal and founder of Right Recruiting. “The successful employers are the ones creatively focusing on working environments and benefits.”
Over the past five years, changes in technology and culture have shaped corporate perks and benefits. For example, advancements in video conferencing platforms and virtual private networks (VPN) enable greater flexibility for employees to work remotely, or “anytime-anywhere” as coined by many today, a growing demand of millennial employees.
“Employees are definitely placing more value on opportunities that offer flexibility,” says Brian Haugh, president of executive search firm Chicago Search Group, a member of the Sanford Rose Associates network. “We see candidates choosing employers that give them better work-life balance through generous PTO and remote and/or flexible work arrangements, so they can raise families or get involved in passion projects outside of work.”
“There has been a tremendous shift in creating greater work-life balance, as the workforce available now is more focused on that balance,” adds Megan Robinson, director of human resources at Miniat, an Illinois-based family business that specializes in creating products for national restaurant chains, foodservice, and global CPG companies.
“As part of Miniat’s flex program, individuals can work remotely as needed, or flex their hours to cover core hours within a day. Employees are also able to start late or leave early to accommodate personal needs,” Robinson explains.
Miniat also offers a philanthropy day, enabling employees to take paid time off to volunteer for various charities. Perks like these help employees get involved in passion projects outside of work, which Miniat claims improves overall fulfillment and personal satisfaction.
In similar fashion, Big Four public accounting firm PwC is also updating its benefits program to help employees achieve better work-life balance in an industry plagued by high turnover, burnout, and long hours. The firm recently awarded $45 million in well-being bonuses to employees and rolled out new parental leave benefits. “We believe that people thrive in corporate environments when they are empowered to prioritize both work and their personal lives,” says Jim Kolar, Chicago-based central market managing partner with PwC US.
With the new rollout, PwC is adding two additional weeks to its paid parental leave policy, bringing the total to eight weeks. On top of this, PwC is implementing what they refer to as “transition time” to help employees adjust to new parenthood. Under this benefit, PwC employees can work 60 percent of their normal hours while retaining 100 percent of their salary for four weeks following the end of their parental leave. PwC is also rolling out other family benefits, such as adoption and surrogacy coverage, and the company will begin providing employees with membership to childcare, babysitting, and eldercare search and consulting services. PwC says these additional benefits will be effective starting in July 2018.
As employers look to differentiate themselves in the marketplace and do well by their employees, Haugh stresses they must continually evaluate their benefits packages to remain relevant and attractive to future employees.
He points out that many millennials are actually thinking early about retirement, wishing to retire at a reasonable age like their parents’ generation, so they’re seeking out employers offering financial planning options, like tuition reimbursement and education assistance, and stable health insurance and 401(k) programs with safe harbor contributions.
PwC recognized this early, launching its Student Loan Paydown (SLP) benefit in July 2016. The program, claimed to be the first of its kind in the industry, offers participating associates and senior associates $1,200 per year towards student loans.
“With national student loan debt at $1.48 trillion, it has reached a tipping point and is having secondary impacts on many professionals. It’s affecting when they’re starting families, buying homes, and how they’re saving for retirement. It’s our belief that by offering the SLP benefit, we can help our people establish a healthy financial future,” Kolar explains. “Even employees who have no student loan debt tell us they’re proud of the pioneering benefit. They’re proud the firm is taking on such a complex, important issue in our society, especially one they see negatively affecting their friends, families, and colleagues.”
Indeed, with 2017 graduates owing an average of $39,400, and 44 million Americans saddled with student debt, student loan repayment programs are certainly an attractive benefit. But there’s more to winning tomorrow’s workers than financial benefits; a growing number of employers are betting big on alternative wellness offerings for good reason — well-being leads to higher productivity and profitability.
In 2015, Andrew Chamberlain, Ph.D., chief economist at Glassdoor, conducted three tests to evaluate how company culture and stock performance might be linked. The study found that from 2009 through 2014, a portfolio of companies named to Glassdoor’s “Best Places to Work” list outperformed the S&P 500 by 115.6 percent.
“Employees want to feel that they’re cared about and valued in their roles, and they’ll put that same care and dedication back into their work,” Haugh says.
Chicago-based professional services firm Salo, often recognized as an innovative place to work, focuses on building relationships, not just with their clients, but also with their employees. “A positive culture, meaningful work, and growth opportunities will always be our key employment drivers,” says Russ Testa, Salo’s chief talent officer. “Our benefits, perks, and how we operate lends itself to community building. Our employees and consultants appreciate that sense of connection whether they’re internal employees or consultants.”
While the company’s workforce, comprised of a cohort of consultants as well as internal employees, enjoys a suite of benefits not typically offered to consultants, such as health insurance, a 401(k) program, and paid time off, their commitment to employees goes beyond standard benefits.
In 2013, Salo became the first Blue Zones certified workplace in the United States. The initiative employs a systematic, environmental approach to workplace well-being that incorporates shifts in workplace policies, work and home environments, and social networks to achieve a new level of corporate vitality. The idea is that workplaces with greater well-being have fewer healthcare costs and happier employees.
Salo also collaborated with Dr. James Levine and the Mayo Clinic to measure the impact of movement at work on weight loss. The effort saw pounds and inches vanish among participants, and a measurable increase in employee productivity and firm-wide profitability. “We proactively act to ensure our employees’ health through an ergonomic work space. Every desk in our office has the capability to be a standing desk, and there are a number of treadmill desks,” Testa says.
In the accounting and finance profession, individuals commonly jump from public accounting to private industry. During the transition, job seekers may hop from company to company hoping to discover their passions.
Salo recognized this trend and created what they call the “Compass Program.” Through this salaried, rotational program aimed at up-and-coming public accounting professionals with two-plus years’ experience, participants work with a variety of clients — public, private, large, and small — to complete several projects over the course of two years.
“We felt that candidates were too often running from something, and not toward something,” Testa explains. “Through the Compass Program, candidates gain a variety of experiences at several different companies, helping them determine what their priorities are. The program’s goal is to help candidates decide what they want in a position, so they can move to a role that will inspire passion in their work.”
So, how do employers come up with perks and benefits plans that are relevant and meaningful to employees?
“Ask them,” Kolar says. Listening to employees and understanding the why behind their want is crucial to developing an effective benefits program. In fact, PwC’s transition time offering was developed in direct response to employee feedback regarding the challenge of transitioning back to work after having a child.
Robinson also recommends implementing satisfaction surveys to measure the impact of new benefits on employee happiness and productivity and reaching out to other trusted organizations to get a sense of what’s working for them. “It’s helpful to network with other companies to see what they’re doing to keep up with generational changes and employee preferences,” Robinson says.
Of course, there’s trial and error (although it’s not the most efficient method). Haugh will tell you that he recommends trying out any benefit that promises to keep employees working hard, dedicated to the brand, and happy. But, rolling out new programs doesn’t always go smoothly, i.e. beware of internal tensions.
“The ‘improvements’ often come from a human resources department that has been forced to come up with creative solutions to recruitment and retention issues. However, those changes often affect the tools department managers use to get productivity out of their team,” Zinser says. “For new initiatives to be effective, upper management needs to get actively involved with implementation and aggressively support the changes, or they will get watered down and become almost meaningless.”
With recruiting and retaining top talent anticipated to be a continued challenge well into the foreseeable future, Haugh offers this closing challenge: “Understand what is important to your employees and build your benefits to help employees feel secure in their lives and jobs.”