How to leverage the most overlooked employee benefit

Culture in the workplace
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The benefits package offered by employers is just one element an employee considers when joining, remaining, or leaving the organisation. Hit the right note, and the uptake on, and engagement with the benefits your organisation has to offer will see the return on minimal and passive investment.

Often the case though, the benefits offered don’t hit the right note and instead please some but not the others. The latter feel as though they are missing out and the former might not be a large enough cohort to cover the loss from lack of participation.

There is however an overlooked benefit that can attract and retain employees, isn’t sourced from an external (and expensive) company, has no direct costs, and most of all every single organisation has it already.

This employee benefit is the organisation’s working culture.

The working culture is often a separate entity from employee benefits but when we compare the two, they are profoundly similar:

  • They both attract and retain staff.
  • They both deter potential and existing staff if executed poorly.
  • They both see a return on investment if executed properly.
  • They are both key factors that contribute to employee wellbeing and satisfaction.
  • They both play an important role in HR’s strategy.

However, the working culture can be so much more than a typical employee benefit.

When investing in an ‘add-on’ benefit, there’s initially a large sum injected into a new initiative, but the results are often short-lived, a short spark of novelty. The ones that carry stamina are usually the most expensive (but absolutely hold tremendous value like childcare vouchers and EAPs).

Investing in developing the organisation’s working culture however has long-term benefits and the work put into the development process becomes engrained into the usual way in which the company works, making the results continuous and the costs (if any) predictable. This makes it a lot easier for senior management buy-in.

As mentioned, add-ons can only please, or cater to only a certain amount of employees, leaving the rest feeling that they are missing out or disadvantaged. The benefit of a healthy working culture pleases, and caters to, EVERYONE (...at least to typical employees who value a healthy culture).

So how do you leverage the working culture as a benefit?

There are a number of elements of a health working culture that you can promote as employee benefits. What you offer demonstrates how you value staff without the use of faceless and hit-or-miss benefits, which could be offered by any other employer.

The elements of your working culture that you might already have in place include:

  • Flexible working
  • Generous holidays
  • Fair shifts or hours of work
  • Investment in employee professional development
  • Holistic approaches to line management
  • Senior management visibility
  • Returnships
  • Career breaks
  • Carers leave
  • Variety of working patterns
  • Employee networks e.g. BAME or LGBT groups
  • Sensible conduct policies that aren’t regimented or disproportionately strict
  • Transparent policies e.g. for sickness, performance, bullying and harassment, whistleblowing, grievances etc.
  • Any initiatives you have within the organisation

Using these elements to attract and retain staff demonstrates trust, professionalism, openness and the value of staff, things that cannot be closely associated with add-ons. It also demonstrates how you as the employer regard these elements as ‘a given’, something that isn’t added onto the experience of working for you, but is the experience.

It’s the way of work life, ‘the way things are done around here’, the moral and professional spine that sets the tone of how employees are treated.

Compare this to subsidised gym memberships and dress down Fridays. What do these offer in terms of a healthy working culture?

Treating the working culture as an employee benefit will also change the way how job adverts are composed. You don’t have to bribe applicants with shiny add-ons that immediately exclude those who won’t benefit from what you have to offer. Instead, you can paint to them a picture of a healthy working environment and the subsequent passive benefits that come with it.

But what if your working culture lacks most of the listed elements above, or lacks definition?

The best way to assess how your working culture is doing is by conducting a self-audit.

Begin by looking through the contracts you hand out to new starters and try to see it from their perspective. Does it suggest they’re about to join a healthy working culture or are those elements not promoted enough? Are the tone of your HR policies holistic and supportive, or are they aggressive and sterile?

As the key driving force for the working culture, HR policies play a significant role in this exercise but consider focussing your efforts on these once you take a temperature check of how existing and previous employees feel about the working culture.

It’s at this stage you can then roll out a culture survey to staff. This could be done by internal social media platforms, like Yammer, a number of face-to-face workshops, or a good old-fashioned online survey. You could consider asking questions like:

  • Which 3 words would you describe the working culture (provide a definition) and why
  • Which of the company’s benefits do you value and why?
  • How do you feel about suggesting new ideas, or speaking up if you disagree with something?
  • How do you feel the company looks after its employees?
  • Do you feel the company promotes diversity and inclusion? (and explain answer)
  • Are the company’s leaders visible?
  • Do you feel you are paid enough for the job you do?
  • Do you have a healthy work/life balance?
  • Do you feel managers’ decisions are based on all the facts or by following a rigid process?
  • How much longer do you intend to work for the company?

These questions should be considered as an umbrella theme, with further tangential questions branching from them. There are plenty of free resources online that provide these sort of questions, or a brainstorm session with HR leaders and strategists will help form a list of questions.

The answers from this exercise will then help you understand what the current culture is like in the eyes of the employees. It also acts as a great baseline for when you need to compare the results after implementing new changes.

You should then consider looking through recent exit surveys – no further than six months – and begin to establish any common themes, any culture features that may have been a factor for employees to feel they needed to leave.

After finding out how you offer the work life experience to new starters, how current staff feel about the working culture, and how certain elements of this culture may have contributed to ex-employees’ departure, you should have a clear steer of how to proceed to manage a change and which items need addressing.

The exercise might have shown that you already have a very healthy working culture, in which case, you now have a blueprint of how this culture can be articulated into an employee benefit.

Whether you find it’s healthy or not, this is the point at which you will need to come back to your HR policies and restructure them to either:

  • reflect the current working culture in terms of process, language and adaptability if you discover your working culture is seen as healthy
  • or begin setting the tone for the desired working culture you want to offer employees in a way that address their issues, which will then act as the lead of the needed changes.

The way this change is managed is a little off topic, and should be discussed in greater detail for another time, but for now, it is important to realise that the working culture an employer offers its staff can be a hugely valuable employee benefit, and if you fail to promote it as such, you could find yourself unnecessarily losing great employees and candidates, and gaining more costs from generic add-ons.

And if you have a healthy culture, or when you arrive at one, by all means heavily promote/brag about it!

About Charles Goff-Deakins Assoc CIPD

Charles Goff-Deakins portrait

Charles Goff-Deakins is an associate member of CIPD and works as a senior HR officer specialising in HR policy, strategy and employee engagement. As well as writing for HR Zone, Charles also writes about career development for HR/L&D professionals on his blog The Avid Doer

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