Relaxed expenses versus perks – which leads to a happier workforce?

Job perks are more important than they’ve ever been. According to employment website Glassdoor, more than a third of employees say extra benefits are among their top considerations before accepting a new job, while research by merchant services provider Paymentsense shows 77% of potential employees have been put off accepting a new job because they felt the perks weren’t up to scratch. Providing extra benefits for your staff can boost morale and improve productivity, especially in cash-strapped times where pay rises aren’t feasible, but they also present challenges. What should you offer, and how do you get it right?

Extra benefits come in two forms: a relaxed expenses policy that allow staff the odd treat or perks. Giving your employees the opportunity to expense their morning coffee, lunch or a round of drinks after work provides flexibility and freedom, and indicates trust, which is consistently linked to workplace happiness - ecommerce company Visualsoft trusts its staff to make appropriate use of its unlimited holiday policy, for example, and is repeatedly voted one of the best places to work.

“This approach tells the employee they are a valued member of the team and that the company has faith that they will make the right decisions. Providing employees with a sense of responsibility is crucial to office morale,” says Ben Reuveni, CEO of AI-driven employment platform Workey. “Plus, a relaxed expense policy allows the employee to make decisions in real time, without needing to inundate managers with constant expense related questions or requests. This saves time for managers, HR, and the employee themselves.”

A relaxed expenses policy can be particularly beneficial for employees that don’t have a centralised workplace, or spend a lot of time on the road. But, he adds, employers must be as clear as possible with their staff as to what can and what can’t be expensed: “Companies need to be careful to toe the line between keeping their employees aware of the limitations on their expenses and unknowingly cancelling out the trust given by the policy to begin with.”

Larger companies often prefer offering more straightforward perks, as these can be more easily managed. Benefits here can range from lucrative joining bonuses and all-expenses-paid holidays to extra days off and relaxed flexitime. SEO consultancy Type A Media, for example, operates a four-day work week and pays for employees’ gym and meditation app subscriptions (and offers a £5 bonus every time the gym or app is used, up to £240 a month). “When you are healthy, calm and relaxed you become more resilient, have better creative ideas and get more done,” says MD Ross Tavendale. “Our benefits mean a better work-life balance for everyone and better quality of work for our clients.”

In-office perks like these are “far superior” to relaxed expenses in terms of office morale, says Reuveni, but only if they’re adequately inclusive and appropriate to the working environment. A games room, for example, has great potential for bringing employees together to blow off some steam or discuss ideas, “but if staff sense that it is frowned upon to be used during office hours, this will be a wasted perk”.

According to Emma del Torto, managing director of Effective HRM, the best way to ascertain what’s right for your company is to simply ask your staff what they want. “Employers might be completely off the mark,” she says. “A business might have really expensive private healthcare, but employees don’t use it – that’s a waste of company resources. A beer fridge is a common feature in offices nowadays, but that won’t appeal to those that don’t drink, while after-work social activities can’t necessarily be enjoyed by those with caring responsibilities (statistically women). Employers might not consider that these types of perks actually help to create a culture that excludes certain people.” She suggests using Survey Monkey or similar to get anonymous, authentic feedback from staff. “This in itself fosters trust and communication, which are vital in happy work environments. Once you have these foundations in place, then you can build on it with extra benefits”.

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