A rolling stone gathers no moss

Top employers prove benefits should continue to evolve and adapt to meet workforce needs — and stay competitive

For an elite group of top employers, offering the usual gamut of benefits — such as two weeks’ vacation, a group registered retirement savings plan, tuition subsidies and maternity leave top-ups — just doesn’t cut it anymore. These have been around for a few years now and are somewhat familiar, especially to the discerning employee looking for a progressive, competitive package.

So more and more of Canada’s Top 100 Employers are evolving the benefits program, adapting to the changing realities of the workforce. Having started in 2000, the Mediacorp Canada list is the result of a thorough review of a variety of categories — from vacation and health benefits to community involvement and training — that are proving to be far from static.

“It’s teaching us there is evolution and change happening all the time that may not be readily apparent in a short window but, as the competition has matured, what it truly is measuring from year one to eight is a significant amount of change inside of a decade,” says Richard Yerema, editor of Canada’s Top 100 Employers.

Environmental consulting firm Jacques Whitford is on the list and has shown it appreciates the need to adapt and respond to employee needs through an impressive range of benefits.

“We certainly recognize the competitive nature in the marketplace and are determined to do our utmost to ensure we address the needs of both current and future colleagues,” says Frank McLean, executive vice-president of HR at Jacques Whitford in Halifax. “We recognize that life is not static — needs change, the composition of the workforce changes, adjustments to required support mechanisms are desired and required. It is imperative we understand and respond to those changes.”

Jacques Whitford’s benefits programs are under constant review, he says, and the company relies on feedback from staff through surveys and staff committees.

“Their input is critical in developing and redesigning programs that respond to their ever-changing needs. Our desire to continue to be one of Canada’s top employers and to provide a vibrant and healthy workplace also drives these changes.”

Family-friendly benefits improve

Family-friendly benefits continue to develop to improve the work-life balance of employees, with more Top 100 companies offering maternity leave top-ups or more generous top-ups. The Association of Management, Administrative and Professional Crown Employees of Ontario (AMAPCEO), for example, offers new mothers and fathers parental leave top-up benefits of 93 per cent for 52 weeks while Toronto Hydro offers parental leave top-up for new mothers and adoptive parents up to 95 per cent for 52 weeks.

“It’s a competitive marketplace for top talent and historically our top talent has been men with a wife at home. Nowadays our top talent is men and women in career jobs, so to get that top talent, you have to be competitive,” says Chris Higgins, a professor at the Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., and co-author of Reducing Work-Life Conflict: What Works? What Doesn’t? “It’s a follow-the-leader sort of thing.”

Jacques Whitford provides maternity leave top-up payments (to 75 per cent for 52 weeks) and paternity top-up payments (to 75 per cent for 35 weeks). The firm also provides extensive health, dental, insurance and vision benefits and is very flexible with employees to help them balance family and work commitments, such as a reduced work week for particular circumstances, says McLean.

There is also an annual $300 fitness subsidy and the company has entered into an agreement with Best Doctors, a provider of diagnostic services and an international doctor database, to provide enhanced health-care benefits to support employees and their families who are experiencing critical health-care issues.

“We are very proud to be able to support our staff and their families in a very meaningful and tangible way,” says McLean.

There are also more enlightened vacation policies on the Top 100 list, with a deeper pool of employers providing new employees with several paid days off and three weeks’ vacation. Some even offer four weeks to start, such as MBNA Bank or Russell Investments Canada, or a small employer who explained his decision to Yerema.

“He said, ‘If you honestly believe you’re getting maximum productivity from your people by holding them to two weeks, and they’re happy about it, then you’re deluding yourself,’” says Yerema, adding that same employer extended long weekends in the summer to four days, knowing people aren’t as productive on the Friday before a holiday.

“If you ask people what they want, money’s nice but really what they want is more free time,” says Higgins. “Although if you give them more free time, they tend not to take it. It’s a symbolic gesture as opposed to a real one.”

Demographics influence health benefits

Changing demographics are also influencing health benefits, with employers offering a greater array of options to acknowledge a 22-year-old single person has different requirements from a 45-year-old parent. The Business Development Bank of Canada allows employees to purchase extra vacation days with its flexible health benefits plan. Emergis lets them transfer unused health benefits into pension-plan contributions. The one-size-fits-all plan doesn’t really work if employees are expected to grab onto something, in the business of recruitment and retention, says Yerema.

Advances in, and greater availability of, technology are also shaping benefit programs, with more online training or teleworking. Previously, these were more the preserve of larger organizations but “now they’re available pretty much across the board,” he says, thanks to widespread use of Internet and e-mail and greater affordability of technology for smaller operations.

And as the range of benefits available becomes apparent to the workforce, they will continue to press for more.

“The younger people coming in, they make the assumption these options are available,” says Yerema. “Those actively recruiting and having more difficulty in some professions, such as accounting and engineering, have had to evolve and often are leaders, simply adapting with better benefits or more progressive vacations or looking at ways they can accommodate employees’ lives and integrate with their jobs more.”

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