Career Advice Job Market Trend Report

Firms fail to convey message on benefits boost

In today’s competitive “people” market, company talent-management programmes are increasingly utilising employee-benefit schemes structured to match employee objectives and expectations. However, in Hong Kong and across Asia-Pacific, while employers are spending more on employee benefits, many workers appear to undervalue their efforts.

A survey by global professional services company Towers Watson revealed that while four in 10 employers are spending upwards of 20 per cent of their payroll on employee benefits, only just over half said their employees valued their benefits sufficiently or highly, while 15 per cent said they weren’t valued at all.

Matt Jackson, Towers Watson director of benefits optimisation for Asia-Pacific, says while benefits are clearly growing in importance in the talent-management space, employers are not effectively communicating what the benefits actually mean to their staff.

“Benefits are no longer just a statutory requirement. They are being expanded, particularly around attraction and retention of key talent,” Jackson says. He adds that 81 per cent of Asia-Pacific companies have a documented employee benefit strategy, against 66 per cent three years ago.

The survey says 68 per cent of companies in Asia-Pacific cite their number-one objective as gearing benefit programmes towards attraction and retention of key talent. Jackson says benefits are becoming an important tipping point when employees mull over whether to stay or move on.

He adds that from a Hong Kong perspective, employers may be reacting to employee expectations. “If we look at Hong Kong employee-attraction drivers, health benefits, retirement benefits and vacation make up the top three [out of 27] drivers,” he says.

Furthermore, 52 per cent of employers, versus 41 per cent for the region, are concentrating more on using benefits to improve staff engagement. “This could be happening because Hong Kong has a more developed and mature economy,” Jackson says.

At the same time, Jackson has noticed employee choice is on the rise. “Twice the number of employers in Asia-Pacific are looking at either increasing or introducing flexibility in the next 12 months compared to last year,” he says.

Currently, Hong Kong has the highest prevalence of employee-choice-style benefit programmes in the region – 27 per cent – followed closely by Singapore. “This is perhaps in response to the increasing diversity of our workforces, with multiple generations and global mobility,” Jackson says. He adds that employees have more diverse needs and requirements than traditional one-size-fits-all benefits programmes may offer.

Meanwhile India and China show the largest appetite for employee-benefit choice in the future. In Hong Kong, the technology sector leads the way in offering flexible benefits.

As companies expand and refine benefit offerings, Elaine Hwang, director of benefits at Tower Watson, believes employers could see their efforts better appreciated by communicating more effectively. The survey showed 48 per cent of staff think employers communicate benefits effectively – against 69 per cent of employers.

“Employers need to think about ways they can engage with employees so they understand the value of their benefits, but they must also avoid disengagement by providing information overload,” Hwang says. She adds that social media pages and in-house briefing sessions help address the perception gap in employee value, while information overload may be one of the reasons many staff fail to relate to their Mandatory Provident Funds.

As Hong Kong’s workforce becomes more multi-generational, Francis Mok, president of the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management (HKIHRM), believes there is room to tailor benefits to different needs.

“Our own HKIHRM 2012 Benefits Survey indicates employee benefits have become more diversified and flexible,” Mok says. For instance, various types of leave not stipulated by the law, such as paternity, study, exam and birthday leave, are becoming more common.

To increase awareness of employee benefits, Mok says HR departments should communicate frequently with staff members and encourage them to make good use of their benefits. “The communication should always start through orientation briefings when a new employee joins the company,” Mok says. Other means include regular internal communication efforts such as lunchtime seminars, newsletters and posters.

Yat Siu, founder and CEO of digital media and web products firm Outblaze, says benefits can be a defining factor for a company.

In addition to statutory benefits, Outblaze offers a life-insurance scheme. “This may not mean so much to our fresh recruits and younger employees, but it is of significant interest to employees with families and mortgages who want to make provisions for their families,” Siu says.

He adds that the company uses its internal social media pages to highlight various benefits, but it is careful not to belabour the issue. “We try to keep the information balanced and relevant to avoid having our employees switch off,” he says.