By beefing up its benefits programs and putting flexibility at the core of its offerings, Willful has been able to grow its staff amid a coronavirus pandemic-fueled tight labour market.

The online estate planning company credits its fulsome total rewards package and its flexible workplace culture for its recruitment success. As a very small employer with just 15 employees, Willful regularly revamps its benefits and perks to compete for talent, says Erin Bury, co-founder and chief executive officer.

Prior to the pandemic, the company’s benefits package included traditional medical, dental and vision coverage, employee stock options, a $500 education budget, a $500 vacation fund, summer hours and a week off during the Christmas holidays.

Read: Small businesses increasing wages, benefits to attract talent: survey

But the pandemic has further increased competition around recruitment and retention, meaning offering a basic benefits package doesn’t always cut it these days. Many employees who started working remotely had the opportunity to reassess their working conditions and examine how their employers were responding to the change, says Julie Potvin, senior principal consultant at Mercer Canada. She says prospective employees are broadening their view of total rewards by looking for benefits that support their work-life balance and mental health.

“The days are gone when employers can just offer traditional health and dental benefits and call it a day,” says Bury. “Every employer today has to think outside the box to build a total compensation package that stands out. The benefit of COVID is that your talent pool has expanded, but the downside is that every company has had their talent pool expanded, so you’re now competing not just with employers in your local area but across the country.”

By the numbers

78% of Canadian employers said they provide a traditional benefits plan, while the remaining 22% provide a flexible plan that allows employees to choose levels of coverage.

39% of respondents provide a health-care spending account in 2021, up 16 percentage points since last year’s survey.

Smaller employers (65%) were less likely than larger employers (79%) to describe their benefits plan as excellent or very good.

Among employee respondents, those working in smaller organizations (fewer than 50 staff) were more likely (87%) to indicate they have a workplace wellness culture.

Source: 2021 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey

When the pandemic hit, Willful tweaked its benefits offerings to stay competitive. For instance, the public health crisis sent the travel industry grinding to a halt, so the vacation fund became moot. The organization replaced it with two options for employees to choose from — they can either put that money into a health-care spending account or into a registered retirement savings plan with an employer match.

Read: How Willful is using benefits, flexibility and perks to attract top talent in tight labour market

In addition, the company increased its personal days from five to 10 annually, added access to virtual therapy, equipped employees with standing desks and other home office equipment and provided an annual home office budget. It also expanded the categories under its health-care spending account to include services such as Uber Eats and online fitness classes.

As a small company in a competitive labour market, Willful had learned to be proactive in reviewing its benefits offering, making changes as required to stand out to prospective employees. So what steps can other small- and mid-sized employers take to offer benefits programs to compete with some of their larger counterparts?

Jump in the pool

A vast majority of employers across Canada are considered small- to mid-sized and many simply don’t offer benefits.

“What we’re seeing now is that employers can’t afford not to have a benefits program,” says Alaina Mackenzie, regional vice-president of business development at Medavie Blue Cross. “The value proposition that employers bring to the table positions them as the employer of choice for prospective employees and their benefits programs are part and parcel of that employee value proposition.”

Read: Employers offering mix of incentives, upskilling amid labour shortage: survey

Pooled products — entry level benefits plans with a drug cap or a flat-rate amount — help small- to mid-sized employers avoid the weight of high claims and deliver more predictable renewal fees, says Mackenzie, noting they also allow employers to pass risk to the carrier.

“A bonus is that employers gain options they can add onto their pooled plan, such as health-care spending accounts or personal wellness accounts. These are cost-certain benefits that also provide employees with a greater flexibility on how they want to spend those dollars.”

Tell a story

Mixing it up

To offset a talent shortage, Canadian employers are offering a combination of incentives to attract and retain talent, according to a survey published by ManpowerGroup Canada in October 2021. It found:

  • 41% are adopting more flexible work schedules;
  • 40% are increasing training, skills development or mentoring;
  • 32% are increasing wages;
  • 32% are allowing more flexible work locations;
  • 20% are providing more non-financial benefits, such as vacation;
  • 19% are using incentives such as signing bonuses; and
  • 19% are lowering required job skills. or experience.

To compete with larger organizations in recruiting talent, small- to mid-sized employers should be crystal clear about who they are and how their total compensation package aligns with that, says Kim Siddall, vice-president of enterprise consulting for the west at People Corporation. For example, if an employer is known for being innovative or as a disruptor, its benefits offerings should reflect that.

“People are making decisions about prospective employers with their hearts and are looking for companies with values that align with their own. Companies don’t have to compete on wage or pay. They can tell a greater story about how they look after employees through their benefits, work-life balance and community or social action opportunities.”

Read: How employers can tweak benefits offerings amid rising inflation

Bury agrees with this sentiment. “It’s always been a part of our strategy to build a total compensation package that is attractive and highlights things outside of just salary. For us, that includes paying a fair wage, but also our offerings like our employee stock options, our great benefits package, an education budget and flexible work. These offerings help to paint a picture of what it’s like to work at Willful and why it’s more than just a paycheque.”

Be flexible, accessible and personal

Another small employer, with around 70 employees, Endy aims to provide a benefits package that’s equitable and offers choice.

In 2017, the e-commerce furniture company settled on offering a health-care spending account — with more funds than are typically allotted to this type of benefit — to cover employees’ medical, dental and vision care needs. Employees can also opt to put the money, all or in part, into a wellness account.

“Everyone receives the same amount and it’s up to them to decide how to allocate the funds,” says Hemalee Sisodraker, Endy’s director of people and culture.

Recently, the company expanded its health-care spending account to cater to employees looking for a more structured benefits plan. Under the change, staff can now use the account to purchase traditional benefits through a carrier of their choice.

Read: Expert panel: Think of health-care spending accounts as the duct tape of benefits plans

“Our strategy behind our total offerings is flexibility,” says Sisodraker. “It’s really important to us to offer flexibility in all areas, including vacation or wellness days. Not every employee is the same and we want to really ensure that we have a high-performing team that wants to be here and views the company as a great place to work.”

Since employees use digital applications for most parts of their lives, it’s also important for employers to consider the online accessibility of their benefits programs. Essentially, they’re competing for their plan members’ attention so access should be front and centre, says Potvin.

And personalization is also key, she adds. “Not so long ago, when we talked about flexible benefits, the first thing that came to mind would be cafeteria-style coverage.”

Now, it’s about personalization, she notes, referring to services like pharmacogenetics that map out the right medication for a specific plan member. It’s also about personal experiences, she says, such as on-demand access to internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy that takes a more individualized approach to people’s health-care needs. “It’s providing flexibility in a much broader sense.”

Get the skinny on employee makeup

Alongside the focus on personalization, it’s also crucial for employers to know their employee demographics and what’s important to them, says Siddall. She suggests plan sponsors compare their offerings to their competitors or to industry benchmarks to ensure their plans aren’t eroded by inflation and take employee feedback into account.

Key takeaways

• In a pandemic-fueled tight labour market, an employer’s suite of benefits and perks can make or break their talent recruitment and retention efforts.

• Small- and mid-sized employers should focus on providing flexibility in choice in their benefits offerings and ensure they suit the needs of their entire workforce.

• Sometimes it’s the little things — the perks that come at little to no cost to the employer — that have the biggest impact.

Today, up to five different generations make up an employer’s workforce, so benefits programs are no longer a one size fits all, says Mackenzie, noting it’s important for them to meet the needs of every generation.

Read: Developing a benefits plan to support a multi-generational workforce

Willful’s workforce is comprised of millennials and generation Z, but Bury acknowledges the company’s demographics will change as the organization grows. “The employees I have today who are millennials will be in their 40s and 50s soon and their priorities will change.”

Indeed, benefits programs must constantly evolve, she says, noting Willful revisits its offerings every six months. However, since the beginning of the pandemic, it has reviewed them more regularly by checking in with employees to get information on what they’re using.

For instance, if no one is taking advantage of the education budget or volunteer days, it’s incumbent on Bury’s department to figure out why. The answer may not be to simply discontinue the benefit, she says; instead, managers may address it during one-on-ones with their teams to remind employees of the benefits available to them.

It’s the little things

Many of the benefits and perks that smaller companies are offering to employees don’t require huge cash investments, says Bury.

“Though some of these offerings may add a few thousand dollars on top of someone’s salary every year, the added cost goes a long way. But some of these things cost us nothing.”

Read: Remote work, employee retention key issues for post-pandemic workplaces: surveys

One example is the provision of extra personal days. “It may cost in terms of productivity, but for us we’re pretty clear about our goals as a company. Everyone has their own responsibilities and people meet their expectations and don’t abuse the time off that we give them.”

While Willful won’t return to a fully in-office workplace post-pandemic, Bury says employees have expressed how much they appreciate the flexibility to plan their work schedules and location according to their personal needs.

“We’ve found that a lot of the things that have had the most positive impact on our employees haven’t cost any money at all.”

Lauren Bailey is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.