A pretty office and half-decent salary are no longer enough to successfully retain staff. Packages including gym membership, health insurance and fully-paid maternity leave are what employees want, says Claire Veares.

These days companies cannot rely on staff being happy to stay with the same employer for all of their working lives, biding their time waiting for a clock and a handshake.

Companies have to compete to attract and keep the best staff and the canniest employers have realised that offering that little bit extra makes them stand out from the crowd.

The Sunday Times carried out a survey to find the top 50 UK companies to work for. It found that the companies on its short list were doing a range of things for the benefit of their staff. Staff at Cisco, for instance, appreciated being treated maturely and being able to make their own decisions. Those at the Cooperative Bank believed in the company's ethical investment principles.

Making an impression
The top 50 companies are obviously doing something right. More than 90% of staff called their company a friendly place to work, 85% said they could do their work without someone looking over their shoulder all the time and 79% were happy with the amount of training they received.

Of insurance companies, two direct insurers made it into the top 50. These were Bromley-based Churchill, coming in at number 19, and Admiral from Cardiff, at number 32.

Churchill was said to have been very good at inspiring staff loyalty, with 25 of the company's original 88 staff still with the company after 12 years. Other points it won credit for included the staff bonus scheme, non-contributory pension scheme and the opportunities for swift promotion.

Admiral was praised for its emphasis on staff having a good time. It has a Ministry of Fun, staffed by volunteers, that organises events such as blind-date competitions.

What the best companies were found to offer were "unique benefits that go beyond statutory requirements offering opportunities to learn new skills and flexible schedules to help staff balance work and family lives".

Paternity leave is a hot topic at the moment with two weeks paid leave to be introduced by the government from April 2003. Insurers seem ahead of the legislation: Churchill, for instance, offers a week's paid leave to new fathers, as does health insurer Bupa. And for new mothers, many insurers go beyond the statutory level of 90% of pay for the first six weeks of maternity leave and give full pay.

Some companies have also realised that it pays to give staff inducements to return to work after having a baby. Bupa offers a returner's bonus of three months' pay to staff with two years' service once they have been back at work for six months. Admiral also rewards returners with a bonus.

And looking after the baby is also often taken care of, with companies offering corporate rates for nurseries, child vouchers and back-up services such as emergency childminding.

Juggling family and career is also considered, with companies offering flexible working patterns such as variable shifts and flexitime.

Unpaid leave for longer holidays is also commonly available. Churchill, for example, offers up to three months' leave for staff that have been with the company for a year. And many companies offer career breaks, giving staff time for their families, study or travel.

Perks for all
But an emphasis on balancing family commitments with work does not win favour with all employees. A study published in Management Today last year of 2,000 managers found that childless professionals were beginning to resent the "perks" offered to those with children. Non-parents believed they were missing out on extras and resented having to cover for absent colleagues.

An answer to this is to offer staff flexible benefits, allowing employees to find a balance of benefits that suits them. Older employees, for instance, can choose better pension contributions rather than parental leave.

Insurance companies have caught on to the attraction of these schemes. At Zurich Financial Services, options such as health screening and dental care are available. Staff get to change the mix of the benefits annually. Benefits commonly offered by insurance companies include health insurance, life insurance, gym membership and discounts on insurance products.

While individual benefits may themselves make a job appealing, most people now work out the total sum of benefits when evaluating and comparing job offers.

Peter Farmer, director of Crawley-based recruitment consultants Searchlight Solutions says: "People are increasingly calculating the value of benefits so they can compare different packages. Generally, it is the overall package value that is the key rather than how the package is made up."

What's on offer
Recruitment consultants Insurance Personnel Selection produced a breakdown of the benefit packages offered to its job candidates:

  • around 80% of companies offer pension schemes, a quarter of them non-contributory
  • 90% of companies that provide non-essential company cars offer employees an alternative car allowance - typically 8% above monthly lease prices
  • more than half of companies offer private health insurance with half of those including spouse/ partner in the package
  • mortgage subsidies, which are typically charged at the difference between building society rates and 5% on the first £50,000 of the loan, are being phased out
  • death in service payments are offered by the majority of companies, typically at four times the annual salary for employees aged 21 and over
  • bonus/profit share is making up a larger percentage of the total package than before