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6 Ways to Make the Most of Your Benefits Investment How you provide for employees is often just as important as what you provide.

By Marcus Erb

entrepreneur daily

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Benefits are an almost universal part of the employee package and almost as often a source of concern for the work they require and growing cost to companies. Most frustrating of all, one of employees' most frequent complaints is that they're unsatisfied with their benefits. As costs grow and new regulations take effect, these concerns will not disappear soon. How do leaders make the most of this situation? The best small and medium workplaces in America offer a way.

Consider this, at these best workplaces, 90 percent of employees believe their benefits are special and unique. In contrast, the number is 84 percent among other companies. Yet, the two groups offer nearly identical benefits. The best workplaces typically cover 86 percent of health care premiums, give 29 days off a year to employees, and offer a 60 percent match on their 401(k) plans. The numbers for their competitors: 84 percent coverage on health care premiums, 28 days off annually, and a 63 percent match.

How do the leaders of the best workplaces do it? They focus on not just what benefits to offer, but also on how they are offered and connect with their employees. Here are six key lessons that bring this principle to life:

1. Offer benefits that meet employees real needs
The benefits market is filled with enticing and trendy options, such as compressed work weeks, on-site daycare and pet insurance. Yet, if employees don't want to bring their children to work or insure their cats, then it makes little sense to invest in these practices. Leaders of the best workplaces keep their offerings tailored to their employees' experiences and needs. For example, ACUITY, the No. 2 best medium-size company in 2009, offers a $75 allowance for books on tape, because many of their field staff log a significant amount of driving time in their company cars.

2. Ask employees what they really want
It is a simple and essential step to ensuring a company is picking the best benefits. Even if it is apparent what employees want or need, by asking them, a leader ensures that employees know their needs were considered, which builds appreciation for what is ultimately offered.

3. Help employees use their benefits
Offering generous vacation time or excellent health coverage is of little use to employees if he or she cannot take advantage of them. The best workplaces recognize this and take steps to help their employees use their benefits. At Professional Placement Resources, LLC, employees can take two doctor and two dentist appointments without having to use any of their sick time.

4. Add a personal touch
At the best workplaces, benefits are about demonstrating care for employees as people. Best workplace leaders take time to connect face-to-face with employees to help choose benefit options. For example, ACUITY's human resource team members will review the plan of an employee's spouse and the company's plan, and make health plan recommendations based upon how the employee's family uses their health care. Steps like these help employees realize the full value of their benefits, and more important, feel a sense of personal caring from their employer.

5. Give employees context on benefits decisions
Choosing a set of benefits to offer is a complicated business decision. However, employees are often not fully aware of the budgets, options and trade-offs considered, making them less likely to agree with or appreciate the final outcome. Leaders at the best workplaces take steps to ensure employees have the full picture by clearly communicating budgets, choices considered and, ultimately, why they offer what they offer. By doing this, employees are more likely to appreciate the final decision, even if the outcome is not exactly what they wanted.

6. Let employees make the choice
Many leaders have wanted to throw their hands up and be done with benefits decisions. And it may be a good impulse to follow. With clear decision-making parameters, employees can review available plans within the company's budget and make the choice themselves, ensuring a company's benefits budget is invested on what is most important to them.

The best workplaces offer similar benefits to those of their competitors, yet they are able to maximize this investment by listening to employees' needs, involving their people and fully supporting the usage. These efforts bring their benefits from ordinary to something that is special and unique in employees' eyes.

Marcus Erb is a senior research partner and senior consultant with the Great Place to Work® Institute. He focuses on the financial services, manufacturing and health care industries.

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