UK: Giving the staff the stuff of life. (1 of 2)

UK: Giving the staff the stuff of life. (1 of 2) - Jeremy Myerson and Wendy Smith look at perks both past and present.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Jeremy Myerson and Wendy Smith look at perks both past and present.

The demographic time bomb which promised a dearth of young recruits and therefore a shortage of white-collar skills by the mid-1990s may not have been defused by the current recession; it is still ticking away but on a longer fuse.

The economic slowdown and the resulting rise in unemployment have made the need for employers to attract and retain staff less urgent. It will also slow the impetus in the workplace to give staff more non-salary perks in terms of a better environment with enhanced amenities.

"The number one benefit associated with having a salaries job will be keeping that job," says James Woudhuysen, who heads a futures think tank at design consultant Fitch-RS. "All the talk about the things companies have got to do to keep their staff belongs to the 1980s. The whip's now in the other hand."

But while the recession has removed staff benefits from the urgent list, the long-term agenda to develop a better office environment is unlikely to go away. "Things may have calmed down on the perks front but companies still need to address whether the package they offer is competitive," says Clare Roberts of PA Consulting Group, which runs an annual survey of executive benefits.

The major perks that people favour are pensions, cars and private health insurance, says Roberts, but a healthier office environment is beginning to come into the picture. With company cars again clobbered in the 1991 Budget, companies with a vision reaching beyond the present encircling gloom are now looking at other areas to enhance their appeal in the future. Chief among these are sports and restaurant facilities which are intended to add a new social and cultural dimension to the world of work. Then there are more flexible working hours and practices, and a host of other benefits which changing patterns of office life and location will dictate.

At the heart of all staff inducements, says environmental psychologist David Tang of Building Use Studies, will be a better designed and higher quality office environment. Most professional opinion on the subject supports his assertion. Sue Webb, head of policy at The Industrial Society, says: "The company car may help to recruit but it won't motivate people to stay. A good environment may encourage staff to stick around." She has her own yardstick for judging companies: when she arrives at a head office she asks to use the staff loo.

Webb believes that the environmental upgrading process is only just beginning but points to examples of worker participation - Triumph at Swindon, where women now have powder rooms, and East Midlands Press, where staff can choose the colour of their VDU screen - as welcome signs of change in British industry.

Throughout the UK, user participation in design is among the many imaginative, non-salary benefit schemes being developed. There are other persuasive developments too. British Aerospace, for example, has established a scheme to provide homes for employees in high-cost housing areas through a subsidiary company, Aerospace Homes. Tesco, Ulster Bank and Royal Mail Parcelforce are among those organisations which have been running promotional or training programmes to assist women returners to work.

The problem for women at work, of course, is child care. The anticipated boom in creches has not happened and the prevailing wisdom now is that more flexible working hours, not workplace nurseries, are the answer.

"On-site child care is not ideal. It is expensive and you get commuter-kid trauma," says Keith Lawson, design director of office interiors specialist Business Design Group. "Companies are instead looking at siting creches in local areas where staff live, using local schools to provide such facilities."

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