Employers are upping pay and benefits to keep workers from resigning. Here are the perks workers want most

When Matt Schulman was looking to change jobs last September, flexibility was at the top of his list of requirements for his new workplace. Not only was he looking for a position that offered the ability to work remotely, but he wanted perks and benefits that could help him create a better work/life balance.

“The idea of being compelled to go to an office five days a week—that’s just kind of unfathomable to me at this point. So when I was looking, I definitely wanted that kind of flexibility,” Schulman, a 30-year-old communications manager for Crunchbase, tells Fortune. 

Schulman’s wish list mirrors what a lot of American workers are looking for these days. About eight out of 10 workers say a flexible schedule is important when considering taking a new job, according to a new survey conducted by the Harris poll for Fortune of more than 2,000 U.S. workers. And nearly 70% of workers cited a remote work option as important. Other major benefit priorities include retirement contributions and mental health coverage, as well as health and wellness stipends. 

In December, there were about 10.9 million open jobs, and turnover still remains high among U.S. workers. In response to that, benefits, compensation, and job structure are being eyed critically by both potential candidates, as well as existing employees who are deciding whether to stay in their current jobs, or move on. Employers are taking note as well. 

“We see organizations, particularly in probably the last three or four months, recognizing that we’re not going back to the old way of working. And if you’re trying to push that at the moment, that is going to have a significant detriment on your capability to be able to find the right talent,” says Mike Smith, CEO of Randstad Sourceright, which specializes in talent acquisition and human capital management strategies.

“If you have the capability to offer people flexible employment, you need to be using that as a weapon in your arsenal in this war for talent currently,” Smith tells Fortune. 

Workers want flexibility and benefits that put money in their pocket 

For Katie Schenk, a young millennial, paid time off was the most important benefit she was looking for during her job search last summer. 

“The pandemic put a lot of things into perspective for me—one of which is that I want to work to live, not live to work,” she tells Fortune. “It was important to me that I found a company which allowed me to do that, providing me with the leave that I need to relax, and the flexibility to work from home—or anywhere.” 

Starting in September as a manager of brand marketing at Curbio—a company offering home improvement solutions for real estate agents and their clients—Schenk says the company’s benefits package played a “huge part” in her decision to take the job.

“Curbio offers unlimited PTO—which employees are encouraged to actually use—and is focused on empowering a remote-first workplace,” she says, adding that they also offer free health care, stock options, and a retirement plan.

“I figured out pretty quickly throughout my job search that there are companies with modern approaches to benefits, like Curbio, and those with more traditional approaches,” Schenk says. 

The modern approach seems to be centered on employee well-being, and includes options like unlimited PTO, remote work, and extensive health care coverage, she says. The traditional approach, to her, includes a set number of vacation days, mandatory days in the office, and health care based on deductibles and co-pays. For Schenk, it was important to get a modern, flexible approach, and she notes that she did turn down a few job offers because the companies wanted someone in an office three or more days per week.

Schenk is not alone in wanting unlimited PTO. Half of workers surveyed by Harris say they would actually sacrifice higher pay for a job that offered unlimited PTO. About 9% of workers say their employer currently offers unlimited time off. 

That desire for more flexibility in the way workers allocate their schedules and where they work from is now fairly widespread and will likely persist. Black workers, for example, are more likely than their white counterparts to view unlimited PTO as important when considering changing jobs—72% compared with 61%, respectively. 

“If it hasn’t happened already, it’s coming where there’s a paradigm shift on what flexibility means. And it’ll probably be an evolution for employers as well,” says Andrew Rosenberg, an office business leader in Mercer’s health and benefits business. 

But the “modern” approach described by Schenk goes beyond just PTO. About 73% of workers are seeking mental health coverage, and 72% say health and wellness stipends are critical, according to the Harris survey. 

“Because of how competitive the hiring market is right now. Places that are going to have success hiring and not fall victim to the resignation trends will be the places that are offering everything that people need and want,” Schulman says.

Schulman says the different stipends offered by Crunchbase were “really compelling.” The company provides a one-time $1,000 reimbursement to help employees build a home office. Additionally, Crunchbase provides $100 for a monthly internet stipend and a $100 monthly wellness reimbursement plan. 

The company even offers employees $10 a month to cover coffee or a quick bite with colleagues. “It’s a good encouragement to go out and meet folks,” Schulman says. 

Benefits make the most difference when choosing between two jobs

Despite many employers increasing the quantity and quality of their benefits in recent months, companies typically aren’t going to attract and retain talent on benefits alone. 

Over three-quarters of the workers surveyed by Harris say overall they would take higher pay over access to unconventional benefits. 

But when the salary offer is roughly the same, benefits can offer a competitive edge. “We recruit for large companies, and in large company enterprises, particularly within the same industry, the compensation packages are relatively aligned. So it does come down to the benefits making a difference,” Smith says. 

Beyond base compensation, Smith says the companies seeing the most success recruiting right now are those that can show candidates how their role aligns with the purpose of the organization; ensure there’s a well-rounded benefit offering; and provide elements of work/life balance. Some organizations, for instance, have implemented mandatory time-off policies so workers can disconnect, Smith says. 

“Work/life balance is an area of considerable concern. Giving [workers] more money is not necessarily going to be able to solve that problem,” Smith says. 

Employers are and should be focusing more on the value of benefits as well, Rosenberg says. Mercer’s annual national survey of employer-sponsored health plans showed that, for the first time in 36 years, deductibles for medical plans went down. Part of that decrease, Rosenberg says, is the result of some employers with higher-cost health care plans reevaluating their options.

“There’s absolutely a new baseline being established,” Smith says, adding that he sees benefits that are currently considered unconventional, such as mental health benefits, wellness stipends, fertility benefits, and creative time off policies, becoming more mainstream.

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