What does it mean to be an employer of choice in today’s labour market?

  • The Covid-19 pandemic and cost-of-living crisis have changed which benefits employees value the most and what employers offer.
  • Organisations that balance their own needs with those of their employees are likely to succeed in attracting and retaining talent as an employer of choice.
  • With the right approach, employers can build a supportive and inclusive work environment in both a hybrid setting as well as a formal workplace.

There has been an 154% increase in job adverts that mention culture and values, while those that include flexibility and wellbeing receive nearly twice as many applications than they did two years ago, according to research published by LinkedIn in April 2023. This suggests that many organisations are positioning themselves as an employer of choice, aligning themselves to today’s employees’ desired values. But what does this mean in today’s labour market?

Top valued benefits

The Covid-19 pandemic saw many organisations move to working from home or other flexible work models, transforming perceptions of where, when and how work should be performed. Whereas before there were clearer lines between work and home life, work-life integration became a primary focus to avoid burnout.

Meanwhile, the cost-of-living crisis resulted in many employees preferring to stay in a work-from-home arrangement to save on the costs of commuting to and from work. These two issues have helped to bump flexible working higher up the list of attractive employee benefits than it was five years ago, along with fair pay and more holistic benefits that support health and wellbeing as opposed to in-office perks.

Today’s benefits, therefore, need to look at the whole employee experience and day-to-day lives, says Nebel Crowhurst, chief people officer at Reward Gateway.

“Benefits that can greatly reduce financial burdens and improve financial wellbeing, such as cashback schemes and greater access to financial resources to help budget, can be helpful to stretch take-home pay as much as possible,” she says. “Innovative benefits that have a significant impact on mental wellbeing, such as access to mindfulness seminars or a personal wellbeing coach, can be just as important as a standard employee assistance programme.”

The cost-of-living crisis began to take hold in late 2021 and it is evident it has played a major role in the benefits requested by staff in 2023.

Jamie Mackenzie, director at Sodexo Engage, explains: “When discussing their most-wanted benefits and rewards, employees primarily mention finance-related ones, such as subsidised food and drink at work, subsidised commuting costs and retail discounts.”

In the last five years, digital GPs, health screenings, wellbeing funds, apps to support emotional wellbeing and gender-specific healthcare have been included in more benefits packages.

The pressure on the NHS is why such perks, as well as private medical insurance, group income protection and critical illness insurance, are being sought out, and employees are turning to employers to step in, explains Gethin Nadin, chief innovation officer at Benefex.

A few years ago, wellbeing and employee assistance programmes would have been considered a tick-box exercise for an employer and not used or widely understood, says James Tilley, director at Vivup Benefits. Now, they are used more than ever before.

Employer positioning

Employers that develop a workplace culture that always seeks feedback from staff and ensures that they love going to work, wherever that may be, will always be attractive to jobseekers.

When employees share that they are unhappy with a certain policy or area of the business, those ‘attractive’ employers will formulate the best possible plans to improve, says Abigail Animwa, senior list and organisational trends manager at Great Place to Work.

“They engage in a constant process of listening, acting, monitoring and learning, and involve employees in business decisions and processes,” she says. “As a result, they have better staff retention and a happier workforce that actively promotes their employer to others as a great place to work.”

Following the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, many employers are positioning themselves as caring organisations that will support their staff through the next crisis or through challenging personal circumstances.

“We are seeing an evolution of the employee value proposition to one more focused on care and support, with both employees and employers placing more importance on benefits,” Nadin says. “With many traditional ones now showing real, tangible value to not only getting people the support they need quickly, but also acting as a preventative measure, employee benefits are playing a large role in wellbeing at work.”

Stand-out organisations that successfully attract top talent involve employees in the decision-making process to bring benefits that make a difference to their lives and their employee experience.

There is an increased focus on promoting values and culture as a key part of the employer brand. Authenticity and belonging are words much more commonly used today than they were five years ago, says Helen Payne, principal strategic benefits at Aon.

“These can be achieved by linking the employee experience, policies and benefits to wider objectives, such as recognising the skills and talents each employee brings to their role, promoting sustainable working practices, supporting charitable initiatives, allowing time off for volunteer work and putting environmentally-friendly policies and benefits in place.”

Employers are re-evaluating their offerings to make sure they still meet employees’ needs, says Ivan Harding, chief executive officer and co-founder of Applaud. Those that are succeeding are consolidating benefits in one easy-to-navigate platform to offer a seamless experience regardless of an employee’s location.

Different work models

In May 2023, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt stated that the office should be the default location for workers, unless they have good reason not to. Not everyone returned to the workplace post-pandemic: 16% worked solely from home and 28% worked between home and the workplace between September 2022 and January 2023, according to figures published by the Office for National Statistics in February 2023.

Employers should, therefore, prioritise clear communication, technology and trust when implementing new strategies around employees’ working locations. Without this, individuals may look for an employer that demonstrates transparency in the way they handle hybrid working, says Harding.

“Building a workplace community requires a commitment from leadership, a focus on employee wellbeing and a willingness to embrace new tools and approaches,” he says. “With these, organisations can foster a supportive and inclusive work environment regardless of their physical location.”

Employers that mandate a complete return to the office should communicate the reasons why they are doing so and understand that flexibility may be needed to appear as an employer of choice.

If an employer cannot move from the five-days-a-week-in-the-office model, then they should make employees’ lives more comfortable and justify the requirement for them to be present, says Crowhurst. She recommends a commuting subsidy, flexible start and finish times, or an accommodating work environment.

“That said, if a complete return to the office can be avoided and a culture of empowerment and autonomy be fostered, allowing people to make decisions on where and when they do their best work is a good option,” she says. “This is all contextual to each business and the types of work that needs to be done, for some roles cannot be done remotely.”

Flexible, remote and hybrid working are all based on trusting people, empowering them to get on with their jobs and enabling autonomy, adds Tilley.

Sign up to our newsletters

Receive news and guidance on a range of HR issues direct to your inbox

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

“This stems from having a culture that respects people and provides the right recognition and reward,” he says. “Employers that need people back at a place of work will need to offer incentives. The flexibility people have had to combine work with their lives is not something they want to give up, so childcare, eldercare and pet care support are important considerations.”

The best employers in any industry are ones that offer the most attractive and relevant options; meeting employees’ needs rather than forcing outdated or ineffective policies can ensure they do not consider the grass to be greener elsewhere.