Cheap and cheerful benefits

Jenny Keefe questions the existence of free benefits and asks if the countermeasure to rallying the troops during a bleak economic situation is a dose of creative thinking.

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Flexible working is a popular option for thrifty employers; it is inexpensive to install, but valued highly among staff.

Other bargain basement benefits and effective motivators include voluntary benefits, birthday leave, raffles and bottles of wine.

Clever communication can make even the most modest benefits packages seem attractive.

As my Nan used to say, "you can’t get owt for nowt", but although certain rarefied benefits such as final salary pensions and private medical insurance might come with hefty price tags, you don’t need a budget the size of Brazil to motivate staff. And some of the most highly-prized benefits among employees are free. As a charity with limited resources, Help the Aged must shop prudently for perks.

It therefore focuses on work-life balance and family-friendly policies, which are low-cost but have a high impact. Jason O’Garro, HR adviser at the charity, says: "Career development and flexible working are the kind of things that charities are trying to do because they don’t have the budget of your Sainsbury’s or your Tescos. Flexible working is our big thing at the moment.

"For example, if staff work extra time we give it back to them or they have flexible hours in which they can work, so if they have childcare issues and have to take their child to the childminder we alter their hours to allow them to do that." The charity also offers sabbaticals and career breaks. O’Garro adds that, while these bargain basement benefits may not require huge cash investments, they do take time to implement. "They are not expensive – it’s more of a cultural change.

You have to get everyone used to the culture of doing something differently." If work-life balance is not your bag, there are plenty of other benefits going for a song. Staff at Virgin Incentives get a day’s leave on their birthday, which is an inexpensive but feel-good perk. Voluntary benefits are another value-for-money option and by negotiating discounts directly with suppliers, employers can add new benefits without spending a penny.

Andrew Johnson, sales and marketing director at Virgin Incentives, says: "At Virgin we all get really good discounts on our own products and from certain other companies. Schemes like that are usually free to the employer because the benefit to the supplier is that they are getting access to lots of people. If it’s communicated effectively, people associate these deals with working for [the organisation] and it can be quite motivating for them."

But employers also need to pay attention to detail. Giving bottles of wine at Christmas, or providing cake on Fridays are another cheap and cheerful way of giving instant satisfaction. Alex Speed, sales manager at motivation firm Cottrills, suggests holding workplace raffles or taking employees out to lunch. But she explains that whether your rewards are flashy or no-frills, certain rules apply.

"If you do incentivise people and put something forward, it has got to be an immediate reward. The prize has got to be instant and on the table straightaway." Communication is the key to creating excitement around a spend-thrift package. Some employers hide their expensive benefits under a bushel, but with enough fanfare around it, a few free perks can seem like the best thing since final salary pension schemes