Everyday services that help strike a better work-life balance have become an increasingly valuable part of the benefits package - even if employees are the ones who pick up the tab. But what is the best way to deliver this assistance to the workplace to ensure satisfaction and boost program utilization?

The emergence of an online employee self-service platform featuring a user-friendly interface and deep discounts on a host of products and services has generated considerable buzz in recent years. A more traditional approach involves a concierge model featuring expert advice and a human touch.

Both solutions are built around convenience, while cost and quality vary. There also are different degrees of workplace assistance. With a Cadillac-style concierge, for instance, employees can turn to a professional who can eliminate any workplace distractions en route to finding the services or products they need, explains Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute in New York.

At the other end of the continuum, she says, employers can provide access to discounts for services and products, and employees have to navigate the system on their own. The middle ground is where employers provide some assistance in helping employees find services and products.

All of these are designed to help employees manage their work and family responsibilities. Having access to an employer-provided resource to find the most appropriate child care center or determine the best way to save for a child's college education may not necessarily save money, but Galinsky believes it will save on time, which can be invaluable in today's challenging economy.


Growing demand for assistance

The need for any of these delivery models is driven by a rise in dual-income families and single parents, as well as a growing segment of the workforce toiling away for more than 40 hours a week, says Odette Pollar, president of Oakland, Calif.-based consulting firm Smart Ways to Work.

John Wilcox, deputy director of Corporate Voices for Working Families in Washington, ponders a larger meaning beyond how work-life services offered as a voluntary benefit are delivered: "The question really is, how do you make it possible for your employees to be as efficient as they can be and still meet all the demands that they have for the rest of their life?"

In some cases, employees don't use work-life assistance. If they are supposed to navigate the services and products entirely on their own, Galinsky says, "it can be just one more thing on their to-do list."

The lesson is for producers to advise their employer clients to do more than provide a menu of services or products to choose from with no assistance at all, particularly for people in lower or middle-income brackets who are struggling and face more work than ever. This helps explain the development of boutique specialties from both online and offline arenas to help working Americans navigate their way through any confusion.

"If you need to find a nanny, good luck Googling that," observes Doug Klinger, president and chief operating officer of Shelton, Conn.-based LifeCare Inc., whose workplace support services has placed hundreds of thousands of live-in caregivers during the past 27 years. "If you need to find an assisted-living facility for a parent who can't stay at home anymore, good luck figuring that on the Internet, too, or driving around the neighborhood."

LifeCare's online discount center, called LifeMart, provides access to more than 3.5 million products and services that include more than 700 pre-negotiated discounts and special deals that are part of a more strategic approach to offering productivity and loyalty solutions. The idea dates back to the late 1990s, when Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines outsourced the management of their employee discount programs.

LifeMart is now one of the nation's largest discount shopping platforms, serving an estimated 2,000 corporate clients and 26 million members. Among the categories available to employees: child and eldercare; travel, car rentals, and hotels; theme parks; flowers; computers and electronics; gifts and retail shopping; books and DVDs, movie tickets and video rentals; and restaurants.


Team building over lunch

These so-called soft benefits often deliver hard returns. People whose companies land on great workplace lists "don't really talk about the six-figure salaries and 401(k) plans," says Paige Craig, chief executive and co-founder of Santa Monica, Calif.-based BetterWorks, a startup whose tagline is "making work rewarding." Instead, "they talk about the catered meals, snacks, great gym and yoga in the office - all the stuff that really emotionally binds employees to one another [and] builds a stronger team."

BetterWorks offers an online platform of services with pre-negotiated discounts in select cities that can be tailored to each workforce. The company currently serves several hundred small and midsize businesses with more than 20,000 employees in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Austin, Texas. Other cities being targeted include Miami, Seattle, Portland, Ore., and Omaha, Neb. Craig says the focus now is on finding deals on gym memberships, yoga classes, food, dry cleaning, pet walking and cosmetics. Umder consideration are education, daycare, financial advice and legal assistance.

"An employer can be set up and onboard all their employees in less than five minutes," she explains. "We're helping employers deliver the best purchase for their employees with none of the hassle and none of the overhead costs."

From a more strategic standpoint, these services can be used as a tool to boost camaraderie and loyalty in the workplace by encouraging employees to join the same gym or order meals from the same restaurants. In the spirit of social media, employees can share their choices with one another. "One person doesn't have to make a 20-sandwich order; you just make one order and send it to your co-workers, and people jump on."


May I take your order?

Although employees, especially younger generations, have become increasingly comfortable pointing and clicking their way through their benefit options, many of them still prefer human contact. Hiring an on-site concierge can raise the level of customer service in a workplace-provided program from two stars to five stars, according to Katharine Giovanni, founder of the International Concierge and Lifestyle Management Association in Wake Forest, N.C.

"There will always be companies that want that five-star quality," she says. "And there are always going to be those that want to offer some benefits to employees, but they just don't have the revenue to warrant the full concierge. That's where the self-serve approach comes in."

Giovanni says there are now dozens of concierge niches. The challenging economy has actually helped the concierge industry grow, she adds, noting that concierges are brought in to help companies that are downsizing, so that critical staffers who are doing the job of five or 10 people and never leave the office do not burn out.

While either an employee self-service or concierge model that targets higher end personal needs, such as arranging massages or dinner reservations, might seem like a luxury, Wilcox of Corporate Voices for Working Families says companies with predominantly low-wage workers can use such assistance to help them apply for food stamps or similar services that resonate with that particular segment of the workforce.

Pollar of Smart Ways to Work says most employees prefer to make one phone call to cover five or six issues with a concierge, who then makes inquiries on their behalf. "If there is a problem with the vendor, the concierge can handle it."


An eye toward ROI

There's little doubt that assistance finding the right work-life products or services to fulfill a host of personal needs is greatly appreciated, but one area that resonates with virtually all employees doesn't carry a price tag.

"If you ask employees what is the most valuable help employers can give them, it is usually workplace flexibility that enable employees to have some choices in when and where they work," according to Galinsky.

Regardless of how work-life services offered on a voluntary basis are deployed, Wilcox notes that "it all comes down to ROI," which means matching workforce demographics to the most appropriate means of providing work-life assistance. He says helping employees better manage their work-life balance, even if it's at their own expense, can pay off for the employer in a number of ways: retention, perhaps the biggest measure; employee and customer satisfaction; and eventually higher profits.

"I would imagine that some of the higher-end perks for particular employers also get justified on a productivity basis," he adds.

Shutan, a regular contributor to Employee Benefit Adviser and Employee Benefit News, is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

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