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British companies are offering their employees more choice in the benefits they receive, according to a new survey.

The survey, conducted by management consulting firm Towers Perrin in London, shows that company car, health care and pension benefits are the benefits most likely to be offered on a flexible basis by British employers.

Towers Perrin surveyed 273 human resource managers from U.K. employers of all sizes across 15 industry sectors in May and June of this year. The company conducted similar surveys in 1992, 1994 and 1996.

The survey results clearly show the trend toward increased benefit flexibility and transferring of benefit responsibility to employees, explained Helen Freeman, a principal in Towers Perrin's benefit strategy practice in London.

In 1992, 49% of companies surveyed believed future benefit packages should be flexible and reflect employees' wishes. In the 1998 survey, that percentage rose to 81%.

There has also been a shift in U.K. employers' benefit priorities.

In the 1992, 1994, and 1996 surveys, U.K. companies' main employee benefits priority was controlling costs. In 1998, the main employee benefits priority is recruiting and retaining staff. Controlling costs now takes second place.

Ms. Freeman said she expects the trend toward increased benefit flexibility to continue despite the depressed economic climate emerging in the U.K.

She said giving staff more responsibility for deciding what they want from their benefits packages has advantages for both employers and employees.

"For the employee, this means they have the opportunity to chose the benefits that best suit their lifestyle and stage of life," she said.

For employers, benefit flexibility can support cost control, as companies can still decide how much money to allocate to employee benefits but then allow employees to decide individually how they want to use the money to meet their own needs, Ms. Freeman said.

She said benefit flexibility also can help employers recruit and retain staff, as well as give staff a greater appreciation of the value of employee benefits.

Company cars are the most popular flexible employee benefit offered, according to the survey. Of the companies offering this benefit, 93% offered employees some sort of choice about their company car. Three main choices, in order of employer preference, are currently offered: giving up a company car for another equivalent benefit; the use of a higher-value car in exchange for a reduction in other benefits; or the use of a lower-value car in exchange for an increase in other benefits.

The Towers Perrin survey shows that U.K. employers are offering more flexibility on private health care arrangements. Twenty-nine percent of companies surveyed offer flexibility in the level of coverage available to those staff eligible for private medical insurance, up from 24% in 1996. The most popular choice is to allow staff to increase their level of coverage, the cost of which is shared between employer and employee.

The Towers Perrin survey says pensions are the most difficult benefit for employees to understand and, because pensions are heavily regulated, the least flexible.

Nevertheless, the survey shows that 25% of U.K. companies offer some employees a choice in pension arrangements.

Pension benefit options are offered in a variety of ways, including allowing employees to choose a company-sponsored group pension plan, select between two or more defined contribution scales, and pick a level of company contributions to personal pension plans. Survey respondents often offered several pension choices.

The survey concludes that "core-plus" arrangements are the most common approach for U.K. companies implementing flexible benefit packages. Such arrangements ensure minimum benefit levels, coupled with additional options chosen by the employees.

The survey also concludes that several additional benefit options are becoming more common among U.K. companies.

The top five additional benefits currently offered by U.K. employers are: subsidized cafeteria meals, offered by 71% of companies surveyed; personal accident insurance for employees, offered by 65%; parking facilities, 63%; annual health tests, 62%; and the use of company-owned season tickets for sporting and cultural events, 59%.

Copies of the "Benefits Package for the Future" survey are available free from Towers Perrin, Swan Gardens, 10 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AE; 44-171-379-4000; fax: 44-171-806-6401