FLEXIBLE employee benefit packages allowing workers to choose the benefits that most suit their needs, from dental cover to extra salary, are becoming increasingly prominent in Asia. Julia Smith, a flexible benefits consultant for Towers Perin in Singapore, said: 'Flex plans have gone from five years ago, when no one had heard of them, to our office now receiving calls every day.' The company is developing 12 plans for its multinational client base in the region. There are only 10 flex plans currently in place in Hong Kong. But that number is expected to increase significantly, as indicated by Cathay Pacific's move early this year to institute flex for its 8,000- plus Hong Kong employees. Employees are offered a choice of flexible benefit plans that are within their budget and can be changed each year. IBM has expanded flex throughout the region and in Hong Kong was able to cut benefit costs by 20 per cent. 'What this shows is that companies are spending a lot of money on benefits that employees didn't want,' Ms Smith said. 'Companies have woken up. They are spending a lot of money on employee benefits, but people spend more time complaining about what they don't have. With flex [companies] turn money over to employees to buy the things they need,' she said. Although employers can use the plans to control benefit costs, staff loyalty is nonetheless encouraged with more attractive salary packages. 'As employees start forging careers, looking at retirement plans, medical benefits and the like become more important,' said Carolyn Butler, management director at AIA Pension & Trustee, which specialises in retirement savings products and trustee services. 'Giving employees something they want should help in the area of staff retention,' said John Snelgrove, an employee benefit director at National Mutual. He pointed out how an employee in a company which had a flex scheme would have to demand more money in order to compensate for the loss of benefits. An existing quandary with employee benefits is that management may assume that all staff possess identical needs, often not taking into account duplication from spouses' schemes. Under a flex scheme, however, 'it would benefit for one to say, 'I don't want medical benefits, that is covered by my partner . . . I want a higher salary or dental instead' ', said AIA's Carolyn Butler. Employees who desire additional cover may get group purchasing rates with most flex plans. This provides a cheaper rate than an insurance agency. The insurance company in return receives a lower risk rate and savings on broker fees.