Employee Benefits Live 2011: technologies, flexibility and adapting to a new generation

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At this week’s Employee Benefits Live conference and exhibition, held at London’s Business Design Centre, much of the focus was on how to make benefits attractive to an ever-changing workforce.

While older generations are working longer, younger employees are coming into organisations with different ways of working and very different needs to those before them. Reward and benefits professionals have to adapt to keep benefits attractive to all.

Wellbeing

Despite costs remaining a concern for many at the conference, the focus was on making the most of existing benefits offerings rather than slashing budgets.

However, according to keynote speaker Steve Bevan, director of the Centre for Workforce Effectiveness at The Work Foundation, financial concerns are having a big impact on employees’ health, attendance and productivity.

He says that about 30% of all calls to employee assistance programmes (EAPs) concern debt and that around 10 million workers in the UK currently earn less than £15,000 per year.

On top of these financial concerns, which Bevan described as “a big source of mental ill health”, people are living and working for longer, leading to more people with health problems active in the labour market.

According to Bevan, it is predicted that, by 2030, between 17 and 20 million UK workers will have at least one chronic health condition. Consequently, health is going to be a key issue that employers can address in benefits packages such as healthcare cash plans or private medical insurance.

However, Bevan warned that benefits such as gym membership, although a good tool to attract new recruits, will not have a big impact on absence. He recommends introducing health screening in conjunction with the occupational health team as a preventative measure, although he warns that this must not be done during recruitment or employers could fall foul of the Equality Act 2010.

Flexibility

With the diverse nature of the modern workplace it can be challenging for reward managers to design benefits packages that are attractive to all employees.

Michelle Connolly, reward manager at public services provider Amey, talked about how, with a workforce of 11,000 people across 200 locations ranging from school cleaners to consultants to transport maintenance workers, the company improved the take-up of its benefits.

Amey set out to broaden its benefits package to make it more relevant to everyone. Before the changes, the majority of those making the most of their benefits were white-collar workers. While private medical insurance and childcare vouchers were attractive to these workers, they weren’t appreciated by blue-collar employees who didn’t have the spare money to put into such schemes.

“‘One size fits all’ just doesn’t work at all,” Connolly says. “You need to tailor it to your workforce.” Amey looked at what would appeal to, for example, the school cleaners working for them. They implemented a scheme called Save with Amey which helped workers save money on their day-to-day shopping. This benefit was taken up by 86% of low-earners working for the company, while the high-earners still had access to the more traditional benefits on offer.

Technology

With a new generation of tech-savvy workers, the challenge is not only to provide benefits in an accessible online format that employees can easily manage themselves, but also to make sure the benefits on offer are appealing to a generation with different priorities.

Within their own company, employee benefits solutions firm Alexander Forbes integrated their online benefits platform into the more general HR portal that employees naturally access in their day-to-day working lives.

Prior to doing this, logins to the benefits platform were low and so was engagement with it. But the key to the new system was simplicity. John Hunter, director of HR at Alexander Forbes, said: “There’s no point in having too many platforms and too many passwords.”

Instead, everything was put onto one platform, which meant that workers saw all of the benefits the company gave them every time they logged in to carry out a task such as booking leave. Since employees have been able to easily see what is on offer, engagement with the benefits package has improved significantly.

Smart phones

Accessibility to, and self-management of, benefits are very important factors when looking into how technology can aid engagement with a benefits package. One solution is to allow employees to manage particular benefits on their mobile phones.

Sodexo Motivation Solutions launched a smart-phone-enabled website for its childcare vouchers, which allows working parents to pay for childcare wherever they are, without battling with websites and payment systems that are not designed to be used on a phone.

And while mobile technology is offering a more convenient way of paying for childcare vouchers, it is also becoming a benefit in itself. IT and mobile distribution company Micro-P, which exhibited at the event, offers an employee mobile scheme in which a worker can pay for their mobile phone contract through their salary, saving on tax and national insurance. Any additional charges are taken from the employee through direct debit and employers can integrate it into their intranet with a bespoke website that mirrors the design of the employers’ existing sites.

So, while more traditional benefits may never be entirely replaced by the new breed of benefits aimed directly at tech-savvy workers, it looks as though adapting to an ever-changing workforce will be a huge priority for reward professionals in the future. Self-management and accessibility will be key drivers in how well benefit packages are received and online portals will be a vital tool in achieving this.

Employers looking to implement benefits such as childcare vouchers, incentive vouchers, EAPs or healthcare cash plans can find guidance and information on doing so in Personnel Today’s employee benefits Buyers’ Guides.

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