Flexible success

The flawless introduction of a flexible benefits scheme is no easy feat.
However, one company that has found success is Millward Brown

One employer that has successfully implemented a flexible benefits solution
is Millward Brown, one of the top 10 market research organisations in the
world. The scheme was introduced on 1 July 2002, and offers the company’s 739
employees a choice of seven benefits including holidays, medical insurance,
flexibility in pension contributions and critical illness insurance.

The company, part of media giant WPP, believes it is the first major
research organisation in the UK to offer a flexible benefits solution. It also
intends to add more benefits to further increase employee choice.

According to Sue Thompson, HR manager at Millward Brown, the decision to
implement a ‘flex’ scheme was taken to help give the company a competitive
advantage when recruiting key high-calibre staff and when looking to retain
administrative staff in Warwickshire, an area of extremely low unemployment.

In order to succeed, the company considered it vital that the flexible
benefits scheme showed employees the total value of their remuneration package,
as well as giving them the flexibility to create a benefits package which
fitted their own personal and family needs. It also had to offer them the most
value and be able to adapt to changing circumstances.

A key tool for encouraging take-up of the scheme was a ‘web-modeller’
application developed by a benefits consultancy. This allows the employees at
Millward Brown to model and compare different combinations of benefits to use
their own computers to find their ‘greatest personal value’ choices. Because
this tool is accessed via the internet, employees were able to work on the
scheme at home, with the involvement of their partners.

Equally important was the process of communicating the new scheme to
employees across the company. Group briefings were held with all staff, who
were introduced to the ‘web-modeller’. Follow-up one-to-one detailed
discussions were offered where needed.

The scheme was designed to work with the company’s existing integrated
payroll and HR system. Christine Jones, payroll manager, worked with the
benefits consultancy to ensure information on benefits choices could be easily
added to this system.

She found that the technology works well, although the systems are not
totally integrated. For example, at present employees cannot model their
benefits in real time and see the direct impact on their take-home pay from
each calculation, as only approximate National Insurance calculations can be

There were also some teething problems when the scheme was launched in
working out how the system would deal with those taking maternity leave and
other staff leavers. However, although the scheme was only introduced several
weeks ago, the initial reaction has been positive.

Nearly 90 per cent of the company’s employees have used the system to tailor
their benefits, while the remaining 10 per cent reported being ‘very happy’
with their current package. ‘Buying’ extra holidays has also proved popular,
while the introduction of the scheme has also led to more than 150 extra
employees joining the company pension scheme. Among younger employees there has
been a preference for ‘money in the pocket’ benefits rather than health
insurance or larger pensions contributions.

Thompson believes the flexible benefits scheme will help keep HR in its
position as a major strategic contributor to the company. "If it is a
success, as we expect it to be, it will help prove to the rest of the board
that we [HR] can make a significant contribution to bottom line
profitability," she adds.

When asked for her advice for other organisations considering introducing a
flexible benefits scheme, Thompson singles out the importance of forward
planning. "All those involved in administering the scheme, whether from
HR, IT or payroll, should come together as a project team from the start,"
she says. "It is hard work but well worth it – very satisfying."

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