Flexible benefits schemes represent an opportunity for employers to communicate their ethos and brand values to staff, says Alison Coleman
As a tool for attracting and retaining talented staff, flexible benefits schemes are seen as the gold standard by many employers. But as increasing numbers of organisations implement plans, the pressure is on to evolve and differentiate them from those of rivals.
One trend that has emerged among some of the most forward-thinking employers is to link their flex scheme with their brand identity, creating a powerful tool for reinforcing the organisation’s ethos and values, and subsequently boosting the level of employee engagement with the business.
According to Marcus Underhill, head of flexible benefits consulting at Vebnet, employers who haven’t recognised the opportunities that this could present are missing a trick.”Using flex to promote your brand can be the difference between having employees who truly feel they belong to the organisation they work for, and employees who are unaware of the brand values and what their employer is all about. In this [latter] situation, how can you hope to have an engaged, motivated and productive workforce?” he says.
There are various ways of aligning a flexible benefits scheme with an organisation’s brand and its values, the most obvious being to incorporate all, or part, of its name into that of the flex scheme and any accompanying communication channels.
Internalising the brand
The Royal Bank of Scotland’s flex scheme, RBSelect, for example, reinforces its brand name, while communicating what the plan offers. This helps to convey a clear relationship between the bank’s internal and external brand.
“This creates a synergy between the two, and an even more valuable opportunity to communicate your brand to your customers via your staff,” explains Underhill.
Similarly, pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Company complemented its external brand strap line ‘Because life matters’ with an internal line ‘Because people matter’, to achieve a similar effect.
According to Underhill, around 40% of flex schemes include some aspect of the company name, which is fine where this lends itself to a title that works. Where it doesn’t, companies need to be more imaginative.
“It is then a case of finding words or phrases that reflect the business values and culture. Names that suggest variety, choice and ownership, which is what flex is all about, reinforce the sense of belonging to a company that values you by offering choice and flexibility,” says Underhill.
A large number of organisations opt to use branded schemes to generate employee interest and raise engagement levels. Michael Whitfield, managing director of Thomsons Online Benefits, says: “Until recently, a lot of benefit schemes were left in a drawer with the provider’s name and nothing else. Now employers have woken up to the real value that can be derived from a scheme that reflects their brand.”
The concept of a branded flex scheme reinforcing an organisation’s business ethos extends to the selection of benefits to be included in the scheme. Environmental consultancy Enviros, for example, includes a range of benefits in its flex scheme that support the organisation’s green ethos, such as carbon trading which enables employees to offset their personal carbon emissions.
Whitfield adds: “One recruitment company that we have worked with introduced flexible benefits three years ago, with much of the emphasis on health and wellbeing products. This year, [it] decided [it] wanted to retain the same emphasis but using a different approach, so alongside popular health insurance products [it] introduced benefits with a preventative element, such as health screening and gym membership.”
For the same reason, employers may also choose not to include certain perks. Tim Johnson, managing director of Risk & Reward Consulting, says: “One company that we worked with was extremely focused on the idea of encouraging [its] employees to engage with the company ethos, which had a major emphasis on work-life balance. For that reason, [it] decided it didn’t want to include an option to sell holiday in the flex scheme, which [it] saw as being in conflict with [its] business values.”
Other organisations may choose to include their own products in their flex scheme and exclude those offered by competitors. This helps to further promote their brand to staff and encourage more employees to actively engage with the products on offer.
For some employers, the ultimate aim of brand engagement is to have their employees name the company that they work for if asked what they do, rather than simply mentioning the industry they work in.
Just how far people can be influenced by their employer brand depends on how carefully it is designed and communicated, says James Bolton, a director of business consultancy Atkinson Bolton Consulting.
“While we still find organisations simply calling their scheme the ‘company’ flexible benefits plan, our more creative clients have gone out of their way to design sites which look fantastic, with one client getting its in-house graphic designer to adapt its corporate logo to visually describe the merits of each one of the benefits,” he says.
Clearly, managing and promoting the brand concept now forms a pivotal point of competitive advantage for many organisations, and in terms of business priority, it is very much on a par with productivity.
The process is not just external as internal communication of brand values is becoming a key part of business strategy. And it means that the communication of benefits and reward can play a much more strategic role than before.
Joanne Sellwood, managing director of human resources recruitment firm Strategi Search & Selection, believes the strategic importance of HR is therefore growing. “When businesses set objectives for an increased performance culture, which often includes the introduction of a flex scheme, [they] are looking to get people to buy in to the business and the brand. We are seeing HR becoming more closely aligned with internal communications to communicate benefits in a way that makes the users of the scheme more brand aware,” she explains.
Creating flex schemes that carry the essence of the company culture and the brand message seems a logical step to take, but the likely return for an organisation may be difficult to measure, particularly if looking at factors such as the impact of linking the brand to flex on areas like staff retention, engagement, and performance.
“I believe a flex scheme can help with staff engagement, but it is quite difficult to measure the impact on staff retention. From our experience, clients will state the reasons for leaving a company are more deeply rooted in issues other than benefits, such as their control of the job, satisfaction, the team and success of the company,” says Bolton.
Johnson adds that these parameters can be gauged, but unlike measuring employee take up of a perk, which involves instant number crunching of data derived from the scheme itself, the return on retention and engagement can take considerably longer to prove. “With technology, it’s easy to produce figures that show how many people have logged on to the flex website, or how many chose a particular product. But in terms of how much more closely staff engage with the brand through their use of flex needs to be measured over at least a couple of years,” says.
In their efforts to promote their brand and win the loyalty of staff, however, employers mustn’t lose sight of the core purpose of introducing flex. Not only must a scheme’s name, design and communication strategy hit the mark, but getting the benefit options and choices right for the demographic of the workforce is crucial. “For employees who have been use to a fixed benefits package, the control and responsibility offered by a flex scheme, no matter how carefully aligned to the brand, can initially appear overwhelming,” adds Bolton.
Building the brand – the bigger picture
- As flexible benefits schemes and total reward take on a much broader remit, employers need to ensure less tangible elements of reward also reflect corporate brand and culture, as these can impact heavily on factors such as employee engagement.
- The Happiness at work index published by human resources consultancy Chiumento earlier this year, identified links between people’s happiness at work, and the extent to which they care about the success of their employer, in other words, how engaged they felt.
- It also highlighted the top 10 factors that make people feel happy at work, many of which can be considered part of the total reward package:
• Friendly, supportive colleagues.
• Enjoyable work.
• A good boss.
• Good work-life balance.
• Varied work.
• Belief that they are doing something worthwhile.
• Feeling that what they do makes a difference.
• Being part of a successful team.
• Recognition for their achievements, including benefits.
• Competitive salary.
Case study – MTV dances to tune of staff
MTV introduced its flexible benefits scheme in 2005 in order to replace its previous more traditional style of reward structure.
As an innovative and exciting global brand, it felt that its previous reward package was in stark contrast to the image that the company wanted to promote to both current and potential employees.
Its flexible benefits scheme, which was intended to improve the engagement levels of its diverse workforce of around 900 employees, was based around a food theme that aimed to transform employee thinking from ‘What do I get?’ to ‘What do I need?’ Food was perceived to represent a universal language that individuals can relate to.
Working with Thomsons Online benefits, the flex scheme was branded the “MTV Benefit Store”, and the website was designed to imitate a shop including using the same fonts as on a till receipt.
The scheme was communicated in a creative way. On the day of the launch, all employees received the MTV Benefit Store brochure placed inside a mini MTV Benefit Store shopping trolley.
Employees can travel along the virtual aisles and select the benefits or ingredients they need. They receive a paper statement confirming their choices, designed to replicate a credit card statement Tarun Patel, head of compensation and benefits, says: “Our employees were involved in all aspects of design and development of the package to maximise the success of the launch. Since then, feedback has been excellent, and take up of the scheme in 2006 and 2007 has exceeded that of the launch year.”