IT firm Gedas deliberately started flex slowly, developing staff awareness so that benefits can be introduced to a waiting and receptive audience, says Debbie Lovewell
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Homegrown enterprises can yield great dividends. You only have to look at BT’s spin off of BT Cellnet to form O2, Asda’s creation of the George clothing line and Dixon’s flotation of Freeserve, now Wanadoo. Volkswagen is now counting on cashing in its investment in IT systems and consulting arm Gedas with plans to sell it off to T-Systems, a Deutsche Telekom subsidiary. If the deal goes ahead and receives approval from the anti-trust authorities, it may not be the end of the relationship, as the car manufacturer has agreed a seven-year framed contract with T-Systems and Gedas, covering IT services.
When it comes to benefits, Gedas and Volkswagen have in the past often shared experiences, although this may change if the business is sold off.
Gedas’s own flexible benefits scheme, Choices, is still in its relative infancy after being launched in July last year. One of the reasons behind the company’s decision to move to flex was to keep pace with local business trends. Kelly Newboult, compensation and benefits manager at Gedas, says: “Our view was flexible benefits has been a big focus in the Milton Keynes area over the past year. We had some contractors on site that we wanted to move to permanent roles and it was one method to get them to come onboard [permanently] and obviously to give more to give the most beneficial package. My view on it is, we want to motivate our staff, we want to be an employer of choice, we want to make sure we retain good staff and attract good new staff as well.”
Launching the scheme, however, was not all plain sailing. Newboult explains that it was sourced and implemented within tight timescales of just a few months. “One thing I would say to anyone who is going to implement a flex scheme is ‘don’t think it won’t take any admin because it really will’. You need to make sure you put sufficient time aside, not only to cover the sourcing of providers but obviously to follow up, and set up the scheme to get it up and running ready for [employees] to use.”
Communicating the scheme also posed something of a challenge because Newboult had a budget of just ¨£500 to reach around 300 employees. The solution was to embark on a teaser campaign for staff and drip-feed snippets of information to let them know gradually that something new was in the pipeline. “We created a lot of intrigue when we introduced flex to build up interest, for example, we told our employee forum we were going to go to flexible benefits and initially didn’t say anything else. That whetted their appetite. We did a desk drop of a little flexible man – it was very gimmicky just to get their attention – and we attached a raffle ticket to it which gave them the dates of when the presentations were going to be, to say that flex was coming. We did it in stages so there was a little bit of a buzz around the office after that. About two weeks later, we had all the brochures delivered. Everybody seemed to turn up [to get one] wanting to know what was going on and we did some presentations on what we were including and how the system worked.”
But despite the initial buzz, not all aspects of the change were welcome. “I’ve had quite a lot of feedback, not always positive and you should expect that not everyone will welcome the changes. The main thing that people didn’t like is the fact that we had cars here and we said to people ‘if you don’t want to have your car, you can surrender it and we’ll give you ¨£750 a year’, which is nothing, but we’re not trying to convince people to come out of the company cars. This is the point we were making, that we’re not [coercing] them to do it,” explains Newboult.
Overall, however, some 85% of employees chose to make changes to their benefits package. Due to an online holiday booking system, staff have continued to log on to the flex website throughout the year although the next set of elections are not taking place until July.
The scheme has been built around traditional benefits options, some of which had previously been offered to staff. However, going forward, Newboult is aiming to place a more fun, quirky stamp on it. “We’ve been asking for feedback from staff who are quite interested in things like will-writing services, pet insurance, wine clubs and that sort of thing. So there’s a lot of focus on what’s going to happen this year and how fun we can make it. We’re currently trying to add something outrageous, to get people’s attention. I’ve got visions of getting an underwear-clad member of senior management to go out and wash someone’s car if they land a huge sale. It’s things like that get staff competitive with each other. It’s about boosting morale and giving them what they want when we can.”
Importing a fun element isn’t just restricted to benefits that can be offered flexibly. Gedas also holds charitable fundraising events and social team events such as cricket and football matches in order to boost morale. To date, these have been run in conjunction with Volkswagen, giving staff the chance to socialise with others in the group.
“We had a no money gambling teach-yourself-poker [event]. One of the staff in our change management team organised that and [now] he’s trying to convince me that having a bucking bronco in the back office is a good idea. It makes things easier for me because staff embrace things here and want to help boost morale,” explains Newboult.
Ensuring that staff experience high levels of motivation is a big part of Newboult’s benefits philosophy. “Morale will be one of my main focuses this year. Obviously I am coming from a company perspective as well but our employees are my customers so to speak so they need to have my full attention all the time.”
In doing so, she particularly advocates the personal touch. This is in keeping with the openness of Gedas’s culture with its sweeping open plan office environment and cosy sofas in its atrium-style coffee shop which serve as a meeting place for staff.
“My particular style is not to email and not to pick up the phone, it’s to get up, walk to the other side of the office, sit down and speak to somebody. I would rather be out there than behind a desk. The reason I enjoy this position is because I engage with the staff. They embrace and give feedback to me on things that we’re doing and they support me in things that we put out there. Without them nothing would work.”
This feedback plays a large part in shaping what Gedas has to offer. As Newboult concludes: “It’s good to involve them to see what they want. At the end of the day, you spend more time with your work colleagues than you do with your family at home. We don’t expect people to sit and not smile. You have to enjoy your time at work in order to get the best out of staff and motivate them.”
Kelly Newboult, Gedas’s compensation and benefits manager, is a relative newcomer to the world of benefits. When she joined the firm four years ago, she originally took a role in payroll, having previously worked as payroll manager for an online stockbroker.
Despite coming up via a finance-based route, Newboult relishes the challenges of the role.
“If you work in payroll, you’re either with HR or you’re with finance. When I started here at Gedas, I worked on the finance side of things and I was given the opportunity to continue in finance or move over to the HR. I have quite a lot of personal drive and I really want to be challenged in a role, so compensation and benefits was the ideal move.”
Her time in the role, however, has proved to be the highlight of her career to date. Newboult does not endorse anything she does not believe in, which she believes is the key to boosting employee motivation.
“The good thing about a compensation and benefits role is that it’s always varied, you’re always on your toes, you’re always having to think about new things and the drive and challenge has to be there. I’m very enthusiastic, I get very excited once I get moving with things but in the particular role I have that’s how you have to be. You can’t motivate staff unless you’re embracing what you have to put out there.”
Pension Money purchase scheme. If employees contribute 2% or 3%, the company will contribute 6% or 9%. It also provides employees with life assurance of four times salary for members and two times salary for non members.
Income protection for all staff. Private medical insurance, which employees can opt out of through flex. Critical illness insurance, health screening and a dental plan are available through flex.
HCI scheme and childcare vouchers offered outside of flex.
Twenty-seven days as standard rising to 28 days after five years and 30 days after ten. Staff can buy up to five days or sell three through flex.
Organised events such as theatre trips and children’s events at Christmas.
Available to some employees, who can give up the car for ¨£750 through flex. All staff may loan one of two cars owned by the company.
Employee case study
Suzanne Shields has been a programme management officer with Gedas for the past eighteen months.
As a working mum, she particularly values the opportunity to purchase additional holiday and buys the full five extra days per year. She explains that this flexibility brings her benefits package into line with those she enjoyed at previous employers. “I came from a blue chip bank where I had 30 days holiday a year and here you get 27 [as standard].”
Gedas’s flexible benefits scheme has also enabled her to bring other elements of her package up to previous standards. Shields says that she has extended some options such as dental benefits to cover her husband.
Core options in the package, such as the firm’s employee counselling service, helps reassure her that help is available if necessary. “It’s just the fact you know it’s there in the background,” she explains.
She has also joined the firm’s pension scheme because its death-in-service benefits provide her with “peace of mind”.
Gedas at a glance
?Gedas started life as the IT department of car manufacturer Volkswagen. In 1983, however, Volkswagen embarked on a project to set up an IT company that served as an internal services provider.
The result was VW-Gedas, which was formed under the guidance of Dieter Schacher. After three years VW-Gedas took on its first external contract.
Its service model is based around the integration of IT with production processes. Throughout the mid-1990s, it continued to expand, increasing in size and revenue. It also took on responsibility for VW Group¨’s IT operations in overseas locations ranging from Spain to Mexico and the Americas.
In 1998, VW-Gedas changed its name to Gedas in recognition of the fact that it was now serving both internal and external clients. A year later, it expanded further opening offices in the US and China. Gedas now operates globally with 5,500 employees of which 300 are based in the UK. It provides consulting on the development, system integration and operation of IT solutions to organisations in the automotive and manufacturing industries. Volkswagen agreed to sell Gedas to information and telecoms provider T-Systems, a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom in December last year. The deal is subject to approval by the anti-trust authorities.