Angela Wright: The factors impacting flex design

Flexible benefits seem to be tailor-made for the current climate.

Demographic and macro-economic changes such as an ageing population and increasing student debt, the increased movement of labour across borders and technological innovation, all contribute to a greater diversity of people in the workplace, with a corresponding need for a more flexible approach by employers to rewarding employees with diverse backgrounds and lifestyles.

But how far do they support the concept of i-deals? In her book, I-deals: Idiosyncratic deals employees bargain for themselves, published in May 2005, Denise M Rousseau states that i-deals “typically manifest themselves in the quiet, informal ways in which workers and employees figure out how to make work arrangements flexible enough for each other’s needs”.

However, there is much evidence that, far from individualising reward and benefits packages to meet individuals’ flexible needs, employers in the UK tend to offer quite standardised packages, which may offer limited real choice for employees.

My research has shown that different i-deals suit different demographic and lifestyles. Nevertheless, while individuals do attempt to craft a deal that suits their own circumstances, they tend not to feel comfortable in disclosing their reward preferences to their managers.

On the other hand, even employers with established flexible benefits offerings may organise these in a formulaic way, which seem less an individual deal and more what some researchers have called a standardised package with an individual wrapping.

Despite the limited evidence of i-deals existing in practice, it might be argued that there is scope for reward approaches that dovetail more extensively the values held by employees and the reward offerings of organisations.

HR and reward managers may believe that creating a more individualised offering would cause a lot of extra work. However, new technology and media offer us possibilities that could be utilised to achieve very positive motivational effects. This would need organisations to focus more on their communications (one of the key positives of flexible benefits), particularly recognising that communication should entail more active employee involvement, as distinct from top-down information-giving processes.

I-deals offer a way of structuring conversations between individuals and their employers about pay and benefits, but this requires, as does all good conversation, genuinely two-way communication. For employers, the rewards of this for could be substantial.

Doctor Angela Wright is a senior lecturer in human resource management at Westminster Business School


Read the full version of ourFlexible Benefits supplement.