Should flex communications be tailored to different generations?

It is not uncommon for employers to have five generations of employees in their workforce, but should they tailor their benefits communication for each?

If you read nothing else, read this …

  • Employers should be aware of variations in attitudes and behaviours when tailoring flexible benefits communications to different employee groups.
  • A comprehensive benefits strategy should use a variety of communication methods.
  • Face-to-face remains a highly effective form of communication.

Employers have their work cut out in deciding how to communicate their flexible benefits package effectively to every member of their workforce.

From baby boomers, who are choosing to work longer, right through to the new millennials or Generation Z, employers have a lot of different attitudes and behaviours to cater for.

One tempting solution is to communicate to employees according to their generation. But Nick Throp, co-founder of communications firm Like Minds, says there are dangers in making stereotypical assumptions about workers who fall into different generational groups.

“Employers might find they’ve got an 18-year-old trapped in a 50-year-old’s body, and they have a set of attitudes and behaviours that trumps age and demographics in terms of how people actually act,” he says.

Throp suggests employers can test the attitudes of their employees through online quizzes focused on behavioural types and the kind of decision-makers employees are. “On the back of that, [employers can] then structure their communications,” he adds. “Instead of saying ‘you’re this kind of person, you ought to read this’, employers can say ‘you’re interested in this type of area, so you might be interested in the following’.”

Establish objectives

In deciding the best way to communicate flex to employees, it is important for employers to establish their strategy first.

Johanna Lennon, communications consultant at Aon Hewitt, says: “Employers need to look at what their objectives are, what they are trying to achieve. So if the reason for communicating something is to drive an action, then what is the action or behaviour they are trying to change? They will then be able to break that down into clearly defined segments.

“If there is a group of employees that is not making flex choices on time, for example, or if [an employer] notices their helpline is getting a lot of calls from staff who are unclear about how to make a claim under private medical insurance, then that is obviously a clear indication that an element of communication needs to be directed for those segments.”

Identify preferences

Employers then need to identify employees’ preferred method of communication, because getting their messages across will depend on engaging the employees. Again, employers must not make assumptions about communication methods based on an employee’s age or role.

Throp says younger staff can be the greatest challenge for employers to understand. “The things that appeal to those people, because they’ve grown up in a world where everything has been customised to them and the technology they’ve grown up with has understood enough about them as individuals to display highly relevant information to them at the right time in the right way, that’s their level of expectation when they’re coming into the workplace of how people communicate with each other,” he says.

This echoes the findings of Capita Employee Benefits’ Employee Insight Report 2013, published in June 2013, which found that younger staff want to receive benefits information in a greater variety of ways compared with older employees.

Louise Harris, head of client communications at Capita Employee Benefits, says: “When we carry out communication campaigns, we find that the thing that works is a real mix [of methods], because everybody has different preferences.

“If [employees] are choosing something like flexible benefits, they don’t sit and make decisions at their PC at work. Employees make choices at home with their partner. Therefore, online access [to flex], and having it available through the web rather than an [employer’s] intranet site, becomes a really important feature [of communication strategies], so that employees aren’t limited to accessing information while they are at work.”

That said, workplace group presentations and benefits fairs are a good way to help employees of all generations understand what their employer is offering.


Communication strategies can be purpose-driven as well as determined by employee age or communication method.

Anne Oliver, head of communications at Aon Hewitt, says: “Context is really important. For example, it might not be appropriate to have a really lavish flex renewal communication strategy if [an employer] is currently going through some kind of restructuring. So for one year it might be a gentle email renewal, possibly supported by a manager cascade, because we want to take notice of sensitivities that are happening elsewhere [in the organisation].”  

But ultimately, the traditional method of communication, face-to-face, is still popular for all generations. “There are some behavioural things that don’t go away,” says Like Minds’ Throp. “As a species, humans have been learning through face-to-face communication since we were babies, and therefore that is still, and in some ways increasingly, important in the modern communication world.

“Every other form of communication is aspiring to replicate the best features of face-to-face communication if it is not physically possible to be with somebody.”

Carina Paine Schofield

Viewpoint: Carina Paine Schofield

A key challenge facing employers and internal communications is to engage all generations in today’s workforce.

Each generation comes to the workplace with different backgrounds and skills, plus different wants and needs. As different elements drive their lives and careers, each generation thinks differently about the world of work.

Our research shows a disconnect between generations on the approach to, and expectations of, work. Generation Y like constant change, job variety, opportunities to learn, job swaps, awaydays in different departments and sharing events.

Our research also shows a communication breakdown between Generation Y and their Generation X and baby boomer managers. These managers find the direct communication style of Generation Y, and their apparent over-confidence, a challenge.

Research has found the social communication methods of Generation Y different to their work communication methods, and they feel restricted by using work communication methods. Older generations are more comfortable with the usual work communication methods of phone, talk and email, whereas Generation Y are networked and learn by discussing and collaborating.

Generation Y get on well with their immediate managers, but find their communication style very formal. Generation Y have grown up in an era of equality of status. This different approach to communication can put Generation Y in conflict with their colleagues.

All generations need to clearly communicate their expectations and build shared understanding to help bridge gaps. Organisations need to look at their business processes relating to communications: do they fit with today’s world? It is crucial to pay attention to communication disciplines and approaches.

There is a need for multiple communication formats that appeal to all, but employers should be careful not to stereotype individuals, and ask employees what communication they would prefer.

Employers should also give Generation Y opportunities to voice ideas, to provide feedback and to demonstrate listening, thus offering them empowerment.

Carina Paine Schofield is a research fellow at Ashridge Business School

Hitachi Data Systems

Case study: Hitachi Data Systems

Hitachi Data Systems has run its flexible benefits scheme, Benefits Direct, for three years.

It uses a variety of methods to communicate with employees about their flex choices about four weeks ahead of the enrolment window.

The strategy involves Hitachi putting posters up around its offices to tell employees the flex system is due to open soon. Then, on the day the flex window opens, a desk drop of information is carried out.

Carol Baylis, Europe, Middle East and Africa total rewards director, says: “Last year, on everyone’s desk we put a drinking bottle with our Benefits Direct logo on it, a drinks mat and a leaflet in the shape of the drinks bottle, telling them about their benefits and that they can make their elections. This year we did the same, but we offered a mouse mat and a little pack of Post-it notes with information.”

During the flex enrolment period, Hitachi emails employees telling them of the time they have left to make their benefits choices, and hosts a benefits fair in its two largest offices, where staff can meet the benefits providers.

The organisation also has some benefits that are available for employees to take up throughout the year, such as childcare vouchers, bikes for work and AA car membership.

“Once a month we send out an email saying, ‘how to make the best of the benefits available to you’, and we’ll pick one of the benefits and give [employees] more information around that,” says Baylis.

A mix of communication methods works best to relay the flex offering to employees, she says. “You get to employees in different ways. The most effective thing is the desk drop because it’s tangible; it’s there when staff come into the office.”  

Carol Baylis will speak on the role of flex technology in employee benefits management at Employee Benefits Live on 26 September 2013

Read the full version of our Flexible Benefits supplement.