Too often an employer will spend time and money implementing a voluntary benefits scheme only to treat it as a tick-box exercise and not pay it any more attention.
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But for a scheme to be successful both in providing employees with valuable benefits and discounted offers, and increasing staff engagement, motivation and productivity, employers must ensure that it is regularly communicated to staff, and that they are fully aware of what their employer offers.
Jenny Hard, senior communications manager at consultancy Aon, says: “It’s all very well having these great discounts available, but if employees don’t know about them then there’s no point having them. It’s about looking at the media channels [employers] can use.”
Employee engagement should start prior to the launch of a scheme. Putting in a plan will often mean an employer is starting from nothing, so getting employees on board early will help promote the benefits. If a scheme has been requested by employees, they can also help put the word out about what is coming. Mark Carman, director of communication services at recognition and reward provider Edenred, says: “It’s important to have a very good launch because without it it’s very hard to maintain momentum because you’re coming from a low base. It’s worth investing a lot of time in creating a communications programme that requires involvement from the HR team, and also peer engagement groups, pre-launch.”
How to achieve good take-up levels
Take-up levels are a good indication of how well employees appreciate and are engaged with a benefit. With voluntary benefits, take-up figures can vary depending on, for instance, how often an employee will use a shopping discount or sign up to a health cash plan. Many voluntary benefits schemes see usage figures of between 50% and 90% of employees logging on and using the benefits.
Keeping track of the take-up and usage figures can help an employer understand what employees want and appreciate from a scheme. Lisa Turnbull, communications manager at employee benefits and technology provider Reward Gateway, says: “Once a programme has gone live, we constantly evaluate the management information (MI) data so that we can see what staff are using; which groups of staff are using it more than others. We’ll do engagement surveys so that we can keep on top of the trends and be sure we’re always offering the best to get that engagement for [employers].”
Employers can maintain high engagement with a scheme by keeping up regular contact with employees to find out what they think. This can be done face to face, or by conducting a pulse survey or poll. “The data [employers] will get out of the programme in terms of how many people have used certain pages and how often they have logged in will be very indicative of what’s going on, but there will always be reasons why people aren’t using a programme, which [employers] will only find out by asking them,” says Turnbull.
Building engagement among employees
There are many things an employer can do to create a buzz around voluntary benefits and increase staff engagement with a scheme. A popular method is to use benefits champions from the very first conversations about implementing a scheme. Aon’s Hard says: “If someone in the business is an advocate of it, and [employees] know who that advocate is, they’re more likely to use [the scheme]. With discounts more than anything, it’s more of a viral engagement: if [the scheme has] people who are really engaged, the word spreads so quickly.”
If a scheme has been requested by members of staff, those employees can make ideal advocates of the advantages of logging on. These groups of benefits champions can be chosen by the employer, or they could form organically, says Turnbull. “It could be staff council representatives or other employee groups. They can be the human face of the programme and that makes it more realistic for future higher employee engagement,” he explains.
Another way of getting employees on board with a scheme is to show real-life examples of the savings that are possible.
Getting the right message out
Employers need to ensure that not only are employees informed about the implementation of a new scheme, but are also kept up to date with any changes or new offers to keep engagement and take-up levels high. “It’s all very well creating these great examples, and having these great discounts available, but if employees don’t know about them, then there’s no point having them,” says Hard.
Getting the communication right is as important as any other part of running a scheme, and from the implementation stage these have to be effective in making the scheme a success. “It’s not all about the big flash bang on launch day,” says Edenred’s Carman. “It’s about building up anticipation, starting a conversation, creating a buzz and setting people’s expectations about what’s coming along.”
Specific communications can help highlight the relevance of a scheme to an employee’s lifestyle; whether the messages are passed on through emails, posters, intranet, benefits books or online portals, targeted information will keep employee engagement with voluntary benefits high.
Case study: Merseyrail drives business engagement through voluntary benefits
Merseyrail, part of the Abellio Group, uses its voluntary benefits scheme as part of a multi-channel approach to recruiting, retaining and engaging the best talent for its business.
The train operating company introduced its staff discount scheme, ‘Benefits for you’, five years ago with Personal Group. While employees have access to offers including cinema vouchers, holiday discounts and reloadable cards, the organisation uses the scheme as a way of driving employee engagement and increasing discretionary effort.
Andy Parry, head of engagement and reward at Merseyrail, says: “The only asset we have is our employees so we’re very people focused. If we want to reward our employees and make them feel wanted, then we try and give them the best offer we can, be it salary, benefits and everything else that comes with that, to make them feel that the business values them. The ‘Benefits for you’ scheme is an additional piece that helps us towards that goal.”
The voluntary benefits scheme sits within the organisation’s total reward package, which includes free rail travel for employees, discounted rail travel nationally and internationally, a final salary pension scheme and a bikes-for-work scheme.
Merseyrail receives monthly reports from Personal Group that highlight how many employees have signed up to the scheme and accessed their benefits. It has seen more than 90% of employees register for the scheme since its launch. While the benefits are an important talent management tool for the organisation, Merseyrail is aware that it also has to be beneficial to the business. Parry says: “Although we do it solely for the benefit of our employees, the first thing we check is are our employees achieving savings that justify the costs of running the scheme, and we absolutely outstrip that.”
Merseyrail credits its total reward package as playing a vital role in its employee engagement and retention success: its turnover stands at 10%, while in its most recent engagement survey in 2014, scores increased by 10% to 76%.
“When we measure the success of whether our benefits schemes have worked or not, we do that through employee engagement because that’s the sole reason we’re doing this,” says Parry.
72% of UK employers communicate benefits programmes to employees.
34% of employers consider that the understanding by employees of benefits schemes is high.
53% of employers that are satisfied with the impact of their benefits communications inform employees several times a year.
64% of these would recommend to segment the audience and provide targeted information.
61% of these employers regularly use multimedia channels.
Source: Aon’s Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) benefits communication survey 2015
Clare Kelliher: Can voluntary benefits motivate and engage employees?
Anything which enhances the lives of employees and adds to their rewards package is generally to be welcomed.
Non-monetary rewards which may include things like shopping or restaurant discounts and childcare vouchers can be useful ways to motivate and engage employees. However, the value attached to non-monetary rewards is always subjective and so may be more attractive to some employees than to others.
It is important for an employer to give careful consideration to what benefits are offered to employees and how these fit with the organisation’s overall people strategy.
For example, if an organisation is keen to promote health and wellbeing, then offering discounted gym membership might make sense. And for sectors such as financial services where the demands on employees’ time are high, offering a concierge or dry cleaning service at work to help to make employees’ lives easier.
Other benefits such as reward or experience day vouchers may also be valued by employees since they may be viewed as ‘treats’ by those who receive them.
However, just because an organisation is offered a benefit by a supplier, such as a local business, does not necessarily mean they have to offer it. They should consider if it fits into its overall people strategy, rather than just accepting offers on an ad hoc basis. There may also be issues of fairness if some significant benefits may not be accessible or relevant to all parts of the workforce; for instance, you may need to consider demographics of the workforce if you are offering discounts at high-end retails outlets or likewise garden centres or for childcare.
The available benefits also need to be communicated clearly as part of a good overall communications strategy. Details need to be easily accessible, rather than being tucked away on some rarely visited intranet pages or noticeboard, and understandable, kept up to date and regularly reviewed to ascertain the level of uptake and interest. To motivate and engage employees, benefits have to be meaningful to employees.
Clare Kelliher is professor of work and organisation, Cranfield School of Management