The company car is part of many benefit packages, but unless a wide choice is offered and policies are well communicated, Mike Roberts says not all staff will be fully engaged
The provision of a company vehicle plays its part in attracting quality employees, but handing over a set of car keys will not automatically make individuals feel valued.
The company car is one of the most emotive employee benefits. Get it right and it can play a key part in an engagement strategy, but get it wrong and there will be no end of employee dissatisfaction.
In addition to being provided with a vehicle, staff want to know that their personal safety and wellbeing is of paramount concern to their employer. Choice and flexibility is also a concern for them.
To make transport options engaging for employees, an employer might consider offering cash allowances, employee car ownership (ECO) plans and having an open choice list of vehicles, including options such as alternatively-fuelled cars. Some drivers may also desire particular features such as satellite navigation technology. However, most fleet managers will be aware that a factory-fitted satellite navigation unit costing hundreds of pounds in a new car will be worth little when it comes to de-fleeting a company vehicle.
Although some individuals are now only prepared to work for organisations that take corporate social responsibility seriously, fleet experts claim that employees will generally ignore environmental issues when offered a company car as a benefit.
Colin Tourick, director of the fleet consultancy Colin Tourick and Associates, says: “In my experience few employees get turned on by green policies getting too close to their benefits packages. We like the idea of being green, but don’t like it infringing on our benefits.”
Given the choice, many drivers would simply opt for the biggest company vehicle they are entitled to, regardless of how much tax it attracts or its carbon dioxide emissions.
The truth is that individual drivers’ requirements may be too many and varied for an organisation to develop a company car policy that pleases everyone. But Tourick believes that employers could satisfy a lot of drivers by providing plenty of facts and figures about the vehicle models available and by having a wide-ranging choice.
“A great way to engage employees is for the employer to do their sums well, [looking at] choice of car bands, financial product, lease period, so the employee can get a great car and minimise [the] tax [they have to pay],” he says.
Julie Jenner, chairman of the fleet operators’ association ACFO, agrees that offering a wide choice is key to employee engagement.
“The company car benefit, or alternative, is still [one of] the most emotive subjects to employees and for this reason people will always prefer to have a choice.
“There are obviously specific industries where the choice of car can literally be the deciding factor as to whether a job is accepted or not. However, it is still possible to manage the process internally and come up with a policy that suits both employer and employee.”
The offer of a cash alternative, to allow staff to choose the vehicle they want, is an option at many organisations and is popular with employees. However, such a policy should be carefully managed. Strict controls should be put in place to prevent employees from choosing cars that are not fit-for-purpose or not properly insured for business use.
Other difficulties may occur if a company decides to make changes to its car policy. Many organisations find such adjustments tricky, but the skill with which they manage the transition can make a big difference to the level of employee engagement.
Telematics devices are a prime example. If companies put technology in cars to monitor driving performance and track vehicles it may help them to save money on fuel by cutting driving times, but staff may view such moves with suspicion and fear unwelcome surveillance.
Damian James, head of transport provision at Bracknell Forest Borough Council, recalls working for a major utility firm when it installed telematics devices in its 900 company vehicles. “Telematics is not exactly a big seller to a potential employee as you can imagine and the biggest hurdle still faced with deploying a system is still the ‘Big Brother’ one,” he says.
James decided to get the company’s unions involved and held a series of roadshows to highlight the benefits that telematics could offer to both the organisation and its drivers.
Duty of care
As well as improving vehicle utilisation and productivity, telematics can help firms meet their duty-of-care responsibilities, particularly towards lone drivers, by enabling cars to be tracked.
“In reality I don’t think the workforce was ever truly supportive of the initiative, but once they realised that they were not going to be disciplined over stopping to pick up a newspaper then it was accepted rather than embraced,” James adds.
Driver training is another topic that some staff may view with suspicion but, again, a well-thought-out communication strategy can alleviate employees’ concerns and convince them that the policy is designed to look after their welfare.
Steve Johnson, a spokesman for the Fleet Safety Association which represents suppliers of training and associated services to business drivers, says: “There is no question that car drivers in general, whether the vehicle they drive is fully-funded or not, appreciate the opportunity that their employers are giving them by paying for driver training.
“Inevitably there is a bit of initial resistance, and that’s where a clear and unambiguous internal communications programme, setting out the objectives, is crucial.”
A company car alone may well boost engagement levels but it could have a greater impact if offered as part of a well designed benefits paackage.
But when new car policies are introduced, or changes are made, employees may become nervous. At such times, a sympathetic ear and a proper communication campaign will do wonders for the employer-employee relationship.
CASE STUDY: Hanson
In 2001, construction materials company Hanson announced plans to switch from a traditional company car offering to an employee car ownership (ECO) scheme.
The company hosted a series of seminars to outline its plans, but faced a barrage of complaints because staff did not properly understand the system or how it would benefit them. David Weeks, head of communications at Hanson, comments: “The situation was chaos. A lot of our people had concerns fuelled by rumour around the coffee machine.”
The firm then moved fast to improve communications and reassure staff. The new measures included one-to-one advice sessions and the distribution of newsletters.
Employees began to appreciate that the ECO scheme would give them more freedom over their car choice. This year, a survey of employees found that all staff who were asked said they would not want to go back to a traditional company car scheme.
“We got there in the end, but we learned that communicating change is a fundamental requirement for this kind of thing – it needs to be right at the top of your list of priorities,” says Weeks.