Need to know:
- Employers need to find out what communication methods are preferred by their workforce.
- Digital communications continue to be popular, and augmented reality is now also being used to promote and engage employees with share schemes.
- More employers are supporting employees with financial education around share schemes.
The communication methods used in share schemes are evolving as quickly as in any other industry; while messages and information were previously predominantly paper-based, employers now favour online and digital methods to inform and engage employees. A third (33%) of employees prefer to receive benefits communications via email alerts compared to 18% that prefer leaflets and guides, according to Capita’s Employee insight report 2016-17, published in October 2016.
However, there are some key factors employers need to consider to ensure communications are effective.
Know the audience
One of the most important things an employer needs to ascertain for a communications exercise is the target audience. Phil Ainsley, managing director of employee services at Equiniti, says: “There are so many different ways of communicating with people that unless [employers] have a little background, [they’re] not going to find out the best time to deliver the message and get through to people in the right way.”
For example, face-to-face talks to a dispersed workforce across multiple locations can be difficult to organise, and many organisations may have large numbers of employees that are mobile and may not have regular access to an intranet site.
Employers can work with providers and use their management information (MI) to ascertain which methods have worked in the past and how employees consume information. “How many [employees] access an intranet or online portals?” says Ainsley. “We know how many times they use it, how many pages they look at, and what devices they use. All of that can be tracked and it tells [us] the best ways of getting in front of people.”
The means through which employers communicate share schemes to employees continue to evolve. Ashley Price, head of share plans at YBS, says: “The direction of travel is towards digital, everything is going more and more online. However, there are some organisations that still have a requirement for paper [communications] and for making [these] available.”
For example, traditional blue-collar industry sectors will retain an element of paper-based communication because the workforce is not regularly in front of a computer, says Price.
For communication to be effective, employers must continue to bear the audience in mind when it comes to the methods through which employees can apply to join a share scheme. Gabbi Stopp, head of employee share ownership at Proshare, says: “Paper definitely isn’t dead in the water, we see the number of paper applications remaining very low but steady. I think that reflects the fact that some people prefer to use paper, and some don’t have any other option.”
Email is one of the most common forms of communication, both to inform employees that a share scheme is opening and that they will be receiving an invitation to join. Mobile communication is fast becoming the norm though, simply because that is how most employees consume information in their daily lives. “That’s the route most [employers] want to go down because it’s a lot cheaper to communicate in that way and it’s a lot quicker,” says Ainsley.
One of the biggest developments in recent years has been the introduction of the use of augmented reality (AR). Using technology similar to that of games such as Pokemon Go, AR overlays graphics, videos and links onto images of the real world. This technology can be used to promote and engage employees with benefits. “If [employers] have an poster or booklet, [it] can link that image as a trigger to take [employees] directly to [a] portal, or link into a video,” explains Equiniti’s Ainsley.
Other app functions can also be utilised to further engage staff, such as a calendar function, which can automatically send a reminder when the invitation to join the share scheme is open, when it closes, when the deduction from pay will be taken, and on the first anniversary, for example.
Employers cannot ignore the power of physical reminders around the workplace, says Karen Bolan, head of engagement at AHC. “There are lots of opportunities around the workplace; lots of big posters, banners, a surgery with an HR manager where [employees] can ask questions, and wraps for columns,” she says. “They can prompt people to go to a visual space, and using things such as QR [quick-response] codes on posters is a great way of getting people in to that digital space. If [employers] want maximum participation [they’ve] got to be very visible with [their] communications and actually drive the traffic towards it.”
Meanwhile, as employers continue to see the value in financial education programmes, share plans will take more prominence in these, says Price. “More employers are becoming much more aware of the need to provide a level of financial education for their employees so they don’t just leave them out in the cold, and support them with the decisions they take,” he says.
The wellbeing aspect of supporting employees with their financial concerns will also increase, adds Stopp. “There will be more [employers] using financial education and delivering that around their plan communications,” she explains.
JLL engages staff with sharesave scheme through digital communications
Professional services firm JLL is moving away from paper-based means of communicating its share schemes to online methods to better reflect the ways its employees carry out the majority of their work and personal transactions.
With 4,000 employees across four divisions, JLL currently has 1,000 members saving into a three-year sharesave scheme and 130 saving into a five-year scheme.
Sarah Ruggles, head of pensions and benefits at JLL, says: “The vast majority of our employees are online, so we know we can effectively communicate via email. They’re all fairly sophisticated and predominantly professionals, so are very accustomed to transacting over the internet.”
The move is also part of the organisation’s sustainability aim to improve its carbon footprint and not rely on paper copy.
When a sharesave scheme matured in 2015, JLL moved the maturity process online and launched an interactive online guidance brochure and webinars, which included all the information employees needed to know about the maturity process. Previously, JLL offered face-to-face sessions at its locations around the country.
JLL has since continued to use online communication methods. Ruggles says: “This year we put our launch process entirely online, with an online brochure and online capability to go straight on to [provider] YBS’s website and apply for the options and savings account.”
Its sharesave communications are not entirely online, but the information sent out has been streamlined; employees receive a letter containing log-in details to their home address along with one page of regulatory information. Previously, this would have been accompanied by a booklet and prospectus.
JLL also sends out information about the share schemes on its weekly newsletters, as well as emails. Employees are signposted to the information online and can also dial in to webinars.
“We have significant take-up, so the information webinars on launch are aimed at new people, although we are seeing existing savers joining, just to update their knowledge,” says Ruggles.
The key message that JLL wants to communicate to employees is that the sharesave schemes offer them a stake in the business. “It’s about taking a stake in the [organisation] and being involved in the business, and we feel that that engages people more in what they’re doing,” says Ruggles.
Viewpoint: Employee endorsement of share plans is invaluable
Life is a busy place and our attention is at a premium as we are assailed by nudges prompts and messages, virtual and real. It is the same for employees only more so: share plans account for a fraction of what interests them.
Yet from an organisation’s point of view, other than looking good, share plans only work if employees appreciate them. So [employers] have to communicate to make them worth the investment.
It is well known that reward is what makes people happy at work. Share plans are an obscure reward, so call for more effort.
One size certainly does not suit all. Employees need to be wooed according to their own status interest and taste. Total personalisation is too expensive, of course, but it should always be the theoretical goal.
From the share plan, employees need to understand that the [organisation] cares about them, even the boss; that the share price is a shared interest among all and that working smarter should make everybody better off.
There are no best ways of communicating. It depends critically on the company and its staff. But take a lesson from PR where third-party endorsement is the bee’s knees. What other people say influences more than a top-down message.
Employers should, therefore, get employees to carry the message to other employees and find respected third parties to say the right things.
Finally, the democratic right to vote as a shareholder is worth promoting. It gives an importance over and above material reward to the share scheme story. It may be boring to administer but share schemes need flights of fancy and inspiration, as well as worked examples.
Malcolm Hurlston is chairman at the Employee Share Ownership (Esop) Centre