Mobile applications (apps) are changing the face of flexible and voluntary benefits plans, but many employers are missing the opportunity to take full advantage of this technology.
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- Flexible and voluntary benefits providers are changing the way their platforms adapt to mobile technology and apps.
- Mobile technology is affecting the way benefits choices are made.
- Social media-based functionality helps communication.
- App notifications can help drive benefits engagement.
People, both at work and in their personal lives, now expect to be able to get information and make decisions any time, anywhere. So the old static website approach to flexible and voluntary benefits is being challenged and employers expect more from their benefits platforms to improve take-up. One way to achieve this is to utilise mobile technology and apps.
Edenred’s Benefits insight: trends for benefits in 2014 research, published in January, found that just 14% of its employer respondents ranked mobile channels as one of their three priorities in the year ahead.
However, almost a quarter (23%) thought mobile channels represented an opportunity to drive increased take-up of benefits in their organisation.
Providers of flexible and voluntary benefits are adapting their platforms to cater for the growing demand from employees to access their benefits through mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.
Alex Thurley-Ratcliff, innovation and business development at Shilling, says: “More and more benefits platforms and providers are realising they have to offer mobile versions of their sites to enable non-desk staff to easily access their benefits and choices.”
While most benefits schemes can be accessed online, employers may spurn providers that do not also offer mobile technology.
“Employers are now asking providers: is it mobile ready?” says Thurley-Ratcliff. “If it’s not, then that will be one more reason to look at other providers.”
But this trend is more evolution than revolution. According to the Employee Benefits/Towers Watson Flexible benefits research 2014, published in April, online portals are the most common (83%) method of communicating flex schemes. By comparison, only 5% of respondents currently use mobile apps.
Employers are being challenged to commit to change and prioritise the demand for mobile-enabled platforms so they can boost employee engagement.
East Coast Mainline is one example. It has more than 3,000 employees spread between Inverness and London, and recently introduced smartphone technology for its guards and drivers, who need up-to-date operational information. The smartphones can also be used to send SMS text messages about benefits and reward developments.
Matt Duffy, head of online consultancy at Lorica Employee Benefits, says: “Employers need to look at mobile technology as a necessity to deliver benefits. Flexible and voluntary platforms have to be able to adapt and transact with mobile devices.”
As regards flex, mobile technology could affect the way benefits choices are made. For example, employers want to be able to allow staff to access and renew benefits at any time, which would mean scrapping the annual flex enrolment window.
Technology has evolved considerably in response to this demand, as well as employees’ desire to access their benefits from a range of devices, including their office computer, home computer and mobile devices.
Ali Lanning, head of customer experience at Benefex, says: “We are moving to a more personalised approach to employee benefits and that seems to be the case in the on-demand world.
“Employees don’t want to have one annual enrolment window; they want to be able to choose their benefits at any time and anywhere, be it on the bus, the train or at home on different devices. Mobile technology can aid that and we need to respond.”
Being able to communicate with staff in more flexible ways is also a requirement for employers with diverse workforces, such as those that are spread out geographically or that have assorted employee age and gender profiles.
Mobile apps that use notifications are a prime example of how employers can improve communication, especially when an enrolment window is open, when a benefit has just been introduced or when new savings are being offered through a voluntary benefits platform.
David Walker, commercial director at Personal Group, says: “Employers really need an app. It provides a rich opportunity to communicate messages, but email is still the default.
”Expectation levels have grown that mobile technology will work, but if employers can be a little bit smarter, then tailored messages could be sent using smartphones or an app. This will drive the take-up of benefits.”
Engagement is at its best when the employee has maximum choice. Lorica’s Duffy says there needs to be a good mobile experience to support choice in voluntary and flexible benefits.
“The ability to engage and communicate with employees in an online format outside the workplace is important to increase engagement,” he says. “Mobile technology can do that.”
The biggest development in the past year has been platform providers’ use of social media-based functionality. For example, some platforms are using Facebook-style pages that enable staff to ‘like’ benefits and view their peers’ perks preferences.
Walker says: “There is an opportunity for organisations to create Facebook-style media platforms to allow employees to communicate with each other and send gifts, but this is seen more in the reward and recognition area. It is a trend that will continue to grow for the foreseeable future as the capability of mobile devices increases.”
But Kim Honess, head of flexible benefits at Mercer, says employers could be restricted in how much information they can provide through mobile technology. “There is a restriction on smaller devices on the amount of information that can be sent through,” she says. “Employees do not want to be overloaded, but there are all sorts of things employees need to be aware of when making benefits decisions, such as the terms and conditions.”
However, as providers move to accommodate mobile technology, employers should really take full advantage. Thurley-Ratcliff adds: “Mobiles are the new personal computer. It’s the way most people interact with their world and benefits needs to be a part of that interaction, not daily but easily and whenever the employee needs it.”
Case study: Nottingham City Transport
Nottingham City Transport (NCT) had a flexible benefits portal in place for a number of years but struggled to get employee buy-in and take-up remained low.
Then the organisation launched a bespoke flex portal, with provider Personal Group, and used technology to enable employees to sign up using mobile devices.
More than 200 staff registered on the portal using their mobile devices, obtaining benefits such as savings on holidays and various insurance.
Mick Leafe, HR director at NCT, says: “Employees might have used either their smartphone or tablet device, which is really interesting to see. The response of the launch has been encouraging because many of our staff do not have access to a computer at work.”
NCT provides real-time travel information to its customers via mobile phone apps, so it wanted to do something similar to give staff instant access to their benefits to improve engagement and take-up, says Leafe.
“We used to have a basic scheme,” he says. “Something that did not associate with the organisation. It is now more personal and direct and looks like an NCT website. Now staff can get instant access because we have allowed the use of mobile technology on our portal.”
Mobile technology has also helped shape the way NCT communicates benefits to its workforce. Its recent use of DVD videos has not had the desired impact.
“Mobile technology has helped change the way we approach communications,” says Leafe. “In the past, we have not had a good experience with trying to get ahead. We previously relied on technology to send out our terms and conditions, business plans and statements, and will now do the same for our benefits.
“I am certain mobile technology will increase the overall notice paid to our benefits and the ultimate thing is engagement. Mobile technology has helped greatly with that.”
Column: Angela Wright: Using technology to achieve more flexibility and greater value
But the revolution in means of communication has not necessarily been matched by an increase in communication by organisations with their employees about their reward packages.Allowing individuals a choice in selecting and structuring their benefits packages has been made much more feasible by changes in information technology.
There is evidence that although choice in benefits is certainly desired by individuals, this remains a communications challenge for employers and is not standard practice in a wide range of organisations, which tend to prefer more standardised packages.
Of course, if it is assumed that employers’ main motive in using benefits flexibility is to respond to employees’ different interests or values, recognising their diverse lifestyles, and promoting understanding about the various benefits provided.
But the limited progress of flexible benefits could be seen as indicative of the absence of a general tendency for UK organisations to offer tailored reward packages in response to different employee values.
While there are arguments for more use of informal deals between employers and employees on employment terms, there are practical difficulties in such an approach, not least HR staff time and workloads.
However, the potential of new media to facilitate greater individual flexibility may be just what is needed to enable this more employee-centred approach to benefits, rather than a more formulaic and standardised approach.
Employers that can use technology to the greatest real communication effect may gain greater perceived employee value from their benefits spend and reward packages.
This could aid their cost-competitiveness in a labour market that looks set to be much more competitive in the near future.
Dr Angela Wright is a senior lecturer in human resource management at Westminster Business School