Voluntary benefits have been steadily gaining popularity over the last decade or so and most employers recognise that they can boost morale, engagement and retention by offering a selection of optional perks.
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- Employee health and wellbeing is becoming an increasingly important voluntary benefit with employee assistance programmes, bikes for work and a range of other wellbeing initiatives now being offered as standard.
- Financial health is also a growing trend, especially financial education and financial benefits.
- The voluntary benefits sector is becoming increasingly technology driven with many employers now offering multiple products from one technology platform.
Health and wellbeing focus
One of the most significant trends in the voluntary benefits sector is the increased focus on health and wellbeing, according to Julian Foster, managing director at Computershare. “Employers are increasingly aware of the importance of staff wellbeing and mental health,” he says. “As well as the obvious benefit to employees themselves, a happier and healthier workforce is also harder working, more productive and less often absent, and the organisation can therefore be more profitable and successful.”
The fact that there is no longer such a stigma around mental health issues is one of the key drivers of this trend. “Mental health is no longer the dark secret it was once was, with many employers accepting that a large proportion of people will, at some point in their working lives, experience problems and benefit from support,” says Foster.
For example, many providers now offer employee assistance programmes (EAP) within voluntary benefits schemes to help deal with everyday life issues, from basic legal advice to being the parent of a troublesome teen.
Kuljit Kaur, head of business development at The Voucher Shop at P&MM, agrees that employee wellbeing has become a huge consideration. “There’s a growing trend in healthy initiatives such as bikes-for-work schemes and subsidised gym membership,” she explains. “[Employers] are beginning to understand the benefit of any scheme that helps with individual employee development and growth, places a high importance on work-life balance, and offers something of interest to the employee, both professionally and personally.”
Employers are also starting to recognise the importance of financial health, in particular, realising that this does not always have to take the form of direct remuneration. “Helping people understand their finances better, as well as offering other financial rewards, particularly for loyalty, will continue to move up the agenda at many organisations,” Foster explains. “Share plans and affordable loans for holidays, cars or housing, in particular, are gaining in popularity. We anticipate that our travel and rental loan schemes, which help employees spread the costs of both purchases over a period of time, thereby helping them to budget, will also continue to grow in popularity.”
Financial benefit tools are also being tweaked to suit the changing workforce. “Tools that help employees to better budget their finances and apps to showcase the benefits on offer are all helping to adapt the benefits landscape to suit more tech-savvy generations,” says Kaur.
The voluntary benefits sector is also becoming increasingly technology-driven and there is a big push on mobile technology in particular. Glenn Elliott, chief executive officer of Reward Gateway, says: “Ten years ago the industry was fragmented and every benefit had a separate vendor. [The trend of] multiple products from one technology platform [has] caught on because it gives the best usage rates and it’s very [user] friendly. Everything just works better with less hassle.”
Much has changed in the last decade and usability and the mobile experience are going to become increasingly important. “When we first started 10 years ago, we pioneered cashback, reloadable shopping cards and instant e-vouchers,” says Elliott. ”But back then we were still producing benefits brochures and emphasising the phone line helpdesk because that’s how [employers] reached an off-line workforce.”
These days, however, everyone has a smartphone and all of the non-office-based workers that were hard to reach are now accessible, as long as a provider understands technology and mobile.
There is also a move towards communicating benefits schemes more effectively and tailoring them to suit the individual. “[Employers] have previously been all too often overly concerned with simply getting something launched and ticking a box to say it has been done,” says Kaur. “They didn’t necessarily realise that the benefit is in getting the employee to realise the value or saving this brings to them.
“Thankfully, this seems to be a trend that is changing as HR teams are challenged more and more to make a tangible impact using their suite of benefits on engagement, retention, satisfaction and financial wellbeing.”
Case study: Experian refreshes voluntary benefits schemes
Experian based its voluntary benefits offering on employee feedback when it relaunched the first phase of its scheme in March 2014.
Kathryn Finch, reward consultant at Experian, explains that this feedback is the basis behind the popularity of the credit risk management’s firm voluntary benefits scheme: “Our employees told us that the opportunity to flex their holiday allowance was important to them so we built our voluntary benefits scheme from there,” she says. “We rolled it out in two phases, launching holiday buy and a refresh of childcare vouchers and bikes for work first.
”We then followed this with a second phase a few months later with a number of health and wellbeing benefits, including gym vouchers and health assessments.”
Experian also invested heavily in communicating the launches, stepping away from a corporate look and feel, and selecting branding and imagery that it hoped employees could connect with. “We also ran a number of roadshows for employees to come and talk to us about the choices available to them and answer any questions they had,” Finch says.
Feedback has been extremely positive so far and, following each launch, the organisation surveyed a cross section of employees to test what else they might like it to consider. “Our recent people survey results have confirmed that employees really value the changes we have made,” says Finch.
Experian is currently in the early stages of evaluating a number of other voluntary benefit options, including technology salary sacrifice and financial education.
Viewpoint: Voluntary benefits need to reflect employees’ complex lives
Employees’ lives are as complicated as ever, coupled with an increasing need to attract and retain top talent. So HR professionals need to stay ahead of the competition when it comes to pay and benefits: the employee value proposition.
In today’s busy world, targeting employee rewards at helping employees feel money rich and less time poor really works. With the increasing work-life blend, and new graduates seeking a working experience rather than a traditional career, focusing rewards on a flexible set of possibilities hits the mark. Voluntary benefits are a great way of letting employees work out what is most value for them.
The traditional employee assistance programme (EAP) model should now be adapted to provide home-help, nanny or errand-running services, as well as financial, legal, family counselling and help services. The EAP should be focused on assisting employees on a continual basis, rather than as a quick fix or in response to a crisis in their lives. Helping employees achieve their hopes and aspirations outside of work, allows employees time and focus during their work day.
Wellness initiatives are now so much broader than just gym membership, and include onsite medical services or fitness classes, corporate ‘step’ challenges, quit-smoking workshops, and flexible working hours or annual leave too, rewarding employees for a job well done rather than hours or days in the office. Employee wellbeing and feel-good strategies can also become organisational culture and a great way to build teams. These initiatives not only provide pay back in terms of employee fitness and motivation, but can also help reduce an employer’s private medical insurance (PMI) renewal.
Employees’ lives are complex, and so are their motivations and needs. Knowing employees helps employers target what will be attractive within their organisation, whether it is paid time off for voluntary work, increased family-friendly provisions, tuition reimbursement or an annual yoga retreat, tapping into what helps an employee will lead to greater employee happiness at work, loyalty and retention.
Zoe Spicer is a speaker on Ashridge Business School’s Strategic HR Management course and former head of HR, EMEA at Adobe