Even the post-merger there was good individual brand recognition but nothing across the entire Ajilon group. Enter the perks planners, says Debbie Lovewell
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Case Study: Office Angels
Ajilon is not one of those names that is instantly recognisable. Mention it to most people and you will often be met with a look of confusion. Substitute it for the name of one of its more popular brands, however, and the blank stares will most likely transform into a look of recognition. For after a merger in 2002, by parent company Adecco, Ajilon is now the collective name for long-running recruitment brands such as Office Angels and Computer People.
Following the merger, the first challenge the business faced was to create a single brand identity. Before this could happen, however, it was necessary to merge the central business functions such as HR, which had previously operated individually in each company. As a result, Ajilon has three senior HR professionals responsible for leading the change.
Helen Ackroyd, business development manager, works with the organisation’s central functions and has overseen the project. "The biggest challenge was the bringing together of nine brands. Only one of those brands was new. Every other product had been in existence for up to 30 years, so it wasn’t just a new company we were forming, each was steeped in its own methods and processes," she says.
With each individual brand previously left to its own devices, staff were employed on a wide range of terms and conditions. Inevitably, this extended to benefits entitlement, as many employees soon began to discover. Katie Ivie, group HR director, says: "Forming the Ajilon group, we then started to share buildings so obviously contractually people were eligible for different benefit entitlements. When people started to share buildings, the differences in the contracts became apparent."
To level the playing field, Ajilon’s newly-merged HR team set about designing a new reward scheme. In doing so, it also aimed to better match its benefits to the profile of its workforce, which has an average age of between just 28 and 31 years old. "It’s all about correlating the benefits with the business needs. The market is so competitive that you have to attract the right people and you have to keep them," says Ackroyd.
The solution was to launch a group-wide flexible benefits scheme for all of Ajilon’s 1,400 employees. Julie Bowen, group HR director, explains that launching a unified package was key to establishing an identity for the Ajilon brand. "It was the first group-wide initiative under the Ajilon banner. There’s always strong communication in each brand but nothing across the Ajilon group so we wanted the actual benefits portfolio to reflect Ajilon. People weren’t really familiar with it and it hadn’t really had an identity. So we branded it Enjoy and the actual logo looks very much like the Ajilon logo with the same red box and white text."
HR’s first task was to collate data about each employee’s current benefits entitlement in order to offer them a comparable package. With each business having been independently run, however, they were faced with an eclectic mix of approaches to both data capture and storage. "Although the data was stored, very little was stored on HR systems, it was either in peoples’ heads or in peoples’ files. So trying to harmonise and actually gather the data to do any sort of review was a challenge," explains Bowen.
Once they began to take action, however, they did so quickly. Following the rollout of a range of lifestyle discounts in October 2003 and a voluntary benefits scheme in March the following year, Ajilon began to look towards installing a fully flexible benefits plan. This was launched in June 2004 for an initial six-month long taster period. "We did it in two stages to embed what is quite a cultural shift in the way of choosing your benefits package and give people a six month taster of what they had to do before they had to make the whole annual commitment to their benefits choices. We were never out of the flex bubble but it worked well in the business. The education and communication process helped people to understand it and get it a bit more embedded," says Bowen.
Some employees, however, harboured reservations about the move. "Peoples’ original benefits portfolio was reconfigured to core life assurance, a core pension and core private medical cover. The difference in value between that and what they had previously, created their own flex allowance. It was very bespoke for each individual. It has proved quite challenging because people who sit next to each other with longer service but from different companies have different flex pots and can’t work out why. Obviously, there was some cynicism that we were taking something away from them. Communication was key to make it quite clear that nobody was any worse off than they were prior to flex," explains Bowen.
As staff have become more familiar with the scheme, however, many appear to be more convinced that the company is not out to get them. To ensure the scheme is having the desired effect, Ajilon surveys all staff after each election period. Following the first in June last year, for example, 71% said that they preferred their new benefits package. By the end of the year, this had risen to 96%.
When reviewing benefits across each of Ajilon’s businesses, it became apparent that even where staff were offered the same perks, costs varied widely. So HR seized upon the opportunity to review which benefits providers and brokers best met the company’s needs.
"If we use healthcare as an example, the rates per member could differ by £100 per head depending on what part of the business they originally worked for. So by bringing the group together, we managed to ensure we were still working with the correct providers and brokers. We [now] pay the same per head regardless of what part of the organisation they work for," explains Ivie.
The savings enabled Ajilon to introduce a flexible benefits scheme on a cost-neutral basis. "When you bear in mind the additional costs of using Motivano, which were unavoidable, an increase in the number of people that we’ve got and the number that were taking it up, to achieve it on a cost-neutral basis is fantastic," says Ackroyd.
It was also an excuse to remove any perks that were no longer doing the business. Income protection was at the top of the list. "It is quite an expensive benefit to provide and in all the years it had been offered by the organisation, it had only been used once. It also didn’t match with our sickness policy where we wanted to help people to return to work as soon as possible. The rules of the scheme meant they could receive company sick pay for a certain amount of time and as soon as that finished, the income protection would kick in. When we surveyed staff to ask ‘what do you think of your current benefits programme?’ it actually came out least [popular]. We put it to the Board and decided we would remove it from our benefits portfolio," explains Ivie.
Staff that previously received income protection as part of their package, however, didn’t lose out. To make the change as transparent as possible, the cost of the perk was added to their flexible benefits fund to spend on other options. And as an alternative, critical illness insurance was added to the plan.
Despite the myriad of changes implemented in the last two years, all are well aware of the need to ensure things constantly appear fresh. "I know we’ve got a great ethos. I know we’ve got a great atmosphere within the organisation, but you can have all that and still lose people if you don’t reward them properly. We’re constantly looking at it – doing it once is never enough," enthuses Ackroyd.
Katie Ivie, group HR director, joined the organisation nearly five years ago from Capita HR Services, having previously worked in HR for a casino group and security firm. Following Ajilon’s merger, she undertook the operational role of a group HR director.
Julie Bowen, group HR director, is responsible for the project side of the role. She has a longstanding relationship with businesses under the Ajilon brand, having notched up 17 years’ service. She started out in a sales-based role with the Span Consultancy, which was later bought by Computer People, before moving over to HR. Both are particularly proud of the work they have carried out since Ajilon’s formation in 2002 and two of their brands were recently voted into the Sunday Times‘ 100 best companies to work for.
Pension: Group personal pension in the flexible benefits plan. Employer contributions of 3% as long as this is matched by staff.
Company car scheme: Offered to certain roles. A cash alternative is also available.
Healthcare: Private medical insurance, critical illness insurance, dental and optical schemes, personal accident insurance, healthcare cash plan and health screening all available through the flex plan.
Holiday: Entitlement varies across businesses. Employees can buy or sell up to two days through the flexible benefits plan.
Performance-related pay: Commission paid to recruitment staff. Company performance bonus awarded to head office employees.
Work-life balance policies: Concierge service offered through flexible benefits. Childcare vouchers. Enhanced maternity and paternity policies in some parts of the business. Baby gift box delivered on the birth of a child.
Case Study: Office Angels
Shelley Friend is PA to the managing director and operations manager of Office Angels. Having been with the company for six years, she witnessed its move to a new benefits structure.
"With us having merged, there’s so many different cultures. That’s why I think this is such a brilliant scheme because it recognises that there are different cultures. It was really hard for everyone in the beginning to recognise each other and get on." She particularly appreciates the discounts on offer through Ajilon’s voluntary benefits scheme. "My friends all call me the Internet Queen. I do most of my shopping on the internet. I buy something at least once a month. We don’t have time to go out shopping so that’s been a big advantage."
This preference has extended through to her flexible benefits choices, which she is using to fund her desire to travel. "The best thing for me is that we can use our allowance to purchase high street vouchers and that’s what I did with the majority of my vouchers because I love travelling."
Ajilon employees also receive a £20 gift voucher on their birthday, which she has added to her travelling fund.
Ajilon at a glance
The Ajilon brand, which is owned by the Adecco Group, boasts some 500 offices spread across 17 countries in Europe, North America and Australia.
It began life in the UK under several separate brand names – Jonathan Wren, Computer People, Ajilon Consulting and Roevin – more than 30 years ago. Ajilon Executive, Ajilon Learning and Office Angels were then added to its portfolio. Each was operated as a separate business until 2002, when Adecco merged them together under the Ajilon brand name.
Since then, it has added the companies OA Executive and People Direct to the organisation. All but one of Ajilon’s nine businesses focus on recruitment services for industries such as IT, the financial sector and engineering. Others, meanwhile, source secretarial, senior support and executive staff. Ajilon now operates over 100 offices around the UK and employs 1,400 staff.