International law firm White and Case had a lot to consider when introducing a flex scheme for its UK staff, but it has won them over, says Tom Washington
Whatever the size of an organisation’s workforce or the type of industry it operates in, implementing a flexible benefits scheme is a big challenge – but one that can reap huge rewards for employers and employees alike. International law firm White and Case has enjoyed great success since introducing flexible benefits in 2006. At this year’s Employee Benefits Awards, the firm took the gong for Most effective use of a flexible benefits plan.
White and Case has 36 offices in 25 countries worldwide, including New York, Tokyo, Mexico City, Berlin and Johannesburg. It provides counsel and representation in virtually every area of law that affects cross-border business, including transactions, arbitration and litigation.
It decided to move to flex for its UK staff after steady and significant growth in its London office saw staff numbers rise from 200 in 2000 to more than 500 now. And as the workforce increased, so did its diversity.
Employees’ ages range from 20 to 67, and there is a mixture of ethnic backgrounds, religions, lifestyles and attitudes. Previously, all staff had access to competitive, but standard, employer-funded core benefits, including life assurance, private medical insurance (PMI), long-term disability cover and the firm’s group personal pension (GPP) scheme.
Kate Coulson, senior HR manager at White and Case, says the business case for flex was simple: to motivate, retain and attract a varied workforce. But switching to a tailored benefits package was not easy, requiring a cultural shift within the company. “It was proposed to senior management that we should offer benefits that were appropriate for all our people, and we had a very diverse population of staff,” she says.
“It did take some time to go from core benefits to flex. We wanted to move away from a parent-child relationship to an adult-adult relationship. This was a distinctive change in the way the firm dealt with its employees. We were suddenly saying: ‘You choose what suits you and your lifestyle’.”
Before the launch of the scheme, branded Youchoose, White and Case conducted an internal staff survey to identify what perks would appeal. Coulson says the firm was determined to offer as much flexibility as possible, while remaining a conscientious employer. “Flexible benefits plans give employees empowerment and responsibility, but by setting core benefits, we were also being a responsible employer,” she says.
“For example, we will fund our employees four-times life assurance and they can decrease that down to two times, but no lower. What we are saying is, we will give staff flexibility but we also want to be responsible in having something in place.”
Coulson says the concept of choice is present throughout. “Prior to introducing flex, there was a gym allowance, but we came to the conclusion that not everybody wants to belong to a gym. Some people might want to have tennis or yoga lessons, which is still wellbeing. Now, through flex, staff can choose to put a certain amount of salary into a wellness account and the firm will match that up to a certain amount.”
The flex scheme, provided by Aon Consulting, offers staff a total of 23 benefits. Options include PMI, which is employer-funded but staff can add cover for family members at their own cost; two different levels of annual travel insurance – a particularly popular perk, with 24% take-up; and a set of tax-efficient options offered via salary sacrifice, including childcare vouchers and a cycle-to-work scheme.
White and Case also ensures the benefits meet corporate objectives. As a responsible employer, it wanted to ensure all its employees save for their retirement.
Increased pension take-up
Before introducing flex, take-up of the GPP, which matches employee contributions up to 5%, was just 15%. This has increased steadily and now stands at 76%.
Replacing the old core benefits, such as gym membership which was provided for all employees, with more flexible options has also brought significant cost savings. By removing the gym benefit alone, White and Case has saved more than £200,000 since the flex scheme began, and more than one-third of staff have opted not to take up PMI, leading to further sizeable savings.
Since introducing flex, White and Case has also seen a reduction in unintended turnover, from 20% to 12%, to the end of last year. Coulson says the key to the scheme’s success is continuously reviewing and improving the perks on offer. Seven new benefits have been added in the last two years alone.
In 2008, a carbon offsetting scheme was added, allowing staff to offset their carbon emissions by planting trees through the Woodland Trust, plus skin cancer screening and a new employee discounts website. “Cancer screening has been very popular,” says Coulson. “A lot of our staff are antipodeans who are very clued up on skin cancer. The carbon offsetting scheme may not be overly popular, but some people have taken it up and that is what counts.”
In 2007, a learning account, which works in the same way as the wellness account, was added, along with the cycle-to-work scheme, pension consultations, and health and wellbeing checks.
No further perks have been added this year, but to improve employees’ spending power, the firm has introduced a voluntary benefits scheme enabling them to save money on a wide range of products and services. “If our employees feel they have the benefits in place to assist them, then they feel more positive about working,” says Coulson.
Winning awards is one thing, but winning over an entire workforce is another – and White and Case has mastered both. “Almost everyone here has made some change to their scheme,” says Coulson. “We have only one person who has not, so we are as close to 100% as you can get.”
Kate Coulson, senior HR manager, White and Case:
Senior HR manager Kate Coulson is responsible for management information and reward at White and Case.
After a successful career in the Ministry of Defence, as a member of the services and then as a civil servant where she focused on staff issues such as recruitment, training and development, Coulson moved into the commercial sector to White and Case. She joined the international law firm in March 2000 in a generalist HR role. As the firm has grown, Coulson has stepped into a specialist role, helping to ensure it remains competitive in compensation, benefits and wellness in order to attract, retain and recruit staff in the very competitive legal industry.
“I have enjoyed watching the flex scheme grow and the positive effect it has had on employees,” she says. “I think flex is a wonderful tool that has allowed every employee to tailor their benefits.”
Finance lawyer Ben Rayner has worked at White and Case for more than four years and has seen a big improvement since flexible benefits arrived.
He rates private healthcare as his most valued perk, which he pays for through flex. “If you are having a child, there is private health cover for pregnancy, irrespective of whether there is a problem, and it covered my wife’s hospital stay,” he says. “It costs a bit extra, but it is subsidised heavily by the firm.”
Rayner says the plan is constantly improving. “It is very comprehensive. There is far more visibility now. I just have to tick boxes and it tells you how much everything costs.
Since I joined, the firm has added some fringe benefits and made it easy to understand them through a very good website.”
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