April 11, 2013 2:21 am

Employers: Benefits of a job go beyond pay packets

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How organisations get the message across to employees about the positive side of work

Explaining how a company’s pension scheme works is never going to be an easy task. Dry, technical and, for younger employees, a distant prospect, pensions rank among the least engaging of topics.

Other equally valuable benefits, such as a medical plan or life assurance provision, can also be a difficult “sell”.

Yet companies spend vast sums on a wide range of employee benefits and, while they might not be the deciding factor in persuading someone to join a company, they can form part of the mix that makes a desirable new “hire” join one business rather than the opposition.

“Employers spend millions of pounds providing employee benefits,” says Tessa Wishart, senior communications consultant at Towers Watson, benefits consultants. “If they put more thought into communicating with staff, they would be more likely to get payback for the money invested.”

One company that had traditionally adopted a staid, paternalistic approach to benefits revamped its communications strategy to make it more accessible and incorporate feedback from employees. Previously, only 2 per cent of workers had responded to the company’s messages; the new approach prompted a 40 per cent response rate.

“People said that this was the first time they had really understood their benefits,” explains Ms Wishart. “People struggle to understand pensions and when the penny finally drops about how much they will receive on retirement it can come as a shock. If they understand where they are, they can do something about it.”

As company and taxpayer-funded pensions around the world come under increasing pressure, the challenge of choosing a pension plan that delivers a decent standard of living is increasingly shifting towards the individual employee. The move in the UK from defined benefit to defined contribution company pensions makes it essential for employees to understand and monitor their scheme.

For companies with cross-border operations, benefits arrangements must reflect local legislation and practices while fitting into the overall corporate philosophy. “The overarching message of companies that we have worked with is about risk and managing uncertainty,” says Tamasine Fryer, principal at Mercer, the benefits consultancy.

The common feature of effective communication strategies is that they attempt to engage staff instead of simply providing them with information. Ms Wishart offers the example of a client: “Presentations used to have a very corporate look and feel. It was death by PowerPoint. In no way were they seen as engaging or fun. We brought in a very open, cleaner, more straightforward approach.”

The answer, she says, is to make communicating a benefits programme much more of a two-way process. “It used to be about pushing out information and not about encouraging a response or providing an opportunity for feedback. It should be about employees joining the conversation.”

An increasingly popular way of ensuring employee engagement is “gaming” – incorporating important information in a playful context that conveys a message painlessly. To overcome the problem of people sitting at the back of presentations, fiddling with their BlackBerrys, participants at one company were provided with handsets and set a series of questions, for example.

“We didn’t talk about life expectation,” says Ms Fryer. “We asked people to guess the life expectancy of a labourer in Bethnal Green in the 1830s – 16 years – and compare that with a member of the landed gentry – 36 years. There were gasps from participants. Then we asked them what life expectancy was now. They could see what answers their colleagues were giving so they did not feel silly not knowing.

“That is the same approach as that adopted by a good educator in school. You make it compelling, interesting and memorable. As people’s attention plan shortens it is increasingly important to enable people to share information and experiences.”

A danger of involving everyone in the conversation is that forceful individuals can have a disproportionate impact on their colleagues. One company discovered that an unusually large number of its pension scheme members were invested in particular funds. On investigation, it found one member of staff had persuaded many of his colleagues that this was a sound investment, so they had all followed.

As well as engaging staff, benefits messages must be kept up to date as legislation changes, employees lives move on and new employees join. “You have to repeat your messages if you want to maintain interest and get people to take action,” says Ms Fryer. “You have to develop your programme and respond to feedback.”

Dimension Data, an IT services company, updates its UK hosted website, called Valued, each year in response to changing conditions and to benchmarking exercises carried out against other companies in its field. Regular employee surveys are carried out and recently led to changes to maternity benefits for staff. “It is a continuous communication,” says Jane Wood, HR director for Europe.

Communicating benefits provision can be a tricky part of a company’s relationship with employees but benefits rarely stand alone. They usually form part of the wider dialogue between management and staff that is vital to maintaining morale and communicating a sense of direction.

Virgin America, an airline serving destinations throughout North America, reconfigured its method of communicating with its 2,700 staff at more than 20 locations.

“We had had an intranet platform for several years but we knew we had to revamp the way we communicated,” says Ben Eye, manager of teammate engagement and communication. “We had to deal with the 90 per cent of teammates [staff] who are remote, so we designed it to foster a sense of involvement.”

The company’s previous platform contained a lot of information but lacked two-way communications so did not make it easy to obtain feedback. It was not mobile-friendly and was proving difficult to maintain.

Working with Appirio, an IT services provider, Virgin America customised the Salesforce “Chatter” platform to allow a merging of social media with business processes. Part of what Virgin America calls its VX Connect platform is devoted to HR topics, including an explanation of the company’s benefits package. It also includes customised forms that allow staff to enrol in a pension plan and apply for medical leave.

Queries can be submitted to members of the benefits team online. “Because the entire department is monitoring what comes in they get an answer more quickly,” explains Mr Eye. “But this is broader than just benefits: it stimulates the level of engagement. We have a very open environment and we see that as our differentiator in the airline industry.”

Ms Wishart says: “Technology allows you to be more effective and targeted in your approach. Communication can be effective without having to go too far in terms of cost.”

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