Aster balances cost with value to create wide-reaching benefits package

Among the 1,300 members of staff employed by housing association Aster, jobs span from typical head office functions, through to 400 remote trade roles. This diverse workforce has widely varied needs, from the benefits on offer to communications, engagement and awareness.

Variety, choice and flexibility are, therefore, key. Holly Coe, head of reward and people operations at Aster, says: “We really want to get to a level of personalisation, because we want people to have a variety. We’d rather have lots of different options than people missing out.”

But these can all be expensive concepts, and while Aster is not looking to pinch pennies, value for money is paramount.

In September 2019, Aster shifted from a somewhat cheaper and more basic, albeit perfectly functional, discount platform, to a top-tier package from reward platform provider Perkbox. This provides access to various deals, perks and discounts, including free coffees, discount cinema tickets, shopping vouchers, birthday hampers and online fitness resources.

The decision to switch meant weighing value and cost. At its most basic manifestation, and because Aster has more than 500 employees, the cost per person of the scheme is less than the value of the free coffee received per person each week. Since its launch, Aster’s platform has seen 21,000 redemptions.

“Initially, we wondered if it would be worthwhile, but the figures and the engagement [levels] have spoken for themselves,” says Coe. “Even if it’s going to cost [us] that bit more, if [we’re] going to get the engagement that we have, the motivation that we have, then [we] know that for the cost, [we’re] getting that back tenfold. It’s definitely worth it.”

Aster also offers staff a variety of other initiatives. These include volunteering days and charity matching, an employee assistance programme (EAP), a health cash plan with a virtual GP, holiday buy and sell, and tax-efficient benefits offered via salary sacrifice, including pension contributions, a bikes-for-work scheme and childcare vouchers for those still eligible.

While elements such as the EAP and salary sacrifice options are low cost to the employer, the two representing the best value for money are the discount platform and the health cash plan, which are among the more expensive.

“Take up is really high, so we know that people are really benefiting from it,” says Coe. “People are getting value for money out of [the discount platform]. We’ve had such good feedback, it’s something people really value when they join, and when they leave they ask other [employers] if they’ve got it. Something like this is [about] the day-to-day, everybody gets coffee or goes shopping, so if you can feel that you’re getting a bit of a freebie, then it’s going to be beneficial.”

At Aster, creating the most cost-effective benefits package has relied on understanding the workforce. Not only does this mean discovering what perks will be most effective, but avoiding high spend on products that staff are unlikely to find value in.

“[Some benefits] cost quite a lot of money, but a lot of people wouldn’t choose to have them,” Coe explains. “Firstly, [employers] need to talk to [their] workforce. We sat down with people and asked what was important to them. Get their feedback, get their engagement, and then when [employers] bring these things in [they] can tie that back so [employees] know they’ve been involved.”