Big city benefits versus rural reward: How location impacts benefits strategy

Need to know: 

  • While there are universal hygiene factors, the employee experience can vary significantly in different locations.
  • Taking into account commuting times, wellbeing stressors, pay levels and lifestyles, employers can create a truly engaging benefits strategy.
  • Some perks are universally popular, but need to be tailored to local needs, or communicated differently, to ensure they are fully effective.
  • Rather than making assumptions, canvassing the opinions of employees is the best way to ensure that variations in their needs are dealt with.

Although there are many universal wants and needs across all types of employees, it is difficult to deny that individuals can face different stressors depending on location.

For example, using data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the Trades Union Congress reported in November 2018 that the average commute for those working in London in 2017 was 80.8 minutes. This is considerably higher than the UK average of 58.4.

Add to this higher living costs, increased competition and demanding working expectations, and it seems that urban employees may need additional support when it comes to work-life balance. However, those in rural settings should not be forgotten, as they are likely to have their own challenges around elements such as pay, accessibility and progression.

If employees based in different locations have incredibly varied experiences, why should one approach to benefits be enough?

Universal experiences

It is important to first establish that employees in dissimilar regions will still share many of the same experiences, particularly as the world becomes ever more inter-connected.

Julie Coxhill, product director, employee benefits, at Hawk Incentives, says: “People like things that are online. When looking at a product mix, [employers should] make sure not only that there’s a physical presence, but an online presence as well. [Therefore,] whether they are urban or rural, they have that accessibility.”

There are also some general hygiene factors, says Matthew Reed, founder and managing director at Equipsme: “Everybody wants health and wellbeing benefits of some sort. That seems to fit into the top section of requirements, which is peace of mind, which means pensions, health and wellbeing, these sorts of things. There are some really common themes coming out from every single type of business, no matter where they are, about what their staff want.”

It is also true that people cannot be wholly defined by demographics like location. Even if an organisation has only city-based employees and builds a benefits package accordingly, flexibility and choice are important factors to allow staff to cater to their own needs.

Competitive markets

People tend to be drawn to larger cities for higher earnings and stronger career progression. As a result, employers will likely struggle with higher turnover, and thus need to create impressive reward strategies, says Ian Bird, business development director at Secondsight.

“For city people, expectations will be far greater,” he explains. “They’ll be expecting life cover, private medical insurance. The types of benefits would be more structured, and quite often they’ll sit on a flexible benefits platform, so people can have a selection.”

As many of the professions typically associated with the city, such as law and financial services, tend to deal with large sums and substantial contracts, remuneration is expected to be higher, while benefits budgets are generally more robust.

Stress, presenteeism and mental ill-health are also concerns that should be taken into account when considering the wellbeing of those in busy, expensive and competitive environments.

“Even though [city-based employees are] on higher salaries, you might find the quality of life actually isn’t any better than somebody living in a rural location without the costs of city life and commuting,” says Bird.

In rural areas, he adds, employees might take a lower salary due to the decreased commuting time and stress levels, which presents other financial concerns. They are also less likely to be presented with flexible and agile working opportunities.

Localised approaches

Although they have a wide appeal, some perks, such as discounts and gift cards will only work across different geographies if the employer takes relevance and accessibility into consideration.

Recognition is universal, everybody likes to be mentioned,” says Reed. “But are cinema tickets, when [employees] live 20 miles from the nearest cinema, actually what [they] want? People want to be healthy, but unless the gym is literally next door, they don’t really use it. The perks need to be accessible.”

If offering employees the opportunity to go for a meal or experience, for example, it is best to choose brands that are ubiquitous, or to allow for vouchers to be easily exchanged, says Chris Smith, marketing director at Virgin Incentives.

Coxhill agrees: “[For rural employees,] people still like retail discounts and everything else, but [employers need to] look for things that are specific to them, to their high street.”

Lifestyle differences

Variations in habits and lifestyle are things to consider when it comes to benefits that might seem helpful, such as aiding employees with their weekly shop or subsidising their travel; urban staff are more likely to buy food on an ad hoc basis, for example, while rural employees might prefer money towards petrol over subsidised public transport.

“With a little bit of insight, employers could really tailor recognition and reward to the type of business they are, and where they are,” explains Reed. “It doesn’t have to be extraordinary, [just] something that genuinely makes a difference.”

In turn, there might be some benefits that are more applicable given the cultural and ethnic mix that is often prevalent in cities. If numerous employees have families across the world, for example, they may need a different approach to financial support. This might take the form of benefits around money transfers, says Peter Meyler, head of workplace consultancy at Barnett Waddingham.

Working cultures

It is not only employees’ lives outside of the workplace that are likely to be affected by location. In fact, organisations with geographically diverse workforces may see different working dynamics in each place.

Chris Dyer, chief executive officer at risk management solutions business PeopleG2 and author of The Power of Company Culture, says: “It’s about anthropological culture; how people in a group operate in one city or area might be different. Organisations that are doing a good job of [dealing with this] have clearly defined their values, mission statements, purpose, and have made that very obvious.”

However, it is not always possible to take the same approach across the board. Indeed, expectations might need to vary from one location to another in certain circumstances, such as extreme weather differences.

“I have employees that are currently in temperatures that are colder than Antarctica, and so I don’t expect quite as much from them in the next few days as I normally would,” explains Dyer. “It’s just a matter of remembering that and being sympathetic.”

An organisation’s united front comes into play when making decisions about whether to treat employees differently, and in ensuring that while their treatment may not be equal, it remains fair.

“There have to be conversations between senior leaders,” he says. “If they’re paying for the gas for a third of the employees but not the rest, because it’s more expensive in one part of the country, they have to reconcile that at the senior leader level.”

Adaptable communications

Providing for employees in different geographies does not necessarily mean having separate benefits. Instead, it can be as simple as changing the slogan used to advertise a bikes-for-work scheme.

“It’s all the same products, but the message is different,” Coxhill explains. “[Rurally,] you might have a poster about getting ready for your winter commute, getting all your accessories. But for somebody in the city, we would highlight the fold-up bike.”

Benefits technology can also help, providing a wide range of options and catering to as many employees as possible, while simultaneously allowing for a tailored, individual view on the front end.

Avoiding assumptions

Although wants, needs and lifestyles might vary according to location, employers should be wary of making choices that are based on assumption. For example, only providing city-based employees with experience-based perks close to home might turn out to be short-sighted.

“What we are seeing is that millennials in particular who work in the city do want to go out to the countryside or the seaside, and people out in the country want to come to the cities,” says Smith. “[Make it easy to] tailor by the individual, rather than having the [employer] decide.”

Rather than relying on templates, organisations should empower and communicate with their workforces, making sure to canvass the opinions of a diverse range of sources.

“A lot of organisations tend to know much more about their customers than those working in their business,” says Meyler. “They are designing benefits based on knowing people as employees, but without understanding the types of lives that people have outside of work. The one-size-fits-all approach has become outdated.”