How can employers build a culture that provides the experience employees want?

Need to know:

  • The pandemic has pushed health and wellbeing, home working support and greater flexibility up employees’ benefits wish lists.
  • Benefits can bring an organisation’s values to life by demonstrating that they are more than a tick-box exercise.
  • Communicating benefits and how they feed into an organisation’s culture will drive take-up and emphasis the values that create the employee experience.

From the onsite canteen and gym facilities to the coffee machine in the office, the employee experience is hugely influenced by the environment and the range of benefits on offer. But, with the Covid-19 pandemic shutting down some of these facilities and forcing much of the workforce to switch to home working, employers are being forced to rethink the way they present their culture.

Jack Curzon, consulting director at Mercer Marsh Benefits, says: “The pandemic has completely changed the landscape. With demand for benefits shifting, employers have an opportunity to really think about their values and how these are communicated to employees.”

Switching benefits

The shift to remote working has rendered plenty of benefits redundant. As well as the obvious onsite casualties such as the canteen, creche and free-fruit Fridays, old favourites like the annual season ticket loan and bikes-for-work schemes have also lost their appeal.

Other benefits have had to reinvent themselves. This was the case for private medical insurance, with insurers boosting the range of virtual healthcare services when the private hospital sector passed its facilities to the NHS to help fight Covid-19.

Innovation was also in evidence among employers as they sought to replace onsite benefits, with online exercise programmes, food boxes and vouchers growing in popularity. Some were even more imaginative, says Charles Cotton, senior policy adviser, performance and reward at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD): “The CIPD has a canteen in its office so, to make up for this not being available, it offered everyone online cookery classes instead. It was good fun.”

Changing desires

The pandemic also heightened employees’ desire for certain benefits. “Employees were much more aware of their health and the importance of looking after it,” says Cotton. “This led to revamped health and wellbeing packages but also more focus on areas such as financial wellbeing, improved occupational sick pay and bereavement support.”

Working from home also created new demands. Ensuring that employees had the right equipment to work safely and effectively saw employers providing everything from desks and technology to online ergonomic assessments.

Some went further, supplying cameras, microphones and lighting to help with video calls. “Dress rules are much more relaxed now but attending a Zoom meeting where the laptop camera chops off the top of someone’s head has become the home working equivalent of turning up with dirty shoes,” explains Curzon.

The other key lockdown learning was the value of the work-life balance. Being able to spend time at home with the family or swap the daily commute for an hour’s run has shown employees the value of greater flexibility.

Benefits and culture

Given the scale of the shift in the benefits that people value, it is an ideal time for organisations to examine how what they offer feeds into the employee experience. Debra Clark, head of specialist at Towergate Health and Protection, says: “Benefits can help shape an organisation’s culture. They’re much more tangible than a list of values. By highlighting what the organisation stands for through the benefits, it demonstrates that their values are more than a tick-box exercise.”

As an example, a firm that lists innovative among its values would be unlikely to convince employees of this if it had rigid working hours, a traditional benefits package and a beige office. “An [employer] that tells staff it supports Black Lives Matter will fall flat on its face if it doesn’t follow this through in the way it treats employees,” says Cotton. “Fail to live by the stated values and it just turns into PR puff, which employees see through very quickly.”

It is also important to consider exactly which benefits feed into the employee experience. Although there are some obvious ones, for instance health and wellbeing benefits to demonstrate the organisation wants to look after employees, and generous pay and pension benefits to show that financial reward is important, it is important to use the benefits word loosely, says Curzon. “It’s everything that makes a difference to an employee’s life,” he explains. “This will be the traditional benefits package but it can also be things like flexible working and support for remote working.”

Supporting the mental wellbeing of employees has become a key focal point for employers during the pandemic; continuing this support will further strengthen the employee-employer relationship and provide a valued employment experience, says Nick Burns, chief executive officer (CEO) of Gallagher Benefits Services. “I think employers need to use this as an opportunity to step back and look much more strategically at their broader wellbeing initiatives,” he says. “But importantly, how those wellbeing initiatives align to the bigger benefits and wider corporate strategy. This is a much bigger question now around the agenda that an employer wants to set for its people, and how that people agenda aligns to the broader brand and strategic agenda of that employer. It never has it been more the case, over the next six to 12 months, where we need to see an alignment between those.”

Building a strong experience

While there will always be variations between firms, there are some key features that most employees want to be part of their employer’s culture, says Diana Barea, managing director in Accenture’s talent and organisation practice. “We were hoping for something more shocking but all of the research we’ve conducted over lockdown, across different geographies and industries, has shown that employees want to work for [organisations] that are agile, growth-oriented, purposeful and inclusive,” she explains. “These values can all be presented through the benefits an organisation offers.”

To illustrate this, where a firm offers a set of benefits that are transparent and easily understood by everyone, this can support inclusivity. “Where employees don’t understand what they’ve got, benefits become meaningless,” she adds. “It also means the organisation has missed an opportunity to demonstrate its values and create a compelling culture.”

Communication programme

Communication plays a key part in this exercise. As an example, Andrew Drake, client development director at Buck, points to health cash plans. “Many organisations provide one of these but many employees never use it as they don’t understand how it can make their life better,” he explains. “If an employer highlights how a health cash plan can make an employee’s life better, they’ll use it and value the organisation more as a result.”

Remote working makes communication increasingly important but also brings challenges. Without employees mingling, the word-of-mouth recommendations that help to create a buzz around a benefit are much less likely.

To replace this chit chat, employers should focus on creating a benefits brand so everything is instantly recognisable; keeping communications bite-size and regular; and using different channels to reach as many employees as possible, says Clark. “Social platforms such as Yammer and Workplace are a great way for employees to share an experience but organisations should also consider other channels such as apps, webinars and emails,” she adds.

Time for change

With a vaccine programme underway and some sort of normality set to return in 2021, a further change in working conditions is on the cards for many organisations. However, this state of flux could well become the new normal, says Curzon. “It’s unlikely that work will return to the way it was before Covid-19, or the way we are now,” he says. “Organisations need to be ready to react to change: a flexible reward proposition will be essential.”

As well as meeting employees’ changing needs, the other advantage of adapting an organisation’s culture now is that there is more room for experimentation. “Covid-19 has given employers an opportunity to experiment,” says Barea. “They can make changes, get feedback from employees, adapt and scale. If something doesn’t work and needs to be changed, they can blame the virus. This is much safer psychologically and will lead to innovation and growth in this space.”

Looking ahead to how employers can provide a valuable employee experience post-pandemic, this will be a big cultural challenge based on the employer-employee relationship, says Burns. “I think what we’ll see is simply an acceleration of what was due to come anyway which is a much greater degree of flexibility and trust. [Employers] can’t give flexibility to [their] workplace, unless [they] trust the people in [their] workplace. But [employers] must be clear what to expect from its people, and then we’ll see how giving flexibility and trust will, in my view, drive productivity. It will create a much deeper sense of belonging between an employee and an employer, and an environment where people will start to feel different about work.”