How can employers ensure engagement is integral to a benefits strategy?

benefits strategy

Need to know:

  • It can be all too easy to put employee benefits in place and then think about how to engage people with them. Instead, corporate vision and an engagement strategy should provide a framework for the employee benefits on offer.
  • Weaving employee engagement through an organisation’s reward and benefits strategy starts with a vision. Creating an ongoing dialogue between employees and employer is also critical to engagement levels.
  • Ensuring that benefits appeal to a wide range of demographics is also critical when it comes to putting together a successful strategy.

Are employers struggling to think about the bigger picture when they build benefits packages? Some engagement experts believe so.

Jerry Edmondson, strategic communications and engagement proposition leader at Aon Employee Benefits, says: “The tendency has always been to put benefits in place and then think about how to engage people with them. If [employers] do that, [they] are looking at things through the wrong end of the telescope.”

Rory Murphy, chair of the Merchant Navy Officers’ Pension Scheme and former trade union general secretary, adds: “[Employers] don’t need a good benefits package to get employee engagement. And if [they] are only getting engagement because [they] have a good benefits package then [they] are building the package on sand. The package is important, but engagement must follow on from employees feeling valued in what they do.”

Engagement with meaning
So how can employers weave employee engagement through their entire reward and benefits strategy? It starts with having a very clear vision and involving employees with the direction of the business, explains Edmondson.

“The best time to talk about employee benefits strategy comes immediately after [employers] set [their] business strategy,” he says. “It is about connecting people with the direction the business is taking and inspiring employees to want to give their best to the business, which includes a multitude of things, only some of which fall into the benefits definition.”

Engagement is not just about benefits. Meaningful and empathetic communications with employees is just as vital. “It’s all very well saying, ‘We’ve got interest-free loans or bicycles or a creche;’ that’s great if [employees] cycle to work or have children, says Murphy. “But [employers] have to work with [their] workforce to help retain them. Employee engagement comes because people feel personally valued, it’s not because [their employer] pays them £25,000 a year. It’s easy to do it in SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises], harder to do it in a bigger business.”

Honest communications are essential to making staff feel truly valued. Yves Duhaldeborde, a director at Willis Towers Watson, explains: “Looking at the high-performance organisations we work with that are doing well on engagement, one of the things they do really effectively is not necessarily giving better pay or benefits, but coming across as being very fair and explaining what employees are getting in return for their good work. It is saying, ‘I understand you as a person, we value you as a person, and we want you to feel fairly treated so that you can give your best here.’”

Business leaders should try to connect with people, adds Duhaldeborde. For instance, they could empathise with London-based employees about the high cost of living. “If leaders don’t reach out, they are not connecting with people and treating them like numbers,” he explains. “Whereas if [they] say, ‘This is what we are doing, and this is the logic,’ it tells a story and conveys the fact that [they] care.”

Once it has been fostered, this philosophy can then extend into the benefits sphere. “When [employers] start engaging people on their benefits, it is part of engaging them full stop,” says Duhaldeborde. “[They] engage them on how to have more effective performance reviews, how to do the job better, using suppliers as partners, and so on. [They] make the workplace more exciting and democratic.”

How to align benefits and engagement
James Malia, director of employee benefits at Sodexo Engage, adds: “So many [organisations] have a poster on the wall in reception with their top 10 missions. It needs to be something that fits [the] business.”

Once an organisation has defined its goals, employees need to understand how these link to their work. “It should be brought to life on a regular basis, either through incentives, reward, or benefits,” explains Malia. “If health and wellbeing is a key part of what [the employer is] trying to drive, then [its] benefits should be geared towards that.”

Employers should also ensure they are offering a range of benefits that are relevant to their workforce, and different demographics and generations within that workforce, says Malia.

The success of this approach is apparent in Quantum Advisory’s experience. The employee benefits consultancy launched QChoice, a flexible benefits package for SMEs, in January 2018. Pauline Iles, principal risk and benefits consultant at Quantum Advisory, says: “We find that people who are older engage with protection benefits and younger people are more interested in dental cover and gym membership.

“[Employers] have to appeal to both demographics and work at it. If [they] have a range of benefits, people may pick up on one or two but not the other constituent elements. Where engagement is successful, it’s because it’s a work in progress.”

Employee share ownership schemes are another way employers can boost engagement.

Seeking feedback through staff engagement surveys and focus groups is also very important, says Malia. “If [employers] don’t ask for feedback from [their] staff, [they] run the risk of everything being [their] own opinion. Getting a broader perspective from different demographics is key so that [they] don’t make assumptions on their behalf.”

As Murphy adds: “What tends to happen is [employers] tend to not want to talk about things they think might promote a bad view or reaction. It’s much better to be honest and say, ‘Here are our thoughts on doing it this way, what do you think?’ The earlier [employers] consult, the more engagement [they] get. Staff feel [they] are taking them on a journey.”