Are home computing schemes the best deal?

Home computing schemes continue to be very popular, but the market is not saturated yet. NHS trusts are now getting involved after public sector organisations initially had mixed results with legislative issues, says Peter White

Case Studies – Chrysalis, Siemens

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If Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde were an employee benefit they’d be the flip sides of a home computing scheme; on the one hand enjoying the glitz and glamour of government endorsements and glowing Royal Mail-type case studies, before imploding amid a mire of unfathomable regulations and undelivered IT. But has the home computing market reached saturation point? If not, how long has it got left before organisations relegate it to the same drawer as the season ticket travel loan?

According to Vivien Quinn, director of the HCI Alliance, there are 475 organisations with recognised home computing schemes in the UK, which cover over four million employees. Train firm GNER showed that the benefit was still worth having when, as a result of staff take-up, it donated numerous computers to charity.

And Quinn believes there is plenty more to come: "There’s a huge amount of momentum in the market, to the extent that there’s still a lot of companies that haven’t done it. Companies buy [into such schemes] in their own time and it can be a reasonably complex thing to get your mind around." Not complex enough to put off public sector and NHS organisations, it seems, despite initial concerns. "The public sector was previously not included in the original legislation and I think there was confusion.

But now they’ve seen they are eligible and they can participate – particularly on the NHS trust side – there’s huge numbers of those starting to do it," explains Quinn. And NHS trusts are certainly getting involved; from the first NHS home computing scheme in East Elmbridge and Mid Surrey Primary Care Trust to recent launches such as that at the North East London Strategic Health Authority and BMI Healthcare.

Ben Debnath, head of HR policy and processes at Siemens, which is in its fourth year of running the benefit (see box), says it is encouraging that so many NHS trusts are introducing the scheme, especially as it is more difficult for them to offer perks. "The NHS has to be whiter than white. They couldn’t leverage purchasing power with suppliers to get discounts. That is why the government’s initiative is critical to help all employers." Public sector organisations, however, have experienced mixed results so far.

While many have seen successful set ups, others including Newham Council and Kent County Council have battled with rules and regulations such as the Consumer Credit Act and European Union tendering legislation. This just goes to show what can go wrong when offering a home computing plan. Mark Eaton, director at benefits provider Personal Group, says the benefit will reach a saturation point, although currently they are being included in the vast majority of reward packages.

He adds that potential problems range from technical support to delivery. Building firm Centex found this out the hard way. The company, which builds residential housing, wanted staff to get their PCs before Christmas but the machines didn’t arrive in time. While it has been well documented that organisations the size of Royal Mail, Nationwide and Siemens have successfully introduced home computing plans, it has been more difficult for smaller and medium-sized employers to exert such influence to drive a good bargain.

A survey by the British Chamber of Commerce shows that while 70% of members – or over three million businesses – had heard of home computing schemes, only 2% had implemented one. It has put this low take-up down to the fact that the benefit can seem quite complex and time consuming, and smaller organisations do not have the HR and finance teams available to concentrate on setting it up. But the HCI Alliance’s Quinn says: "Very often it’s the larger companies that take a longer time because they have more organisational hierarchy to go through."

While the home PC scheme enjoys the tax status only afforded to a small number of workplace perks, a workplace perk it still is. And despite top employers across the country clamouring to add it to their packages, many organisations don’t flinch at talk of benefits and could do with further encouragement. Personal Group’s Eaton suggests that employers with large blue collar workforces could benefit more than those with an army of desk-based workers. "[White collar workers] have got computers already and the fact is that they can walk into a supplier and spend £1,000 on a computer whereas a truck driver, warehouse person or retail worker might not be able to." Once you have highlighted who wants or needs a computer, it is essential to encourage them that they are getting a good deal. But is this necessarily the case?

Andy Ingham, business development manager of provider PC World Business, says that they offer vouchers to purchase a computer in a branch of PC World. "[Staff] can compare the models and prices available. They can also take advantage of any sales taking place in store at the time." And staff were never meant to be getting the cheapest computers, according to the HCI Alliance’s Quinn. "One thing we all don’t do is compare apples with apples.

You undoubtedly could find anything cheaper, but what we encourage [employers] to do is to say ‘don’t forget you are getting three years warranty, three years technical support and help with the finance side of things’. What this isn’t ever intended to be is the absolute [cheapest] deal." So despite horror tales such as tax traumas and public sector woes, the perk is still being introduced at an alarming rate

Case study: Chrysalis

Despite employees claiming significant interest in buying discounted computers, when Chrysalis launched a home computing scheme it found take-up lower than expected. The media firm launched the plan as part of its newly developed flexible benefits package. Before it set up the scheme, it surveyed employees to find out their thoughts and more than a quarter expressed an interest.

But Craig Warden, HR director at Chrysalis, says: "The system went live in January and it turned out that we had a disappointing uptake. I think in the end, only 9% took advantage of the HCI scheme." Following this, the media firm has launched an investigation, with its home computing provider Bytes Technology, to see what went wrong and how it can improve it next time.

Case study: Siemens

Home computing schemes are traditionally run over a period of three years. But what does an organisation do once that three years is up, and how does it then keep the benefit alive?Those were the questions faced by Siemens when the first group of employees to take up a discounted PC finished the scheme late last year.

Ben Debnath, head of HR policy and processes at Siemens, says: "Under the terms of the scheme, there’s no right of the employee to purchase the computer and that was one of the most difficult things to communicate. We have to sell it to them at a fair market value that comes out of their net pay. [That fee] was £60. It just so happened that if you wished to return the machine you had to pay an administration fee of £60 and interestingly, we have had no one from the first year’s scheme that decided they wanted to return the machine rather than take ownership. It is encouraging that we don’t employ any idiots that want to do that."

Siemens allowed all staff that signed up to the scheme three years ago to enter again this year. But they kept an eye on these employees, restricting them to machines and not peripherals. "People may want a new computer but they may already have a printer." Calculating take-up is also more challenging now as some employees may have two computers, but Debnath adds it’s encouraging that 11,801 computers were provided to its workforce of around 20,000.