Guest opinion – Flex delivers choice, fairness and clarity

Flexible benefits takes a sustained effort but it can help improve the wellbeing of an organisation, and also has a role to play in fusing benefits packages following a merger

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The role of government body Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) is to raise standards of education and training for young people and adults by inspecting and reporting on the learning provision they receive. Because we make judgements about the provision in the organisations we inspect, the Department for Education and Skills stipulated when the ALI was formed, that we must become an “exemplary employer”.

Since its formation in 2001, the ALI has earned 11 awards and achievements. For an organisation with just 250 employees that’s no mean feat. But, to us, it’s an important indicator to measure our own successes by and to understand if we’re doing the right thing to support our staff and our vision.

And that’s the crux of it all, really. To achieve world-class status, we need motivated and skilled employees. A strong flexible benefits programme supports this fully. But it also provides an efficient route to harmonise many different employee benefits, as was the case when the ALI was created by merging two separate organisations.

For us, flex gave our employees choices but also provided essential clarity and fairness. The downside of the system, though, was the administrative burden. We implemented flex when IT solutions were really only available to very large organisations, so we moved ahead with a paper-based flex programme. This was a great result for our employees, but the sheer amount of time it took to manage the associated paperwork hindered our HR team and noticeably decreased our ability to work on higher-value projects.

We’ve found flex a valuable tool to help our organisation, but it’s important to move it ahead, and keep it live, fresh and easily-attainable to staff.

So in 2004, we forged ahead again, aiming to save money and time by implementing an online system. By working with 4th Contact as our technology provider and managers of the website, and Benefex (our IFA consultancy), we were able to decrease the enormous amount of internal time spent on benefits management and administration. Now, our financial advisers manage the enrolment process and benefits procurement, and advise employees about their benefits choices.

By moving online, we were able to show our staff that we invest in their wellbeing, whether they work at our national administration centre or are one of the 150 employees who work from home. Although most make their annual flexible benefits choices online, we know some spend a great deal of time away from their PCs. To help them, they can register choices by phone as it’s the little things that can make a big difference.

In the past, we produced a total reward statement just once a year. Now it’s available to our employees whenever they want to see it. When moving the scheme online, we also took advice from our financial advisers to increase the range of benefits on offer. Employees automatically receive nine core benefits. On top of that they can choose from eight flexible benefits, plus another two voluntary benefits. The stacks of paper generated by a paper-based scheme have disappeared.

So are we fulfiling our ambitions? In the 2003-2004 performance assessments, 27.7% of staff were rated as ‘outstanding’ or ‘exceeding expectations’. This improved last year to 30.8%. The ALI’s sickness and absence rates are also consistently below public and private sector averages as benchmarked by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. And health screening has enabled both the early diagnosis of serious illness in ALI employees and early successful treatment. This has helped staff to recuperate quickly and return to work.

Simply put, flex success does take a sustained effort, but it’s well worth it for your employees and the organisation.