How can organisations future-proof their benefits technology?


Need to know:

  • Technology can enable employees to engage with benefits when and how they want to.
  • Advances in technology could improve user experience in the employee benefits space, and provide a higher level of personalisation.
  • Benefits technology should have the agility to meet changing employee and employer needs, and take into account varying global requirements where applicable.

According to Ofcom’s Communications market report 2016, published in August 2016, 36% of UK internet users consider smartphones to be the most important device for going online, rising to 56% among both 16-24 and 25-34 year olds. In 2013, the number of internet users citing the smartphone as the most important device stood at just 15%, less than half the 2016 figure. The rate of change is significant, and sits within a wider landscape of continuing technological advancements that now, or will soon, form part of our daily lives.

Within the workplace, technology can be used to help engage staff with their employee benefits package, facilitate information sharing, streamline processes and improve ease of access. But considering the pace of technological change, how can organisations ensure that the benefits technology they use meets employee demand and business requirements both now and in the future?

Improved user experience

In light of the growth of mobile, it is no surprise that apps and mobile-responsive websites have become a more common element in benefit programmes, particularly where staff want to access benefits while on the go, such as e-vouchers and discounts available through voluntary benefits schemes. As mobile use intensifies, so too do considerations around the employee’s experience of accessing benefits through mobile devices. Adrian Ash, senior consultant at Willis Towers Watson, says: “We’re seeing now that it’s not enough to have a PC-based solution that can work on a smartphone in look and feel; you’ve actually got to start from a small screen and work back.”

The focus on user experience is echoed in the trend towards benefits hubs that enable employees to access a range of services and different aspects of their benefits packages from one place, seamlessly linking through to various provider platforms. Chris Bailey, partner at Mercer, says: “We encourage [employers] to really think about customer experience; do [they] want individuals to navigate endless microsites and save all the links and passwords, or do [they] want them to just have it all in one place?”

Meeting employee expectations

Many employees are now accustomed to the speed and simplicity offered by online retail sites and other consumer websites and apps, which can, in turn, influence their priorities and expectations around what they want workplace technology to deliver. Jeff Fox, head of strategic benefit consultancy at Aon Employee Benefits, says: “There’s a move to shopping-style purchasing of benefits; probably the most-cited one is the Amazon-type experience where you have a shopping cart. I think benefits technology needs to reflect how consumers who are employees purchase products generally.”

Other developments in consumer technology could also become more common features of benefits technology, such as replacing passwords with biometrics, whether that is using fingerprints or behavioural characteristics as identifying markers, says Fox. Perhaps further down the line, benefits technology will also incorporate smart personal assistants that respond to verbal commands, such as Apple’s Siri, he adds.

Greater personalisation

Employing techniques such as artificial intelligence could also lead to a higher level of personalisation. Bruce Moss, founder and strategy director at eValue, says: “I think we’re going to see a large amount of artificial intelligence; in other words, the employee portal will look a bit more like Google or Amazon, so depending on the profile of the employee it will serve up [information] that is relevant to them. It will be much more focused on providing a personal experience rather than delivering a standard offering to all employees irrespective of their age, family circumstances, wealth, income, and so on.”

A more holistic approach to data could also ensure that employees gain a better picture of their current health or financial situation, for example, enabling them to make more informed decisions about their benefits package. This might involve bringing together information about an employee’s pension savings with their current and former employers, so that they can see where they stand in relation to their retirement goals and adjust their contribution levels accordingly, explains Mercer’s Bailey.

On the health side, this could mean bringing together health information collected both online and offline via different service providers and products. Dr Chris Tomkins, chief operating officer, Proactive Health at Axa PPP Healthcare, says: “I think the power is not just how we do things digitally, it’s how we join everything up and make each individual experience efficient, engaging, and effective.”

On an aggregate level, the data captured through technology can also be used to provide organisations with insights so that they can develop strategies that meet the needs of their workforce demographic. “If [a product] can tell [an organisation] that 60% [of staff] are interested in eating well or want to quit smoking, that actually informs the HR communications strategy and the kind of programmes that [an organisation] is going to run,” says Bailey.

In the future, distributed ledger technology could also support a more data-driven, employee-centric approach. This could help individuals to keep track of their benefits across multiple employers, as well as products and services acquired on a personal basis, says eValue’s Moss. A distributed ledger is a shared, digital database, which has the potential to offer high levels of transparency and security by nature of its structure and shared-network system. The most well-known example of distributed ledger technology is the blockchain, which underpins the cryptocurrency bitcoin.

Increased choice and flexibility

Technology could also facilitate a change in the way in which benefit packages are structured and how benefit selection is conducted. “I think that five years from now we could expect almost all employers to be giving employees benefit allowances, [rather than] choosing from a fixed list,” says Bailey. “These allowances would then allow individuals to take benefits with them, so those benefits actually move with [the employee] as opposed to being tied to the employer [they] work for.”

Looking at a longer timeframe, online comparison sites could also be used to offer staff greater choice among benefit providers. “I think we will see more online exchanges with much more choice and transparency, where individuals can choose benefits by how well they suit their specific needs, not just the [provider] that an employer has an agreement with,” adds Bailey.

Remaining agile

If technology is to remain fit for the future, it should have the flexibility to adapt to business and employee needs over the long term. Employers should ensure that their use of benefits technology is in line with their internal technological requirements, and fits the overall strategic technological development within the organisation, says Jacqueline Benjamin, co-founder and director at Xexec. As well as compatibility, organisations may also want to consider whether the technology can scale up or down in line with business needs, and for multinational organisations, whether it can it be rolled out effectively across global locations.

Technology that supports global benefit programmes must also take into account local benefit requirements, such as differing benefit structures, languages and currencies, explains Willis Towers Watson’s Ash. “Beyond the technology, you need to have knowledge of the local market to capture that information; [it’s about] having the knowledge of what’s going on in those markets to be able to influence and inform the technology,” says Ash.

Frequent reviews, including feedback and suggestions from employees, can help organisations to continue to provide staff with access to technology that best meets their needs, says Aon’s Fox. “[We would suggest organisations] invest time in seeing what providers are doing; at least every three years go out to market and see what’s out there because in that three-year timeframe you can bet your bottom dollar that things would have moved on quite significantly,” he adds. “Once [an organisation] has chosen a provider, [it should] make sure the contract gives [them] access to regular updates with a frequent refresh cycle so that [they] are tapping into the latest developments that the product provider can give [them].”

Adding value

When it comes to using wellbeing technology in the workplace, organisations should be wary of fads and focus instead on what adds value and leads to good health outcomes, says Axa PPP Healthcare’s Tomkins. “In terms of [technology from the] consumer space, the question is where does it fit in a more joined-up workplace proposition,” he adds.

Ultimately, technology should improve employee engagement with benefits and align with an employers’ strategic aims as both they and the technology continue to advance.

benefits-techSage uses app to demonstrate the value of its benefits package

In March 2016, multinational business software organisation Sage introduced an interactive app in order to help senior executives understand the value of their benefits package, Sage Rewards.

The app, which was developed by Caburn Hope, is optimised for tablets and can also be viewed on desktop. It is available to around 100 members of the organisation’s senior management team globally.

In addition to showing users information about the contents and value of their total reward package, the app uses bespoke modelling tools to demonstrate the current and potential value of employees’ bonus awards and long-term incentive schemes, such as the organisation’s performance share plan. Staff can use sliders to see how certain performance conditions could affect the value of their awards, with the projections brought to life through visual aids, such as bar charts. The values are shown in the executive’s local currency.

The app enables users to see how they are modelling in relation to current forecasts, and sends out a call to action that aims to encourage employees to achieve their full potential and help them reach their targets. These messages are tailored according to where the employee models in relation to the forecast and maximum potential of the reward scheme.

A hybrid application was chosen for the project, which allows it to make use of native app functionality; for example, it can be downloaded from the app store straight onto employees’ tablets, and can also send out push notifications to users. Following the release of Sage’s half-year results, a push notification was used to share a message from the organisation’s chief financial officer, which highlighted how the business was performing and how employees could work together to continue to deliver a strong performance going forward. Such messages, alongside the inclusion of business metrics within the app, help to align senior executive performance and reward with the organisation’s wider strategic goals.

Lloyd Taylor, director of group reward at Sage, says: “We put a lot of thought into the app and we think it is something new; we don’t think any other product that’s out there that we are aware of internally or externally has this level of functionality and aligns executive line of sight between performance and reward in quite the same way. It’s something we’re really excited about and we think is working really well.”

The app has been designed to provide the agility required to support Sage’s senior executive reward programme over the long term, such as the flexibility to include various long-term incentive plans or easily adapt modelling metrics, for example. “We really wanted to future proof it,” says Taylor.

The organisation also hopes to optimise the app for smartphone use in the future.

The app’s branding uses the organisation’s core colour pallet and the Sage logo, but has been tweaked to provide the reward programme with its own look and feel. “We adapted the [organisation’s] brand guidelines to position [the app],” explains Taylor. “We wanted a specific identity for reward but not a separate brand.”

Together with Caburn Hope, Sage developed a communications campaign for the app that revolved around the message that staff could use Sage Rewards as a tool to see how they could achieve their potential. The image of a rocket ship launching into space was employed to depict this concept, alongside lyrics from David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’: “Commencing countdown, engines on.”

Both the app and communications campaign have been well received among the senior executives the scheme is targeted at, eliciting positive feedback.

david-dsouzaViewpoint: Advances in technology allow us to reimagine the structure of work

The leaps forward made by some key areas of technology allow us to reimagine the structure of how work might be in the near future. There is no doubt that we have opportunities to fundamentally reshape the way that we think about people, places and productivity in this brave new world. Whether it is supporting employees through proactive monitoring of their health or through allowing them to work more flexibly, we are on the verge of shifting from theoretically possible improvements to affordable and effective solutions.

These benefits will accrue right across the employee lifecycle from recruitment through to compensation and mobility. Within recruitment, for instance, less than £10 will buy you a virtual-reality (VR) headset that will combine with your mobile phone to allow you to take a 360-degree tour of an organisation’s office to understand whether you might want to work there. A cost-effective version of virtual reality saving time for both the employer and potential employee that is already being utilised.

Employers can already collect all of the details that you have published publicly on social networking sites to build a profile of you as a potential employee. When you start on your first day at an organisation you can speak to colleagues in different offices via their first language using Skype Translator to instantly translate from English. Analysis of the emails and communications in an organisation can provide an insight into mood, hot topics, organisational influencers, and even the likelihood of employees leaving.

When this is combined with the ability to automate repetitive tasks and increasingly aspects of knowledge work, it is clear that there is an opportunity to step change productivity and create far more tailored, productive and flexible work environments with people at their heart, supported by insight and tools.

David D’Souza is head of London at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)