Clare Sheridan: Do not make workers put away their everyday selves when it comes to online benefits

clare sheridan

It is Monday morning. Put aside your everyday self until next weekend; it is time to adopt your work self, catch the early train and face the week. And then, repeat until you retire.

There are still jobs and organisational cultures that fit this rather dispiriting mindset, but the world of work is changing. The idea of the job for life, with the same train journey to the same office every day for decades, is disappearing. People are working in a variety of different ways, blending salaried roles with periods of self-employment, or holding a portfolio of part-time jobs that match work with caring responsibilities.

Technology is enabling these shifts to happen. In doing so, it is blurring the boundaries between work self and everyday self, but that blend goes far beyond being able to check emails on the sofa at home. It is also about employees expecting the same standards and values in their work life as they see in their everyday world.

The same process of blending work and everyday life also holds true for the design and delivery of employee benefits. Staff will be used to accessing online banking or shopping services as consumers, and will expect similar user experiences from their workplace benefits technology.

As consumers, employees carry out three types of task on a shopping or services site: researching, problem-solving and taking action. They will also expect to be able to do so when and where they choose, and to see near-immediate results.

Researching is about being able to find information at the right level of detail, in the right format, at an appropriate time. A benefits portal is likely to hold everything from motivational videos about the organisation’s gym scheme, to guidance on the tax implications of taking cash out of the pension scheme. The first of these might have broad appeal to the workforce as a whole; the second might be more relevant to a specific group of older workers.

In the past, design might have focused on being able to get to either type of information with the least number of clicks. Now, it is more about designing the right paths through content, so that information is signposted to enable employees to choose the information they need and with the right level of detail.

When it comes to problem-solving, we no longer expect to have to wait for someone to call us back, or to be forced to plough through mountains of online information in an effort to fix issues. Many major consumer brands have introduced tools such as live chat to support visitors in making buying decisions or to address service concerns. The same standards apply when it comes to helping employees with their benefits. It is no longer enough to expect someone to email an anonymous-sounding email address for assistance, with no guarantee of a reply.

Clearly, the traditional annual benefits window is out of kilter with this new way of working.  As employees’ lives change over the course of a year, they will want their benefits to be able to keep pace. Researching and problem-solving are often a prelude to taking action. In a consumer setting, that might be buying a product or service; in the context of employee benefits, it could be increasing pension contributions or signing up for private medical insurance. If employees cannot follow through and change their benefits online, employers are left with the reward equivalent of an abandoned shopping cart.

Look around a train carriage or any social space outside work and you will see countless people glued to smartphones or tablets. They may well be using small slices of downtime to carry out tasks that do not fit into their working day or are crowded out by other priorities in their personal life. Those small time-slices can be the perfect time for employees to research, problem solve and take action on their benefits, if a platform allows them to do so. That can have a massive impact on engagement and take up of benefits.

There are advantages to the employer as well. Measuring impact and take up of benefits becomes far easier, and the quality of information on offer is greatly improved through an online platform. Robust benchmarking, setting realistic targets for criteria such as benefits take-up, and collecting data that accurately measures progress should now be part of any well-designed benefits programme. An evaluation framework can support this process, helping employers to see what is working well and where there is room for improvement in their employee benefits programme.

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The boundaries between work and life are blurring, as new employment models become the norm and smartphones give individuals access to our work and everyday worlds from a single handset. That also means employees will have a common set of expectations and ways of interacting with services and products online. Corporate benefits systems will need to match up to those same standards. From an employer perspective, that means taking the time to evaluate their organisation’s benefits, how these are offered and whether they meet the lifestyle needs of employees.

Clare Sheridan is principal at Aon Employee Benefits