Technology’s growth boosts voluntary plans

As technology advances, employers can make use of personalised communications and detailed management information, explains David Woods

The phrase ‘we live in a changing world’ has become something of a clich», but it is true in the field of voluntary benefits. Technological advances and the widespread use of the internet in the workplace have made it easier for both organisations to implement, administer and communicate voluntary benefits schemes and for employees to peruse and select the various perks on offer.

Employers that fail to capitalise on technological advancements, in order to make their voluntary benefits schemes easier to use, end up wasting valuable time and resources as take-up is likely to be low.

In the past, administration of schemes was labour intensive producing paperwork for both employers and employees, now the internet, company intranet sites and email have streamlined the process and made life easier all-round.

Brenda Desbonne-Smith, head of people at bar and restaurant chain 3D Entertainment Group, explains: “People don’t like filling in forms, trawling through paperwork and making loads of calls. Many more people now use the internet for shopping because of the convenience.”

Using the internet to communicate a scheme can also reduce administrative costs, says Richard Davies, head of employee benefits at P&MM: “[The] postage and distribution of leaflets is quite cost prohibitive, but the internet means employers can communicate to large numbers of people very quickly.”

Technology has also enabled communication to be more effective in boosting take up, through the use, for example, of regular emails. Even if a plan has been launched successfully, it can still be overlooked by staff after the initial novelty has worn off, unless they receive reminders.

Technological developments now also mean emails can be made more visually exciting. Using HTML programming rather than purely text-based communications can help to engage employees. Mike Morgan, managing director of voluntary benefits provider Peoplevalue, says: “Emails which are HTML-based are more fun and will improve the experience of the employee receiving them.”

Some employers have gone a step further in using the latest technology to communicate with staff by sending text messages.

Technological developments also mean that employers can personalise the messages they send out to staff. Using data from their computerised administration platform, for example, employers can segment staff according to factors such as age, location or family situation, and then send messages or tailor the content on the system so that these groups are kept informed of offers that are of relevance to them. This personalised approach to communication is likely to become more common going forward.

Online voluntary benefits systems also hold data that can show employers how well the scheme is running. They can identify the number of staff who have taken up the options on offer and how much employees are spending. Glenn Elliot, managing director of Asperity, explains: “[Computerised reporting] will satisfy a thirst for knowledge and performance information. It also means a provider cannot hide behind a scheme that is not working very well. The [employer] will know instantly if it is not being used.”

Employers can use this information to alter their schemes in line with employees’ actions, for example, by removing benefits that achieve a low take-up.

Technology has also altered how some voluntary benefits options can be administered. Some employers that previously issued discounts using vouchers contained in paper booklets, for example, are providing staff with electronic discount cards, particularly for retail products. These electronic cards and online schemes enable employers to offer a wider range of options. Davies explains that employers which use paper booklets often have to be selective with the number of discounts they include in order to save paper.

Some of these electronic schemes now also enable staff to earn cash back on any purchases they make. Depending on the provider, employees can either have this paid directly into their bank accounts, take a cheque, donate the amount to charity or hold it on a loyalty card to put towards future purchases.

Peoplevalue’s Morgan, however, doesn’t believe cash back is the best option for staff. “With cash back, you don’t get any preferential rate or discount at the point of transaction but, at some point in the future, you get some sort of percentage back for transacting with that partner. However, some employees will want an instant discount.”

On the other hand, Elliott argues: “If [employers] just do straightforward discounts, they are limited in the number of different retailers they can find to work with. Some major retailers will only work on a cash-back basis. Cash back is immediate.”

Whatever type of scheme they offer, however, it is important that employers maintain the personal touch with employees. “If there are things staff need to talk about, there [should be] a phone number for them to call and talk to someone at the end of the line,” says Desbonne-Smith.

Ultimately, making use of technological developments can help employers to maximise the return on their investment, and keep schemes fresh, says Davies. “On the basis that employers have bought into this concept of enabling their employees to save money on products and services, technology is helping them to protect that investment by getting usage and awareness up,” he adds.

Going forward, the challenge for employers will be to come up with new and dynamic ways to implement and communicate their voluntary benefits schemes. “The key issue will be to provide targeted information appropriately. Employee communications are getting more sophisticated to make [schemes] easier and more accessible to people,” says Elliott†

Case Study: Cadbury Schweppes

Cadbury Schweppes moved its voluntary benefits scheme online in August. Prior to this, it produced a paper booklet for staff explaining the perks that are available.

Sally Tobin, UK employee benefits adviser, says: “We made this change in order to increase the choice for employees, to keep the offers refreshed and to have a competitive scheme. With paper booklets, it was hard to keep on top of the benefits and communicate them to staff. The new online platform allows this to happen.”†

Its voluntary benefits scheme, which includes healthcare cash plans, and discounts on products such as holidays, gym membership and high street items, can be accessed by its 7,000 staff from home. Employees receive emails of special promotions and weekly updates about the benefits. A paper brochure is available for employees who do not have internet access, but Tobin explains this has only been requested by five employees so far.

Administering the scheme has also become easier. “We can get direct information about what people are accessing. Previously we had been relying on providers to let us know,” adds Tobin.

Case Study: 3D Entertainment Group

3D Entertainment Group, which operates bar chains such as Jumpin Jaks, Orange House and Chicago Rock Cafe, has to communicate its voluntary benefits plan to a diverse workforce nationwide.

Employees register for the online scheme using their personal email addresses. The scheme’s provider, Peoplevalue, then sends a monthly email to the company’s HR department detailing upcoming offers.

This is then branded with 3D Entertainment’s logo and sent out to employees. Brenda Desbonne-Smith, head of people at 3D Entertainment Group, says: “Our audience is particularly young, so things like text messaging will be used to promote special offers or as reminders. We do not need six people to maintain a [voluntary benefits] system. All employees need is access to the internet.”†

Staff can also access the benefits using a telephone helpline.