Benefits managers discuss future plans

With much legislative and regulatory change on the horizon, human resources and benefits managers are busy drawing up plans and lists of tasks for the new year and beyond. Bea Oaff finds out what priorities have been set for the future.

Communicating pensions

Roy Platten head of benefits at car maker Volkswagen UK

“With A-Day now just a few months away our pension scheme trustees and HR department need to give priority and urgency to ensuring that they are as ready as they can be to communicate the coming changes. Most of our people recognise that things will be different. But they are not aware of how they specifically will be affected and what exactly they should be doing about it.

There are at least two challenges to addressing this. One is to get prepared even though some of the impending regulation is still to be finalised by the government. The other is to ensure that the information presented is fair and reasonable – over the past two years there has been a great deal of negative media coverage surrounding pensions. It is imperative that no further unnecessary alarm is raised.

HR and trustees will need to work closely together to create a suitable action plan for the communication exercise. This must be dependent upon what works best for the company. This could range from one-to-one sessions to communal presentations, from an intranet link to an individualised letter.

Once this has been done, the exercise will not stop there. There will be an ongoing need over the next 12-18 months to ensure that new starters and ex-employees have also been made aware of the changes. But all in all it is a challenge to be relished – not something to be afraid of.”

Promoting flexible retirement

Becky Mason people networks manager at telecoms firm BT

“One of the biggest challenges for us revolves around introducing and promoting flexible retirement. From April, we will of course have to do this but as a company it is something that we ourselves are very keen on. The cliff edge approach, where someone works flat out to Friday and then suddenly stops on Monday, is not a helpful one, especially for our people. Some of them have been here for 30 years and work is a big part of their life; to suddenly not have it can be very difficult. A more gradual approach to retirement would make this transition easier.

So, we welcome the opportunity to offer people different options. This may involve moving to a less responsible job, doing reduced hours, doing flexible hours, even taking some time out – all while starting to take part of a pension.

We need to look at how to explain these new possibilities. We will be producing various communications – articles, case studies and news updates on our policies and procedures – all of which will be on our intranet. We will also be producing an online calculator to enable people to see what sort of pension they would receive depending on when and how they retired. This will help to show theories in action. In addition we will have to do some more work with our HR services partner to ensure they appreciate the full scope of the changes and have developed systems able to meet them.

This is a big job.”

Improving leadership

Sandy Wilson, head of HR policy and reward at insurance firm Norwich Union

“Putting aside all the various legislation that is coming, the focus for us will be improving leadership. We want to create an environment where people can really give their very best. We want them to have the freedom to act. We want them to feel empowered to deliver quality service. To be sure, quality service is what we need to be about. Sometimes we do this very well – we went out of the way to help customers affected by the Tsunami. Sometimes we do this less well – there is the case of someone ringing up to complain that for the third time their name had been spelt wrong. We need to ensure that every customer gets what he or she wants and needs from us – and, if necessary, we go the extra mile for them. And as we face increasing competition from retail brands, this is more important than ever. We must compete with them as a trusted, reliable name.

So, we must be explicit about what success is. We must be clear about each role, explaining its accountabilities and responsibilities, its effect on the rest of the team and the business as a whole. We must give every single person praise and recognition as well as constructive feedback. We must find ways to solve problems. We want to have leadership that is inspiring and supportive, that aids personal growth and helps them to produce outstanding results.”

Dealing with recruitment and retention

Helen Giles HR director, Broadway, a pan-London housing charity

“The biggest issue for us for 2006 is, as always, recruitment and retention. It is a problem for the whole sector. There are just not enough good candidates to go around. This is due to two reasons. Firstly, every organisation wants someone who’s very skilled and very experienced. Few are prepared to take a risk on someone who has only potential. Most will not invest the time and energy needed to realise that potential. As a result, there is no new talent coming in. Meanwhile, and this is the second reason, there is plenty going out. People become burnt out or they get promoted and move on.

Our solution is to offer people the coaching they need to do the job we want them to do. And to then give them further support and development opportunities. But we can only take them so far. We are relatively small. If there is no movement in the top we can’t move people up. And that is when we lose them.

To be sure, offering a higher salary won’t keep them – we already pay in the upper quartile. They really do go because they want more progression. All we can do is seek out someone else who we can put our faith and resources into, and start all over again. It is not an easy solution. Nor a catch all solution. But it is a solution. And doing nothing is certainly not an option.”

Delivering new training and managing sabbatical programme

Samantha Theobald, best workplace consultant at travel company Flight Centre UK

“We are working on two main developments over the next 12 months.The first one concerns training and development, which is done by ourselves, in-house. We take it very seriously. Flight Centre UK has a philosophy of giving back to employees and we believe you will get back what you put in. We feel that if we train our people to an exceptional level, they will do an exceptional job.

For people in our retail division we are implementing a more structured and focused learning programme. It will involve four weeks, rather than three, in our training area and it will offer further support to someone during the first 12 months of their employment with us. The aim is to ensure they are provided with all the skills they need and that further skills are built upon.

For potential leaders, we have just introduced an initiative called Project Promote. Effectively, it fast-tracks people through a management programme. This is done while running a store. Our Euston Road store in London is the flagship example.

Our second major change involves managing a new benefit. We introduced a sabbatical policy last summer where anyone who has been with us for five years can take three months off unpaid and then return to work for us. It can be difficult sending people on the holiday of a lifetime over and over if you never get to go yourself. We believe the sabbatical policy will give everyone that opportunity and still have a job to come back to.”

Managing constant change

Ian Greenaway, managing director, manufacturing company MTM Labels

2”For us, 2006 is going to be about how to keep people motivated and unstressed when everything is changing all the time. As a company, we are going through a time of significant growth. In addition, the market conditions we are operating in are constantly evolving. We need a workforce that is nimble – one that is skilled and flexible so that it can do different things on different days of the week. We recognise that to achieve this we need to keep people informed and on board. To keep them informed we must let them know what is changing, why it is changing, what it means for them, the team and the whole company.

To keep them on board we need to emphasise why it matters that they do well. We run a profit-sharing scheme here and we will certainly be ensuring that we continue to make regular briefings on where we are as a company, what a difference they are making to it and how that benefits them in a real, tangible way.

We will also ensure that they are not overworked. We won’t run the factory at any more than 85% capacity. And we will move people around so that they can enjoy some variety in their tasks.

As a relatively small organisation there is no HR department to do this. We don’t have that luxury. Us managers will have to lead from the top. We will have to do the right thing.”

Implementing the Disability Discrimination Act

John Nicholson, head of diversity, Land Registry

“As a public service, we have to implement the new part of the Disability Discrimination Act that demands a “positive duty to promote disability equality”. This has to be done by October. It is a major challenge and a major opportunity. In short, it involves putting disability equality at the centre of everything we do.

We have our own National Disability Staff Focus Group and we will be working very closely with them over the coming months to ensure we are doing everything we should, and can. They will guide us on what has to be done, where we have to concentrate our efforts and whether we need to do any additional monitoring of those efforts. In effect, they will be disability-proofing all our policies and procedures.

The scale can not be over estimated. We will be reviewing everything from the way we advertise a vacancy and ultimately select a candidate, to how we provide access to information, communication, services and facilities, to how effectively we make ‘reasonable adjustments’, to how disability-friendly our procurements system is and in what ways we can improve it.

There is, clearly, a lot of work to be done. But it is work that really should be done. And hopefully at the end of it we, as an organisation, will be more reflective of the society we seek to serve.”

Addressing globalisation

Chris Wilson, UK compensation and benefits director, Oracle UK

“Like many large organisations, Oracle is moving from a multinational structure, where decisions have been made within one country, towards a global organisational model, where decisions will be made in the regions and implemented irrespective of geographical boundaries. Now it is time for the HR organisation to change. It is a process that we began five months ago and one we will be ramping up in the next 12 months. We have found that the creative use of systems, such as a single global database, plays an important part in providing our managers with the necessary tools to assist them. At a regional level, the convergence of employment legislation means a best practice contract of employment can be adopted. This will be an important priority in the coming year.

It will be set at a level sufficiently above individual countries’ legal minimums, so that it encompasses most legislative systems, regionalising groups of countries with similar approaches to employment, for example, the UK, Ireland and South Africa. We expect any associated increase in cost to be offset by savings from streamlining and simplification. This regional structure for employment will ensure high legal and HR standards are maintained, which will be greatly beneficial to employees at a local level, easing the pressures and conflicts on line managers who have to cope with multiple country employment and benefit practices.”

Promoting employee engagement

Julia Harvie-Liddel, head of recruiting for Accenture UK & Ireland

“We recruit more than 2,000 people per year, so an active induction and orientation programme is essential. Providing information about safety, benefits, eligibility, company history and organisation is important. But the challenge for us in the coming year, as with every year, lies in making new recruits really feel integrated into the way the company does business.

We appreciate they have different backgrounds and different expectations. For this reason, we don’t offer a one induction fits all programme. Instead, we offer, and will continue to offer, a more personalised approach.

During the induction period our new joiners will undertake a combination of class-based learning, talks and demonstrations, and more informal settings where people can get to know each other and ask questions ranging from what networking opportunities are available to where the best place to get a sandwich near the office is. During this time they will have access to a relevant senior executive and members of our HR team.

We will maintain our commitment to consistently measure and evaluate the success of the programme, requesting that participants complete questionnaires both before and after it.

In addition, we will continue to deliver a mentoring programme and encourage all employees to make new employees feel welcome as a means of ensuring a smooth transition into the business and quickly developing a sense of belonging.”

Improving flexible benefits

Sue Laverick, UK employee benefits manager at food manufacturer Cadbury Schweppes

“One of the biggest questions we have to deal with in the next 12 months is how can we continue to improve our flexible benefits? In terms of content, we are already offering just about everything in the marketplace. So, we have to think, and work, even harder towards keeping our programme fresh and interesting and appealing.

One new addition we are hoping to include is mobile phones. Hopefully people will think being able to buy up to five mobiles on any tariff through salary sacrifice, with the tax and national insurance savings that brings, will be worth doing.

In terms of our communications, there are two strands. Firstly, we are planning to review the way we reach some of our people. We are still struggling to get across to everyone what flexible benefits can do. We are looking at producing booklets highlighting a couple of key benefits. The idea is that rather than bombard them with information, we will select what will be most appealing to them and that will serve to hook them in to what else is available.

Secondly, we are planning to review the way we talk about our benefits successes. We don’t highlight enough of what we do for our employees. In terms of recruitment and retention we need to celebrate, internally and externally, the way we look after our people.”