Communication strategies to engage staff with pensions auto-enrolment

Pensions auto-enrolment legislation, under which employers must automatically enrol all eligible staff into a workplace pension scheme between October 2012 and April 2017, presents organisations with a number of challenges, particularly in engaging employees with the process.

Communication strategies to engage staff with pensions auto-enrolment

If you read nothing else, read this…

  • When communicating auto-enrolment, employers must remember their audience, make it relevant and start early, using various communication methods.
  • Communications must be tailored to individual employees. 
  • Technology is a key factor in engaging staff with auto-enrolment. 

Before communicating the details of how auto-enrolment will work and making sure staff understand its implications, employers must choose the right communication methods to achieve their intended outcomes.

Samantha Healey, communication consultant at Shilling, says employers must know the best way to make employees respond. “It’s really important that employers make a plan, know their audience and the message they will respond to best,” she says. “Every culture is different. Employees in different locations and different job roles will respond differently to different forms of communication.”

Different methods

Under the Department for Work and Pensions’ Occupational and personal pension schemes (disclosure of information) regulations 2013 , employers will be required to provide pension communications by post, electronically or by hand from 6 April 2014.

The Employee Benefits/Capita Pensions research , published in June 2013, found that online portals, emails and letters sent directly to staff and printed booklets are popular methods of communication, but a large proportion of employers (78%) rely on their pension provider to communicate to staff.

The survey also found that 75% of employers use interactive communication as their main method of reaching employees, 73% communicate with staff directly using letters, emails and text messages, but only 30% put up posters in the workplace.

Darren Philp, head of policy at B&CE, provider of The People’s Pension, says these methods are effective in engaging staff if they are simple in design and clean, clear and precise. “It is absolutely essential to keep things clean and keep communications simple with clear and concise language, which has the employee in mind,” he says. “Employees don’t want masses of graphics or pages and pages of information, but stuff that resonates with them to encourage them to think about their pension and retirement.”

Good timing

The timing of communications can be crucial. David White, managing director at Creative Auto Enrolment, says trying to engage employees too far ahead of an employer’s staging date can leave them failing to remember important details.

“Telling employees that things are coming up and to watch out for them in emails a month in advance is just the right length of time,” he says. “Any longer and employees will forget.”

Employers may be tempted to communicate the bare minimum of information about auto-enrolment to staff, but many make a concerted effort ahead of staging.

The Employee Benefits/Capita Pensions research found that 84% of employers give their workforce as much information about auto-enrolment as possible, which can help to ease the pressure on payroll and HR. 

Richard Wilson, senior policy adviser at the National Association of Pension Funds (NAPF), says: “Some [employers] have gone for every possible method of communication to get the message out there, in order to have the minimum number of employees asking questions.

“Employers use everything from emails or newsletters on desks to posters on the back of toilet doors. This is because if employees voluntarily join [the pension scheme] because of all of the communication in the months prior to auto-enrolment, this would greatly help an organisation when its staging date arrives.”

Face-to-face talks

Face-to-face communication can ensure staff are fully engaged in the auto-enrolment process because it gives them the chance to ask questions. However, many employers are restricted in what they can do in this respect because of a lack of resources.

Shilling’s Healey says: “Scheme members want face-to-face communication, but obviously in large organisations that is not always feasible, so a good way round this is [using] videos of the pensions department or HR managers answering questions.”

Face-to-face communication can be more effective when combined with other methods.The NAPF’s Wilson says: “No workforce is completely similar, even with staff that are more likely to listen to a face-to-face message than the internet, and vice versa. Having a range of different communications is more likely to have a wider impact, but certainly face-to-face remains the gold standard, if it can be done.”

Simple, repeated communication around auto-enrolment reduces the risk of employees opting out and becoming less engaged with their workplace pension scheme. B&CE’s Philp says: “Little and often is important. It’s about repetition of messages: say it once and say it again and that’s how you get messages across.

“Giving an employee a 30- or 40-page disclosure document with lots of information about pensions is just not going to engage them. Break it down into bite-sized chunks and tell employees what really matters.”

Use of technology

The increasing use of technology, such as tablets and smartphones, in the benefits market has helped to communicate auto-enrolment .

Online pension calculators and personalised text messages are among the tools that are helping to engage staff with their pension scheme. But a technological approach will not work for all employees, says Diane Lightfoot, director of communications and fundraising at social care provider United Reponse, which has already auto-enrolled its staff.

“If staff are used to using technology to receive information, then undeniably it has got a really important role to play,” she says. “But it varies from individual to individual. I am sure that for some organisations that rely on technology for delivering their service, it might be appropriate.”

The NAPF’s Wilson says some employers are really embracing technology to get the message across. “They are making communication available on smartphones because they know more and more of their employees access the internet via their phones,” he says. “Some employers are using that tactic; not that many, but it’s a growing number because it’s an efficient way of getting the communications out there.”

B&CE’s Philp says more needs to be done to provide less complicated pension communications to help employees engage with the process. “As an industry, we have over-complicated and blinded people with science,” he says. “I think making it simpler, communicating with employees in a simple way with simple contexts, should help engagement.”

But whatever method is used to communicate with staff, getting them engaged in auto-enrolment and their workplace pension is just the first step to thinking long term about their retirement plans.

Shilling’s Healey says: “It’s an ongoing process and an exercise that doesn’t just happen once. It’s about planning and thinking about people long term, such as the key messages around saving and helping employees towards that end goal.”

Read also Auto-enrolment tips for smaller employers from larger firms at

CASE STUDY: United Response took extra time to get message across


United Response pensions auto-enrolment

Social care provider United Response postponed auto-enrolment to allow more time to communicate to its workforce.

Many of the organisation’s 3,500 employees were already in its stakeholder pension scheme, but a further 1,451 were auto-enrolled on 1 October, postponed from its staging date in July 2013.

Diane Lightfoot, director of communications and fundraising at United Response, says: “We did our first briefing in April. We knew we would postpone, so we had six months to prepare our employees. We created a special edition of our monthly briefing, which goes to                                                                                  all our staff.”

This introduced the idea of auto-enrolment , told employees what it would mean for them and set out a list of questions and answers in an attempt to pre-empt further questions from staff.

“We thought through the sorts of things employees would have been thinking and pre-empted those as much as possible and made the communications simple and relevant; that was really important,” says Lightfoot.

“We wanted to give as much notice as possible to ease staff through the transition and regularly communicated to keep everyone updated. We also produced a briefing presentation that the HR team took around the country to various meetings at different levels.”

The feedback from those communications was that employees were confused, which prompted United Response to reinforce its auto-enrolment messages.

Lightfoot adds: “By working with our provider, Friends Life, we kept repeating and reinforcing the message that this was going to happen by putting up posters in the workplace to remind staff. We also used literature and imagery that wasn’t generic, but tailored to our employees and didn’t jar, frighten or look odd to them.”

Its HR and payroll teams were also trained up to deal with enquiries, but there were surprisingly few. “Our communication process was simple, relevant and tailored, and we pre-empted as much as possible,” says Lightfoot. ”We had a plan, we knew what we wanted to achieve and kept it short, simple and used different types of communication.”

Auto-enrolment legal requirements

An employer must automatically enrol any eligible jobholder who is not already a member of a qualifying pension scheme with the organisation, either from the automatic-enrolment date or from the end of the postponement period.

Communication must include:

  • A statement that the employee has been, or will be, automatically enrolled into a pension scheme.
  • The enrolment date.
  • Details of the pension scheme provider.
  • The value of both employer and employee contributions.
  • If it is a defined contribution pension scheme, the employer must advise staff of the phased increases as a part of the introduction of the reform.
  • A statement that employee contributions will be deducted from pay.
  • Confirmation as to whether tax relief will be given
  • A statement that the employee has the right to opt out within 30 days of auto-enrolment, but will be auto-enrolled again within three years.

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It is important to note that to comply, all employers must complete registration with The Pensions Regulator, giving details about their auto-enrolment process.

Source: The Pensions Regulator