Technology aids uptake of benefits

Changes in technology have helped employees to understand the value of the benefits they have in a learning window of their own choosing, says Nick Golding

Case study: 3UK

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Although internal communication has always been a key factor behind any organisation’s success, there have been some dramatic changes of late in the ways that employers are choosing to communicate with their staff.

The technological world that organisations now find themselves embedded in is one of the main factors behind these changes, and is likely to continue having further impact in the future. Benefits communication has been swept along with this IT revolution because it is only when employers can effectively communicate a package to staff, that its full potential can be unleashed.

Charlie Carrick, divisional director at Orbit Benefits, explains: "In the past, benefits communication has been [done] through the use of a benefits handbook, which staff are given on the day they arrive at a company and it generally sits gathering dust from then on. Today, benefits are [moving] online, so they are more accessible and this allows employers to reach out and grab many more people." Allowing employees to research and choose benefits online also provides them with greater control over their package, which in turn adds value. "This is the power of online. It allows employees to understand the value of the benefits they have and how they will use them in the future – all at their own pace," says Carrick.

Pensions are no exception to this trend, and the manner in which employers can communicate how pension schemes operate to staff has been greatly enhanced by the use of online tools. Pensions modellers, for example, allow staff to not only calculate the value of their personal pension at any time, but also to calculate its potential future value dependent on various factors such as salary and length of service.

Employers can also use technology to get people thinking about pensions at different points throughout the year. "Instead of sending a yearly pension statement to staff which is out of date by the time they receive it anyway, [employers] are using technology to inform employees as things are happening. [Information is] accessible at any time and is dynamic," explains Carrick.

Technology-enhanced communication techniques came into their own as pensions simplification legislation took effect in April this year, with many employers needing to communicate pension changes to their employees. Tools, such as pension modellers, have also effectively handed some control over pensions back to employees, as they are provided with the ability to understand how a scheme operates.

Sally Ling, senior consultant at GR Communications, explains: "Technology gets people engaged. If they want to change their [pension] beneficiary, for instance, they can do it online, hassle free. "Often [pension] statements are from a certain date in the year and wouldn’t reflect pay increases, for instance, but looking at real-time information gives employees a sense of control."

Although not every organisation will use a pensions modelling tool, Ling expects this to change as the internet becomes a more integral part of working life. "This is the way that all pension schemes will go. I would expect an ever-growing number of employees to have access to the internet today and making use of advances like the modeller," she says.

Similarly, the transportation of total reward statements from print to an online form means the logistical restrictions which previously existed are removed, and employees can see the value of their benefits package at any time, even 24/7 in some cases. Nick Wake, head of marketing communications at Grass Roots, says: "Total reward statements online, from an employee’s point of view, are exactly like an online bank account: you can dip in and see exactly how much you have to spend at any time."

Childcare is also being reshaped by changing communication methods with the use of the internet and mobile phone technology to help employees find suitable carers. "We launched a website for parents to search for childcare in their area. For convenience, they can choose their preferred method of communication [either] text or email," says Wake.

But the development of new technology is not the only change in employers’ preferred methods of communication. Many believe that the true value of benefits is not fully understood by employees until visits are made to the workplace to present details about the package face-to-face. "Roadshows are very important and pretty much every piece of research we have done shows that if you want people to buy into something and understand something, the best way is to stand in front of them," says Ling.

One company that has proved the success of taking to the road and visiting employees across the country is the John Lewis Partnership. The retail group is in the middle of a two-year programme to communicate changes to its benefits package, during which time it is hoping to reach all of its 250 sites.

Adam Brooke, manager of John Lewis Partnership’s benefits scheme PartnerChoice, explains: "There is real value in communicating to staff this way and, having launched a new benefits programme, we wanted to ensure that as many members of staff knew about it as possible. "There may be a tendency to throw away letters or delete emails, but when you are in front of someone they can ask questions and actually understand."

One thing is certain, the popularity of both face-to-face communication and IT-based methods seems to be showing little sign of easing off. As employees increase their use of the internet in their daily lives, they are also more likely to embrace the concept of being communicated to in this way. "People are experiencing the benefits of technology through online banking and online shopping and because of this their willingness to embrace benefits online will be that much more enhanced in the future," says Wake.

The next wave of change, which is just beginning to emerge, has seen the amalgamation of technological developments with live interactive methods of communication in the form of chat rooms. "Online meeting environments are definitely the future.

These global meetings allow employees across the world to see and hear what is happening at the same time. There will be no need to actually be at the meeting, members of staff can just log on," adds Carrick.

Case study: 3UK

Phone company 3 UK has moved with the fast pace of technology, incorporating a pensions modelling tool into its benefits system for staff. Andy Wiles, director of reward, explains: "When you have a group personal pension (GPP) it is important to provide staff with as much information as possible. The interactive tool allows us to hand out the details and then let individuals make the decisions."

Wiles also uses roadshows because he views them as an effective way of encouraging employee engagement with benefits. When promoting the company’s wellbeing scheme, for example, a face-to-face communications campaign was considered the best way forward.

"Sometimes you must go further than just putting the benefit out there. If you are up there in front of them, staff take much more notice of what you say. We became very involved with employees, and had a nutritionist and a t’ai chi expert come into the office," explains Wiles.

Modelling tools

Online modelling tools are just one way in which technology has helped to advance how employers communicate perks to staff.

Pensions modellers, for example, act like a calculator to give employees an instant view of their pension fund or a forecast dependent on increases in pay and other variables which affect the value of their pension pot.

Employees can type in the amount they would like their pension pot to reach and pay out on retirement and the modeller will indicate how much of their salary should be invested for this to be achieved. These modelling tools can also include estimates for options such as: death-in-service benefits, spouses and children’s benefits, and pension benefits at a pre-selected retirement age.

Similarly, modellers can also be used to help employees select which options they wish to take in a flexible benefits scheme. These tools can be used to model different scenarios and calculate the impact on an employee’s flex fund.