Flexible benefits can boost employee engagement

Company-branded flexible benefits plans can promote engagement and reinforce corporate values, says Peta Hodge

One of the main business reasons for an employer to introduce a flexible benefits scheme is to help its employees engage with the organisation’s brand.

Staff who are connected with the brand tend to be more productive and more likely to stay loyal to the organisation, as well as being better advocates for the business and what it stands for.

Last summer’s MacLeod Review, commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, highlighted the fact that a wider delivery of staff engagement could have a positive impact on UK competitiveness and performance, both during the downturn and as the economy recovers.

Ben Wells, senior consultant at Buck Consultants, says employers looking to improve engagement should be aware that flexible benefits, along with benefits in general, have “a huge potential to reinforce the brand”.

Flex helps corporate rebranding

This philosophy certainly rings true for employers such as Aviva. When Norwich Union became Aviva on 1 June last year, a new flexible benefits scheme played a key part in its corporate rebranding and internal communications strategy. As the lavish ad campaign – involving celebrities such as Ringo Starr, Macaulay Culkin, Elle Macpherson and Alice Cooper – made plain, the new Aviva brand was all about treating customers as individuals, not policy numbers. The introduction of a flexible benefits package called ‘My Aviva flex’, which is designed to give staff more control and ownership, while empowering them to shape their own reward, is an internal manifestation of this emphasis on individuality.

Chris Hopkins, managing director at communications agency Caburn Hope, which advised Aviva, says: “Flexible benefits brands which are an extension of the company brand will achieve the greatest success.”

Certainly there are employers out there that have bought their flex scheme off the shelf, decked it out in corporate colours and sold it to staff as reflecting a company culture that offers freedom and choice.

Off-the-shelf solution

Although this approach might work in some cases, Wells doubts whether employers will be able to get away with such an option for much longer. “I think corporations are taking a risk and being quite lazy in using an off-the-shelf solution to reinforce something that should be quite personal and unique to that company,” he says.

Nick Wright, director at PR firm Fishburn Hedges, adds: “I think flexible benefits are an under-utilised tool to link individuals with the brand of the organisation. It tends to be a case of ‘we just need to stick our logo on the bottom right-hand corner’.”

A strong starting point for an organisation that wants to reinforce its employer brand is to analyse exactly what its brand values are, and then ensure the benefits in its flex scheme reflect these values.”[Employers] should design their benefits around the brand,” says Wells. “Prioritise benefits that reinforce the brand and deprioritise those that do not. What is in and what is out of the flexible benefits package, that is the important thing.”

On a similar note, Oliver Jenkins, marketing manager at benefits consultancy firm Foster Denovo, says: “Flexible benefits can give employers the opportunity to ‘live’ their brand values by providing benefits consistent with their brand.”

Carbon trading supports green culture

This is an approach demonstrated by environmental consultancy Enviros, for example, which includes benefits such as carbon trading in its flex scheme, supporting the organisation’s green culture.

Wells suggests understanding the employer brand need not be a purely top-down exercise, it can also make sense to approach it from the other direction and look at the values of the employees, too.

Wells is using this tried-and-tested marketing technique with a number of clients, profiling the workforce based on age and earnings and correlating this with existing market data to get an insight into their likely priorities, based on their stage of life.

“[Employers] are able to profile the ‘brand’ of their employees, if you like, and design benefits that reflect their priorities,” he says. “That is exactly what a marketing agency would do. The likes of Boots and Tesco will profile their customers and will offer products, deals and position products around their stores, all based on what they know about this socio-economic group.”

In this respect, the employer brand does not need to be fixed, immutable and imposed from on high. Instead, it can be organic and evolving, feeding off its customers, staff and other stakeholders.

Practical support for staff

Jenkins points out the value of this kind of approach: “There is the potential to improve the psychological contract between employer and employee by demonstrating that the firm understands its people and can provide practical support to help in their day-to-day lives. Childcare vouchers are an excellent example, as are appropriate shopping vouchers.”

Although most experts agree that getting the benefits mix right is the key to ensuring a flex scheme reflects and promotes the employer brand, this is not enough on its own; it still has to be sold in the right way.Using the corporate colours and/or logo on a flex scheme’s website and other literature is obviously part of this, but Caburn Hope’s Hopkins says this is just the beginning. “Flexible benefits require their own identity to allow for instant recognition while working in harmony with the employer brand,” he adds.

An obvious example of this when flex plans adapt an organisation’s external slogan to reflect the distinction from, but connectedness to, the employer brand.

For example, when the AA used the slogan ‘You’ve got AA friend’, its flex plan used ‘You’ve got AA choice’ and Eli Lilly’s external strapline of ‘Because life matters’ became ‘Because people matter’ when applied to its flex scheme.

“For employees to recognise the true value of their flexible benefits package, a company must treat the presentation and communication of the scheme with the same level of commitment they would devote to their end-user brand,” says Hopkins.

Remove barriers to take-up

He adds organisations need to remove any barriers to take-up, such as unnecessary and confusing jargon, website navigation or red tape. “Tone of voice plays an important part in achieving employee buy-in,” says Hopkins.

“Making sure all communications promoting the plan are meaningful to employees, while complementing the organisation’s brand identity, is fundamental.”

Fishburn Hedges’ Wright believes one of the ways to ensure flex fully supports the employer brand and encourages employee engagement is to integrate it more fully into the organisation’s overall internal communications strategy.

“Flexible benefits sit, quite rightly, in the HR ambit, but tend to be treated in isolation from other things related to employee engagement,” he says.

“What is needed from a flexible benefits communication perspective is for it to be integrated into an organisation’s whole internal communications strategy, rather than treating it as a separate, one-off issue that is raised at induction or perhaps communicated in a very separate way from other business issues.”

Key points for flex success

– Flexible benefits brands that are an extension of the company brand will achieve the greatest success.
– Although getting the mix of benefits is essential to ensure the flex scheme reflects and promotes the employer brand, it still needs to be sold to staff in the right way.- An organisation that wants to strengthen its brand should analyse exactly what its brand values are, and then make sure the flex scheme benefits reflect those values.- Understanding the employer brand does not need to be a purely top-down exercise. It also makes sense to look at and incorporate the values of an organisation’s employees, too.
– To enable employees to recognise the true value of their flexible benefits package, an organisation must treat the presentation and communication of the scheme with the same level of commitment it would devote to its end-user brand.

Case study: Flex ensures unity at Aviva

When Norwich Union became Aviva on 1 June last year, a new flexible benefits scheme played a key part in the company’s corporate rebranding and internal communications strategy.

In keeping with the company’s emphasis on individuality, the introduction of a new flexible benefits package called ‘My Aviva flex’ aimed to empower employees to shape their own reward.

Along with online total reward statements, the new flex scheme forms one of six ‘employee proof points’ designed to reflect Aviva’s core values in its treatment of employees.

The flex scheme has been part of a strategic communications exercise developed in conjunction with employee communications consultancy Caburn Hope. The reward and internal communications teams worked together to deliver the strategy, adopting a fully joined-up approach.

Elliot Rees-Davies, director of reward at Aviva, says: “Everything that has been sent out is within the new brand guidelines.

“Crucially, all the communications have been done in the correct kind of voice. We are trying to move away from the classic financial services terms of engagement, using plain English so that employees can actually make an informed decision.”

Enrolment for the scheme started on the day that Norwich Union became Aviva – dubbed ‘Aviva day’ – ensuring that it was closely aligned to the corporate brand in the eyes of employees.

During the scheme’s first year of operation, the emphasis has been on encouraging take-up, and 6,000 of Aviva’s 22,000 employees have opted to take part so far.

Going forward, Rees-Davies explains there will be more emphasis on the role of flexible benefits in achieving employee engagement.

“We want to try to demonstrate that it does matter and that the more you can engage employees around this thing, the more you can drive performance,” he says.

Case study: AA’s scheme accelerates after stalling

Flexible benefits are often introduced successfully after a takeover or merger to harmonise benefits and ensure staff are singing from the same hymn sheet. But the experience of the Automobile Association (AA) shows that introducing flex is not, in itself, a guarantee that staff will engage with their new employer brand.

When the AA was taken over by Centrica in 1999, a number of benefits were rolled out across the organisation, including new management contracts which offered, as a carrot, participation in a flexible benefits plan.

The scheme was Centrica-branded, but reward and information manager Malcolm Mitchell says AA employees never really engaged with the Centrica brand. “Centrica, in all fairness, realised that, effectively, the Centrica brand was not a brand, whereas British Gas, the AA and Goldfish – a company it owned at the time – were their own unique brands,” he explains.

In 2004, the AA was bought by private equity firms Permira and CVC and, after a one-year exit programme, a new flex scheme was launched in 2006. The scheme following a one year exit programme, a new flex scheme was launched in 2006. The scheme mirrored the externa AA was then using – ‘You’ve got AA friend’ – with ‘You’ve got AA choice’.

“This was very much an ‘AA scheme’ rather than a ‘Centrica scheme’,” says Mitchell. “There was a lot of animosity at this stage oexit programme towards Centrica and a lot more connectivity to the AA.”

Since 2007 take-up has increased year-on-year and has now reached 96% of the eligible managers and staff. “I don’t know wheter has now reached 96% the eligible managers and staff. “I don’t know whether range of products we offer,” says Mitchell.

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