Staff feedback should be central to a benefits strategy

Staff feedback should be a central component for employers in forming a coherent and effective benefits strategy, says Kirstie Redford

An organisation’s employee benefits spend can be significant, so employers need to know they are not pouring money down the drain. One of the best ways to keep a strategy in check is to ask staff for their views on the package and whether it is continuing to meet their needs.

The primary purpose of most benefits packages is to attract and retain key talent, so it makes sense that staff are included when developing a strategy. Employers that take the time to ensure the benefits spend is directed at the most appropriate perks and to involve staff in putting a package together may also improve engagement levels.

Annika Haslett, head of flexible benefits at Gissings Advisory Services, says: “Requesting input from staff results in them feeling that their opinion is important and valued, and that they have the power to influence and change the direction of the benefits offered to them.”

If employees’ views are seen to shape the direction of a benefits strategy, Haslett believes their engagement levels will become even stronger, as it will be seen as proof to staff that their opinions matter. Employers who want to canvas staff opinion have a variety of options open to them. Lisa McEneny, senior consultant at Watson Wyatt, says that in an ideal world, if enough time and budget are available, it pays to use a range of methods, and recommends using paper-based and online surveys in addition to focus groups.

“To provide ongoing monitoring of benefits you need to give staff several opportunities to put across their views. It’s also important to provide incentives for taking part, especially for focus groups as these tend to be held in lunch hours. The offer of, say, a bottle of champagne, will have a big impact on how many people are willing to come forward,” she says.

As a rule, paper-based questionnaires should be kept to under 10 questions and again, an incentive can prove useful. “A popular incentive is to pledge money to a charity for each survey filled in,” McEneny adds.

Online surveys should also be kept quite short and it’s important to ensure staff do not receive other surveys at the same time so they don’t feel bombarded by requests.

Slipping questions into wider employee satisfaction surveys can be a good way to get employees views without overloading them with more forms to fill in. “This can be useful as a follow-up after the benefits strategy has been revised to see how effective any changes have been,” says McEneny.

Focus groups
Using focus groups to flesh out points raised in staff surveys is the best way to gain a useful insight into employees’ opinions. Philip Hutchinson, a principal at Mercer, explains: “Identify around five key areas, that you want to find more about from the survey and then hold focus groups. If 60% [of staff, for example] have taken up pension schemes, speak to the 40% who haven’t.”

It can also be useful to segment focus groups into levels of seniority as junior staff may feel uneasy speaking their mind in front of managers resulting in senior employees taking over. Ideally, focus groups should comprise of around 12-15 people. “Any more than this and people don’t tend to get to have their say. If too few staff turn up it becomes less interactive,” says McEneny.

Gissings’ Haslett adds employers should also ensure they use a cross section of staff, taking into consideration geographical spread, gender and age distribution, employee type and salary level. “Employers should seek a minimum response from 10% of the population,” she says.

When asking staff for their views via surveys and focus groups, employers should carefully consider what questions they ask. Mercer’s Hutchinson says they should first ask staff what they think about the benefits that are already provided and, importantly, whether they fully understand what they get. “It’s amazing how often answers will be based on the wrong information because they don’t actually understand their full benefits package,” he explains.

Employers also need to ask some lifestyle questions. “Try and get an idea of where [an employee’s] life is going. There may be a change ahead such as family or retirement that will affect what is important to them,” says Hutchinson.

If a high proportion of employees are looking to make similar lifestyle changes, this could be a good demographic to target for a focus group. Employers can then find out more in-depth information about which benefits would appeal.

They should also remember to ask staff about the ways in which they would like information about benefits to be communicated. Receiving ‘junk mail’ about benefits can be a real turn off, so find out some smart ways to engage the workforce. McEneny also recommends asking staff about their fantasy benefits packages. “Obviously, some of the suggestions will be immediately discounted, but it’s surprising [what] ideas that can emerge and the insight it gives into what staff value,” she says.

However, it’s important not to raise expectations. “You need to pitch the questions correctly so staff are clear this is a fantasy scenario and [it] does not mean the benefits will actually be introduced,” says McEneny.

Business objectives
Jen Powell, principal at Towers Perrin, warns against giving staff the green light to reel off a wish list. “Employers need to be really clear that the benefits strategy supports business objectives and ask questions related to these. It’s not just about keeping staff happy and doing what is ‘nice to do’. It’s about creating the right environment for staff to do the best job,” she explains.

So employers should ask staff what would help them reach these business objectives. “It may be that share options are a good motivator, or childcare vouchers, but equally it may be that pay and benefits are not important because staff are so unsatisfied with the actual working environment. You need to find out what is important,” adds Powell.

The biggest risk when asking staff for their views on benefits is that it could start a revolution. “Make sure you don’t raise expectations, so think about how you pose questions about new benefits. And consider timing – if there have been recent redundancies don’t give the impression you are spending a lot of money on new benefits [or] if there are rumours circulating that the final salary pension scheme could be taken away, then don’t ask staff how they’d feel if it was. It’s all about the wording and timing,” Hutchinson says.

It is also important to report back what actions will be taken next, so staff know it has not been a waste of their time. “Always use focus groups to say ‘thank you’ for filling out surveys. You need to engage with staff as much as possible if they are to stay interested in the benefits strategy,” Hutchinson adds.

And crucially, employers must deliver on any promises that are made to improve what’s on offer.

With the right approach, giving staff input into a benefits strategy should result in better levels of engagement, improved recruitment and retention, and reassurance that money is being spent in all the right places.

Key questions to ask staff

  • What is employees’ understanding of their current benefits?†
  • Do they value current benefits?†
  • What new benefits would they like to see?†
  • How would they like to see perks delivered?†
  • How would staff like to have their benefits package communicated?

Case study: Ashton Morton

Ashton Morton courts opinions
When law firm Ashton Morton Slack rebranded in May 2005, it decided to look at introducing a new package of flexible benefits as part of a wider drive to help it improve staff performance, recruitment and retention.†

With a mixed culture of young staff, families and older workers it wanted to find out which benefits would be important at these different life stages.

A panel of employees representing a demographic cross-section of the organisation was set up to give feedback on the current benefits package and what they would like to see change. From this feedback, the firm generated a list of potential benefits. Working with flexible benefits provider You at Work, an online survey was distributed to the whole of its workforce asking for views on these proposed benefits. Employees were also asked how they would prefer to receive information about the benefits package going forwards.

Since the new package has been introduced, the firm has seen staff turnover cut by 40%, recruitment costs down by a third and the take-up of childcare vouchers has doubled. The company now intends to conduct regular surveys and use focus groups to ask staff for their views.