Flexible benefits: Interview with Marianne Huggett of The Work Foundation

Flexible benefits can make a big difference to the working environment and are good for business, says The Work Foundation’s Marianne Huggett. Nicola Sullivan reports

As associate director of The Work Foundation, Marianne Huggett is well versed in the business benefits employers can gain by offering their staff choice through a flexible benefits scheme. Huggett believes that the increasing popularity of flexible benefits is driven by organisations’ common aim of attracting the best talent, while ensuring their workforces are motivated and engaged. “If benefits are standardised, then organisations are so much out of sync with the concept of employee engagement,” she says.

How to empower staff

Empowering staff to make their own choices when it comes to benefits makes flex a powerful element of any reward strategy. According to Huggett, the freedom of choice offered by flexible benefits schemes can strengthen the feeling among staff that a fair exchange is taking place between themselves and their employer.

Flexible benefits schemes can also forge a link between the way employees honour the choices and needs of their employer’s customers and how they themselves are rewarded at work.

“Flexible benefits recognise that staff are, in a way, consumers as well, and that there needs to be some sort of alignment between what employers are asking their staff to deliver to customers and what they actually receive internally,” says Huggett.

“If there is a huge mismatch in the way organisations treat their staff and the great experience they want to give their customers, who they want to feel that they have a lot of choice, then they are making an unfair exchange.”

What employees want in flex

Huggett says it is all too easy for employers to make assumptions about what their employees actually want when it comes to flexible benefits, especially those that are striving to meet the needs of diverse and fragmented groups of staff.

“A lot of flexible benefits are important to all groups of employees,” she says, “For instance, the ability to perhaps buy or sell leave, or the ability to choose gym membership. One of the challenges for organisations is to actually listen to their staff to work out what is core.”

Ensure line managers are briefed

To ensure their flexible benefits plan is fully effective, Huggett advises employers to ensure line managers are briefed on what the organisation wants to achieve by offering the scheme. “Staff need to be aware of the choices they can make and line managers also need to understand what the choices are all about, so there is a consistent message, which is: ‘This is what we are offering you in exchange for your commitment and your loyalty’,” she says.

Related issues are being explored in The Work Foundation’s Future of HR programme, which, led by Huggett, is focusing on understanding the relationship between leadership, HR and line managers. The project is sponsored by the Department of Health, PepsiCo, Cambridgeshire County Council, Logica, the Metropolitan Police, Standard Chartered and Surrey Police, and will produce a report in autumn next year.

Make sure message is consistent

“Messages are delivered through the benefits package that organisations offer, but if HR gets so tied up in the detail of that, line managers do not quite understand what the full package is and are not able to translate that to the individual in a way that takes into account the diversity of the people working there. So it sort of falls down,” says Huggett. “What we are beginning to uncover is some real differences in the assumptions made by leadership, by line managers and by human resources.”

After tackling the many technical and logistical challenges of setting up a flexible benefits scheme, many employers will, understandably, be tempted to take their foot off the accelerator once their scheme has gone live. But it is important for employers not to become complacent after introducing flex if they want to obtain the maximum value for all the hard work and money they doubtless channeled into making it a reality.

“The market changes and what attracts people changes too,” says Huggett. “Eventually, people start to take benefits for granted and they cease to be quite the same motivator. “It is important for employers to be clear about when they are going to review things and to know what sort of signals they are looking out for to tell them that what they are doing is no longer responding to staff.”

Versatile benefits†

The value of offering employees the flexibility to pick and choose perks has become commonplace, and other versatile benefits arrangements are likely to feature in future reward strategies. In an economic environment where jobs for life are a thing of the past and employees are seen as more disposable, insurance policies that pay out if an employee should lose their job would give organisations greater pulling power to attract talent, as well as lessen the impact of unemployment on society, says Huggett.

“At the moment, staff are employed and have certain terms and conditions, but that can be withdrawn at short notice because of the realities of the market and the organisation’s long-term sustainability. For the individual, that is pretty hard to live with when organisations are actually asking for loyalty and trust.”

Huggett concedes the economic climate has restricted employers’ spend on benefits, but is confident flex will remain popular. It can be used to redress the balance for many organisations that are unable to offer pay rises or big bonuses in the current environment.

Career History: Marianne Huggett

Marianne Huggett, associate director of The Work Foundation, is currently leading a programme called the Future of HR, researching how staff can be managed fairly and effectively. She is particularly interested in HR’s role because of its impact on organisational development, change and the employment relationship. She is also tackling issues such as the modernisation of the workforce, employee engagement, and human capital and change agendas.

Before joining The Work Foundation in 2000, she worked in HR at Shell International Petroleum. Previously, she carried out line management roles for Surrey County Council and the British Airports Authority.

During her career, Huggett has helped to develop employee engagement and human capital strategies, and worked on organisational community health and care partnerships. She has also worked with a public sector organisation to evaluate and revise its recruitment and training practices.

She is a qualified chartered occupational psychologist, has an MSc in occupational and organisational psychology from Surrey University, and is a business coach accredited by Strathclyde University.

The Work Foundation at a glance:

Formerly known as The Industrial Society, The Work Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation that offers consultancy and research.

Its origins go back to The Boys’ Welfare Association which was founded by the Reverend Robert Hyde in 1918. The following year, it widened its focus, and changed its name to The Industrial Welfare Society. In 2002, it evolved to become The Work Foundation.

Mutual respect

It believes that mutual respect between staff and employers, and high levels of motivation lead to a higher standard of work. It aims to improve the quality of employees’ working lives and the effectiveness of organisations by equipping leaders, policymakers and opinion-formers with advice, new thinking and networks.

The Work Foundation provides a mix of practical consultancy, research and campaigning on policy issues, creating tailored services for employers in the public, private and voluntary sectors.

It promotes a systematic approach to creating healthy workplaces. It provides the business case for focusing on wellbeing, and shows the impact this has on productivity. The Work Foundation is run by a board of five executive directors and eight trustees.

For more articles on flexible benefits

Click on the links below for more sections:

Flexible benefits: Interview with Marianne Hugget of The Work Foundation

Flexible benefits: Structuring flexible benefits plans

Flexible benefits employer profile: White and Case

Flexible benefits: Selecting the right perks

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