Natwest Group’s benefits agenda reflects its strategy of championing people potential

When Alison Rose was appointed the chief executive of Natwest Group in November 2019, she put forward her purpose-led strategy for the banking group: to champion the potential of people, families and businesses.

It is this strategy that has been driving the reward and benefits agenda at the organisation. Sharon Midwinter, benefits lead, says: “My philosophy on benefits now is that we want them to be purpose led: we want them to support colleagues in their wellbeing, whether that’s their physical, emotional or financial wellbeing, all aspects, to help them to thrive and to help them to learn.”

The benefits at Natwest Group, recently renamed from RBS Group in July 2020, serve to support employees throughout their life and career at the bank. “It’s about wanting to have that flexibility so that colleagues can access the support or the benefits that they need at any given point for them,” explains Midwinter.

Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic

Natwest Group had a wellbeing strategy in place prior to 2020, but the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic meant that changes had to be made quickly. Fiona McAslan, wellbeing lead, HR chief operating office, says: “It absolutely changed the focus of our wellbeing plan and, as everybody had to, we had to move very quickly to make sure we had the right support and resources in place.”

In response to the pandemic, the employer put a wellbeing plan in place and worked closely with employees to ensure that it understood what its employees were going through. It launched a Covid wellbeing hub for employees, which will remain in place for as long as it is needed. This includes information on how to access a virtual GP service, an employee assistance programme (EAP) and guidance on how to remain healthy and resilient during this difficult time.

The virtual GP service was previously only available to those employees that receive private medical insurance (PMI) as a core benefit, usually managerial level and above, but Natwest Group extended this benefit to all staff in April 2020. “We were really keen to make sure that, while we were on lockdown and people couldn’t get access to services, we made this available,” says McAslan. “We were very careful to make sure it didn’t take any resources away from the NHS and we were lucky enough to get that in place at the start of lockdown.”

While some usage may be due to the pandemic, the virtual GP service has seen a take up of 27%, compared to the provider’s usual take-up level of 5%.

Employees were also given support with their physical health during lockdown, which included free access to an online fitness programme.

The wellbeing support plan was equally important to employees that were not working from home. During the lockdown, the banking group kept 95% of its branches open, with around 10,000 members of staff working in these.

In June, 400 employees, whose jobs could not be done from home for operational reasons, returned to offices and call centres. “We were very conscious that our front-line employees were not working from home and were going to work every day in a really difficult situation, so providing them with care and support around anxiety and resilience was really important to us,” says McAslan.

Natwest Group also introduced a mandatory mental health programme for line managers, and wellbeing champions in May; both projects had been planned for launch in the autumn of 2020, but were accelerated in response to the pandemic. The line manager programme was adapted to be delivered digitally to accommodate for employees working from home. There are now 1,000 wellbeing champions across the organisation.

“It was something we had planned to launch in Q3, but we considered this timely and the right thing to do,” explains McAslan. “We quickly decided that it was the right thing to do, to have almost an army of people on the ground who could help to make sure that all colleagues had access to the right support and resources.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that in every part of the business there is a wellbeing champion. They are exceptionally engaged with the wellbeing agenda and we are taking the time this year to upskill them. We’re spending a lot of time [talking about] mental health and making sure they understand benefits such as the employee assistance programme. We’ll be working more with them next year as we move more into the recover and thrive phases.”

In August 2020, the organisation also introduced a new wellbeing resource for employees which gives them access to programmes around sleep, resilience and mindfulness.

With a large focus on wellbeing and ensuring that employees have access to the right support when it is needed, Natwest Group has not made any sweeping changes to its core benefits this year. Midwinter explains: “Because the bank had committed to pay all colleagues in full until the end of September, regardless of whether people were able to work their hours, and we knew our colleagues themselves would not be financially worse off as a result of Covid, we made that decision that we wouldn’t make any fundamental changes to our core benefits. But we did work with providers and brokers to agree things like extensions to health assessments; people can elect a health assessment every year, and they should have used it by the end of September, but clearly some facilities are still not open or they have a big backlog, so we have extensions in place for things like that. Whenever we could, we’ve tried to find ways to make sure that colleagues are not worse off because of the pandemic.”

Valuable benefits

Different benefits will appeal to employees at different points in their lives, but the group’s pension scheme is one of the most important benefits on offer, says Midwinter. “While that is the benefit that clearly becomes more relevant as [we] get a bit older, actually we need employees, when they first start working for us, to care a bit more about pensions than they do now,” she says.

“It’s one that is applicable throughout the life cycle otherwise we will have a pensions crisis when people want to retire but they’re not able to because they don’t have the funds to do that. We want to support colleagues to save for their retirement because it is the right thing for them, but also there’s a moral obligation to encourage people to save.”

In order to help employees’ retirement savings, Natwest Group offers members of its trust-based pension scheme the Save More Tomorrow initiative: this offers employees the choice to opt in to automatic increases of their pension contributions by 1% each year. This has seen huge success among employees’ pension contributions, says Midwinter.

The wellbeing support at Natwest Group is moving towards more of a segmented approach this year to ensure that employees understand and have access to specific support that meets their needs. In August, it ran a ‘Let’s Talk’ campaign, and ran a lot of awareness around the menopause. “That has landed particularly well and has really highlighted the difficulties that employees have,” says McAslan. “We’re putting in quite a lot of support and working with our suppliers around how they support it. A good example would be our private medical cover: it’s able to provide mental health support for people going through the menopause. I think that segmented population piece is working pretty well.”

Benefits communication

A key factor in ensuring that employees get the best out of their benefits is that they are well communicated and easy to understand. The banking group runs a flexible benefits scheme; all employees receive pension funding of 10% of their salary, and certain grades of employees receive an additional 10% of their salary into their benefits fund, or Value Account. The scheme is accessed via an online platform, and the organisation’s traditional communications plan is focused around its annual election window in September each year. Midwinter explains that the bank is in the process of moving to a new benefits platform which will be implemented in the new year.

The organisation also hosts webinars with details about the benefits, and uses the Workplace social media platform to promote them to employees among other initiatives.

“We have a monthly wellbeing calendar,” explains McAslan. “Every month we go out with a different theme and it tends to tie in to either things we do internally, like our flexible benefits programme, or to external links, whether it’s World Mental Health day, or Time to Talk day.”

Natwest Group also hosts details of all the initiatives on its wellbeing hub, and uses its wellbeing champions and its wellbeing implementation committee, a group of representatives from all business areas, to disseminate information about the support around the organisation.

The benefits agenda at Natwest Group is clearly achieving its goals of supporting employees; the organisation measures engagement with benefits through its staff opinion survey, which is ordinarily run twice a year but has been affected by Covid-19 this year. However, in the survey from September 2019, 83% of respondents replied in the positive that the bank’s benefits programme meets their needs. “That gives a high level indication that we are pretty much hitting the mark with what people need,” says Midwinter.

At a glance

Natwest Group is a financial services organisation. Its brands include Natwest, Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), Ulster Bank and Coutts.

Job roles at the group vary from branch staff to investment traders, customer and non-customer facing, innovation to governance. It has around 45,000 to 50,000 employees in the UK, Republic of Ireland (ROI) and offshore, and 60,000 globally.

It has a fairly even split between male and female employees, and across age bands as per data from its annual benefits election window in 2019.

Business objects that impact on employee benefits

CEO Alison Rose’s purpose is to champion the potential of people, families and businesses. During the Covid-19 crisis, this has meant prioritising the safety and wellbeing of employees.

Career history

Sharon Midwinter, benefits lead, joined the Natwest Group in 2012. Midwinter started her career as a pensions actuarial consultant with PWC in 2004 before joining the bank in an internal actuarial role in 2012. She then moved to  a role supporting the trustees of a number of the bank’s pension schemes to manage all aspects of running the schemes in 2017, before taking on the role as benefits lead in 2019.

Midwinter says her proudest achievements are: “Helping others to bring the best of themselves to work every day, and setting up a new team from scratch to ensure effective management of the bank’s pension schemes in ROI/Offshore.

“I’m very much hoping our new benefits platform launching next year will be one of those successes,” she says.

Career history

Fiona McAslan joined the Natwest Group in 2004. Her career in the bank began as HR consultant in its services function before moving to HR business partner. She then took up a role as a policy consultant before taking the wellbeing consultant role and then lead role in 2015. McAslan is proud of providing wellbeing support to over 60,000 colleagues and particularly proud of the wellbeing support it has put in place in response to the pandemic.

“As we move to being a purpose-led bank, I’m particularly proud of the support we provide to colleagues, communities and businesses every day and helping them thrive during what is a difficult time for everyone,” she says.