How is technology changing the delivery of employee benefits on a global scale?

Technology global benefits
  • Although there are some universals, benefits are often subject to local cultural, tax and regulatory differences, which multinational organisations must then try to align with a global strategy.
  • Digital channels can be used to create effective communication around what benefits are available in each location, as well as easing access and implementation.
  • A data-led approach can help harmonise local benefits offerings, as well as providing insight into the different needs of employees in varied locations and demographics.

For multinational businesses, delivering a global benefits offering that fits with a consistent vision while also providing for the varied needs of employee groups in different locations can be a significant challenge.

Often, these organisations will agree on a globally consistent approach, which is then delivered through a locally adapted package, fit for purpose in the specific market while remaining consistent with the global policy.

Technology is an important force in enabling this approach to run smoothly. As technology by its nature changes constantly, decision-makers must keep track of how this affects their benefits strategies on a global scale.

Global differences

Given the complexity of employee benefits and how they tie in with social security, tax systems and local market regulations, not every benefit can be implemented identically across multiple countries. However, there are some offerings that can remain relatively consistent.

Valentina Rocchi, health and benefits expert at Willis Towers Watson, says: “An example is a global minimum level of life insurance cover across countries. In this case, the design is typically consistent across countries, or at least no worse.

“The provider and insurance contract is typically local, but it can be possible to centralise most of the cover through a single insurer in certain circumstances. With employee assistance programmes [EAPs], the provider and the contract is often global, as well as the benefit level.”

Life and accident related benefits are also relatively easy to implement on a global basis, particularly when deploying the right technology and data solutions, says Paolo Ribotta, chief executive officer (CEO) of Generali Employee Benefits.

“Centralised organisations are able to harmonise benefit design across their geographies for social responsibility purposes,” he says. “Disability or medical plans interlinked with state reimbursements and tax driven are unlikely to be distributed globally, but employers can achieve consistency across geographies.

“These local covers can then be integrated through network global solutions, which provide global servicing and coordination, data and reporting to the customer headquarters. In addition, services provided by global platforms like tele-medicine and mental health are easier to be adopted and implemented globally.”

However, healthcare benefits can be difficult to implement consistently on a global level, as the appropriate level and type of benefits will vary across countries, she adds.

For example, the UK benefits from a robust and largely free NHS, but Rocchi says: “In contrast, very few qualify for free healthcare in the US, therefore, the need for private insurance is much greater. In Europe, many countries have government mandates that compel individuals to have a certain level of cover, like Germany or Netherlands for example, or Italy where they have collective bargaining agreements, which may impose a certain level of benefits.”

Laura Douglas, global benefits solutions leader at Aon, adds: “Allowances are an area where the benefit offerings tend to vary quite a bit from country to country; for example, housing and car allowances. By their nature, the components, limits and fees of these types of offerings will need to be set up at a country level. However, this does not need to impact the employee experience.”

Due to the diversity of global benefits and employee needs, it can be difficult to implement the same programme with the same vendor across multiple countries.

Although there may be a few countries with similar design and level of benefits across Asia, Africa and Latin America, for example, a roll-out would have to be approached on a country-by-country basis, explains Rocchi.

“We are starting to see the emergence of regional providers in these regions,” she says. “However, we’re also seeing an umbrella life insurance plan being rolled out across the Middle East, whereby the same provider and contract is used across a number of countries.”

Ed Barry, national managing director, HR technology consulting practice at Gallagher, explains that even on a domestic level, he advises organisations to define their specific requirements and then identify a best-fit solution.

“Take that to the international level, and now you’ve added complexities associated with language, culture, security and even local regulatory environments. What is permissible in the UK may not be allowed in China. Also, most of the high-quality software is English-based. While language recognition technology has come a long way, it’s still imperfect, especially when dealing with non-Roman character languages, such as Arabic, Cyrillic or Chinese,” he says.

Effective communication

Any HR professional will understand the importance of technology when it comes to communicating and providing practical information around benefits. Whether simple email campaigns or a dedicated, sophisticated portal, technology is key to getting the message across.

This becomes increasingly important when employees are dispersed across different locations and countries, which creates additional challenges not just in reaching each individual, but also in communicating exactly which benefits apply to them.

Digital channels such as a portal or intranet can be integral in terms of providing information on how different benefits can be accessed, links to external sites and material, and opportunities to enrol.

Employers can also pull data from each country, in order to enhance the efficiency of its operating model, and improve communications and messaging around benefits. Technology can also provide channels through which to gather feedback from employees on how the global benefits proposition is working on a local level.

Today’s technology enables multinational employers to deliver a consistent employee experience, as well as easing the communication and delivery of benefit programmes, says Rebekah Haymes, health and benefits expert at Willis Towers Watson.

“Technology can be adapted to suit the needs of different countries, employee cohorts or individual employees, so it adequately supports differing programmes as per country and eligibility groups,” she says.

“Aside from the ability to drive strong employee engagement with benefits, today’s technology will reduce the administration burden falling on local and global benefits managers. Enrolment activities can be managed digitally and reporting on payroll deductions and vendor reporting can be fully automated.”

Harmonising benefits

In order to achieve a global benefits programme that is universally effective, organisations can rely on technology in order to harmonise offerings in different locations. This does not mean providing an exact replica of the same benefits in each geography, as this is unlikely to fit with local differences and needs.

Instead, employers must look to provide an equitable offering rather than an identical one, and technology is integral to this.

Without robust technology on board, businesses run the risk of offering an unsatisfactory solution from market to market, which not only creates a disjointed employee experience, but can become expensive and administratively heavy, says Gautam Sahgal, CEO of Perkbox.

“Beyond catering to local needs, a key responsibility for HR is having a universal offering that ties directly to the employer’s purpose and which represents the experience they want employees to have, wherever they are,” he explains.

“It makes the delivery of global benefits far easier for HR teams, whilst giving employees a seamless and more enjoyable user experience.”

Douglas agrees that the key to meeting employee needs across the globe is in not forcing each country into the same experience, but rather aligning each one to a service offering that is appropriate, all within an overall global framework.

A robust technology solution is a critical component for rolling out a benefits programme globally, not only providing timely access and adaptability to situations, but also ensuring correct offerings are presented through eligibility and scenario-driven rules.

Consistency across multiple locations is not just about providing equitable benefits packages, but a seamless experience for both the employee and the organisation, and the ability to use data effectively can ensure smooth access and implementation.

“It can inhibit improper data entry by validating employee information,” explains Douglas. “It also speeds up downstream vendor and payroll updates, which shortens the time from being assigned to a selection of coverage to actually having coverage setup with the provider. It also supports the modes and methods that employees interact with their benefits, via mobile app, desktop and contact centre.

“These days, technology can also provide the ability to analyse information and gain from data validations, receiving alerts when data from source systems does not match expectations.”

Aon’s online benefit teams found that while they were technically challenged due to the impact of the global pandemic, the service they were able to provide was underpinned by their technology platform, which was distributed to staff globally and is accessible online or via a mobile app.

When employees across the globe were suddenly working remotely, Aon’s teams were able to  shift to a work from home strategy, ensuring that providers were kept informed of insured participants, who received cover on time and when needed, explains Douglas.

Haymes adds: “Technology enables multinational employers to deliver a consistent employee experience regarding the communication and delivery of benefit programmes. Technology may be used simply to communicate what is available, such as providing information on how benefits can be accessed, providing links to external sites and material, providing opportunities to enrol or it can be extended to support choice through flexible and voluntary benefits.

The new normal

The Covid-19 pandemic pushed and accelerated digitisation across all walks of life, and employee benefits is no exception. One of the most significant changes was the realisation for many organisations and individuals that remote work is not only possible, but also in many instances beneficial.

While there are many pros and cons to an increasingly hybrid or remote workforce, this means changing needs among employees, says Kimberly Perryman, vice president of people at Virtana.  For example, a remote member of staff might have a different set of needs compared with someone who commutes into their place of work every day.

As Perryman concludes: “Because of this, organisations were met with challenges when it came to rolling out employee-wide benefits, prompting them to take a deeper look into this ever-changing landscape.

“But technology has helped manage the complexity, allowing organisations to offer each individual the benefits they need wherever they may be located.”

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