A switched-on approach

12 February 2018

This article was featured in the March 2018 issue of the magazine.

As workforces today become increasingly dispersed, Kavitha Sivasubramaniam, freelance writer and editor, looks at the growing move towards the digital administration and delivery of employee benefits

ith technology having permeated every aspect of our lives, it’s perhaps unsurprising that more people now expect their employers to communicate, operate and deliver workplace benefits and rewards digitally. Whereas once upon a time offering benefits in this way was considered only appropriate for desk-based workers, the increasing popularity of smartphones and tablets has meant this is no longer the case since most employees can now go online anytime, from anywhere.

But what are the advantages for employers, and how can they ensure they get the best value from their digital packages? The first step is to look at what they are currently offering staff and assess whether there is anything to gain by moving their benefits online.

In today’s workplaces electronic payslips and online expenses systems are becoming increasingly common, so arguably it’s only right that benefits provisions should follow suit. “The whole world is now online and offering digital benefits is a win-win for employers,” says Carsten Staehr, chief executive officer of Cintra HR & Payroll Services. “The only way to do it successfully is by empowering people to do it themselves. Self-service gives them the flexibility to choose the benefits they want.” However, he warns that the company must have a clear strategy and carefully consider what they are going to be offering, as well as the consequences of having to remove any benefits at a later stage.

 

Embracing change

University of Lincoln has embraced the move towards digital, which is reflected in its employee benefits offering. It strives to deliver employee rewards and benefits that are accessible and well communicated via the internet.

“Our workforce is becoming more dispersed and we are also seeing changes in the way we are working. We are looking to offer services around the clock to make them available when an individual wants to access them instead of them having to depend on when we have a physical presence in an office,” explains Ian Hodson, head of reward at University of Lincoln. 

The university is constantly seeking ways in which it can build on employee engagement, and digital availability is a big part of creating a brand identity for its benefits. Using a digital platform also means it is able to build in automatic triggers that encourage user interaction, such as email prompts of new offers or when there are competitions open for staff, according to Hodson. “These are all part of drawing individuals back to the university’s platform to remind them of everything that is on offer,” he says. “We have found in the past that what can happen is we have really good engagement with individuals in their first few months of starting with us but then we can sometimes lose that relationship.” 

Recognising how important the first two years of employment are in retaining a new member of staff, the university aims to take every opportunity to remind individuals just how good it is as an employer.  “We know how important this is to motivate and engage,” Hodson adds. “We simply would not be able to do this as well without a digital platform that also serves as an advert and communication tool.”

 

...must have a clear strategy and carefully consider what they are going to be offering...

 

Making digital work in practice

The university’s Linc-On reward platform is a bespoke site accessible on the web that hosts all aspects of the employee package, from recognition rewards to lifestyle benefits and onsite discounts. It means individuals can find everything they need in one place, rather than having to go to several different sources.

“It is important to us to make sure employees engage with our offering and having a single ‘one-stop’ site means that everyone always knows where to log on to in respect of their benefits,” explains Hodson.

In terms of the digital benefits available, the university has tried to develop this offering over the last few years to support the blurred line of individuals using home devices for work activities. It gives employees the chance to purchase computer software and virus protection software to support them with their home computing systems. They can also purchase discounted IT products through national benefits providers. 

Other benefits that are offered on a digital basis include healthcare support, and the university is also looking at how it can offer GP (general practitioner) services online to address the way in which it supports its international workforce.

According to Brian Hall, chief commercial officer at health and wellbeing benefits provider BHSF, buying and selling holiday, salary sacrifice pension schemes, employee assistance programmes and legal services are among the most attractive benefits that are delivered digitally, but 24/7 access to GPs has seen the biggest rise in popularity. “Nowadays people don’t tend to live and work in the same place so having access to a GP online means time off work is minimised,” he says. “People are also getting more used to accessing what they want when they want it – they are less inclined to plan time commitments and want services instantly. This can only be delivered digitally.”

 

Cost and administration

According to BHSF, going digital has driven down the cost of benefits for employers. One reason they have made cost savings is because it’s no longer a case of printing material but rather about making pdf files available. “Benefits that used to cost hundreds of pounds now costs tens of pounds,” says Hall. “Costs have fallen dramatically since there are no distribution or print costs, now they are much more manageable.”

He adds that in the current climate employers are facing increased costs due to rising pensions contributions, minimum wage rates and the apprenticeship levy, so any savings they can make in the benefits area are welcome. However, this means that they can simply continue to provide them rather than reinvest the savings in new provisions.

University of Lincoln built a bespoke platform with a third-party provider and ensured its benefits site reflected exactly what it wanted and reflected the ethos of the charity. “We were very lucky to find a supplier who shared in our vision and was keen to create a site with us as almost an experiment,” says Hodson. “To this extent our Linc-On site was built based on the cost of a little development time and we now just pay a small fee for hosting.” 

He explains that it was important that the university was able to adapt the site as it wanted and remained in control of the content, updates and engagement tools such as newsletters and the tickertape alerts. “This keeps down our admin costs and keeps us as self-sufficient without needing any external expertise to update the site,” Hodson adds.

The CIPP’s digital benefits are offered via a platform that provides discounts for services including shopping, holidays and cinema trips. “The key benefits are to provide employees with the opportunity to purchase products and services at a discounted price. The cost is minimal and there are no administrative implications,” explains Shirley Harris, head of human resources, payroll and cash management at CIPP.

 

...take-up of the digital benefits can be as high as sixty to seventy per cent...

 

Improving accessibility

The ways in which digital benefits are communicated is just as important as the methods used to promote non-digital offerings. The message has to be clearly conveyed to staff and employers must ensure they are consistent. The best way to do so is by using digital methods such as e-campaigns, intranet campaigns, text campaigns. The employer needs to be engaged with the communications and if they get it right take-up of the digital benefits can be as high as sixty to seventy per cent. 

According to BHSF, the two key advantages of digital benefits are that they make it easier to keep provisions up to date and they are readily available at the time they are needed. “We’re trying to make it as easy as possible to make benefits accessible at the right time, for example, giving employees the opportunity to access them when they’re at home for themselves or for a member of their family,” says Hall. “If they are on tap at the point of need this leads to higher levels of engagement, as well as having a deeper and broader reach into the employee base.”

For this reason, the University of Lincoln is equally committed to the cause.

“We will continue to offer benefits through a digital platform and continue to broaden our offering of digital benefits encouraging suppliers to support engagement and accessibility this way,” explains Hodson. “Accessibility remains a big driver in all we do and digital is the main way we can achieve this. The more we can offer digitally the more time we can spend as a team promoting engagement, raising awareness and communicating.”

 

The challenges of moving online

Although there are several advantages associated with digital benefits, it would be naïve of an employer not to consider the potential pitfalls. “Everything has to be online now, which is a good thing but can create challenges,” says Staehr. “From a processing point of view, the main hurdle is interfacing since digital benefits provisions have to work with the payroll system, for example when it comes to buying and selling holiday. This can be quite tricky.”

He adds that it’s not enough for employers to simply put their benefits online and leave employees to it – there must be adequate offline support in place to help employees get the most from their digital provision, i.e. someone has to be available to assist if and when problems arise.

Another issue employers should be mindful of is that digital benefits can arguably be most effective when used to support and enhance non-digital provisions because going online isn’t for everyone. “There aren’t any benefits that don’t work when delivered digitally, but there are some components of the workforce that don’t consume digitally,” explains Hall. “The population is digitally savvy but people have their own preferred learning style – tactile, oral, etc – and this should be broadly reflected in benefits consumption.”

Employers should also take care to ensure statements are provided so that staff know exactly what they are gaining from their digital benefits. “Companies need to show employees the value of what they’re offering and must be able to prove they’re helping them so their workforce appreciates it,” Staehr says. 

 

Keeping up with the times

With more people wanting – and expecting – online access to all aspects of their employment data, organisations that fail to embrace digital will risk losing key talent from within their business. They may also suffer reputational damage since prospective employees may view them as being outdated and behind the times. “It is important to us that how we offer benefits through a digital platform and 24/7 accessibility reflects how we look to do things as a business,” says Hodson. “We also know that the little touches around recognition or saving a few pounds can really help with retention and we very much want to be a trusted friend to our workforce helping them out with all aspects of life, not just when they are in the workplace.”

The future of digital benefits is well beyond the control of the benefits industry and is heavily influenced by what the main digital market does, such as the likes of Amazon and Facebook, according to Hall. “The market is being led by digital pioneers and people will expect the same level of delivery,” he says. “Benefits will get much more relevant and tailored towards an individual’s specific needs.”

According to Hall, because digital is a two-way medium, clients are informing what is being done in terms of product innovation. “Content is being led by the customers,” he concludes. “It will become the norm to deliver benefits digitally because that’s the way everything is going.” 

So, with digital benefits offering a whole host of advantages for both employees and employers – and in light of the fact that they are clearly here to stay – perhaps now is the time to ensure your organisation is switched on.