When an employer already offers a generous variety of benefits, finding innovative ways of rewarding staff is a continual challenge, and one that Merseyrail’s Andy Parry relishes. Peter Crush has been to meet him

Andy Parry

One of the most heavily used railways networks outside London is Merseyrail. And outwardly, it seems to fit the image of an organisation where excellent, union-influenced perks have not only been the norm – with final salary pensions and free rail travel – but they’re now so part of the wallpaper most staff probably don’t appreciate what they really get.

For head of engagement and reward Andy Parry though, this is just the sort of challenge that gets him up in the morning. Indeed, for the past few years he’s been on a mission to reinvigorate and remind staff of the benefits they already get, but also do the unthinkable in railways – add even more.

“Our sector can be very traditional,” he confesses. “We’ve 1,300 staff, and our average length of service is 19 years. We don’t have a recruitment problem, so people rightly ask: ‘Why tinker with benefits?’”

Indeed, unlike other rail operators, which often have an eye on when the next franchise bid is coming round, Merseyrail is solid for another 12 years at least, so this operator more than most might appear to have even less need to change things. But, as he says: “I want to make our employees feel valued. We have a set of core behaviours, including being ‘proactive’, ‘genuine’ and ‘professional’, and it’s my belief you have to recognise staff continually and in new ways.”

It’s thanks to this view that’s led to Merseyrail develop ‘Going the Extra Mile’ – an online recognition platform, where staff can nominate each other. When they do so, colleagues earn points, and for every 250 they receive, they can convert them into £25-worth of vouchers.

“Sure, there was nervousness in terms of budgets,” he says. “But I wanted to make it clear that recognition was no longer about how well you got on with line managers, but how others perceive you as well.”

Managers also have discretion to hand out instant reward cards. “If people do great things, we think it’s right they should be recognised, rather than be rewarded for doing the bare minimum,” says Parry. “That’s why we also run annual staff awards too – with 18 categories, including ‘living the values’.”

According to Parry, the recognition scheme is part of making staff benefits at Merseyrail more visible – because when staff are aware of what they already have, they are more appreciative.

But it’s also why he’s been instrumental in developing a total rewards statement, as well as bolstering the existing portal to add choice.

He says: “Our new benefits platform was rolled out last year by Personal Group, and central to this was a communications plan (involving face-to-face meetings) around the new perks and the new e-total reward statements, that also remind them of what they already had.”

After the new statements were launched there was an 80% increase in the use of staff perks, showing that knowledge of benefits equals greater use of them.

New benefits include negotiated discounts with local shops, and cinema and shopping vouchers, but it’s the perks they already have but may not always remember that get real attention – such as the Level 1 Health Shield plan, and a variety of salary sacrifice options – including cycle to work and home computing (so that staff can buy iPads).

Parry argues that it’s through constant communication that cycle to work has now hit an impressive 14% uptake among staff, while uptake of holiday vouchers is around the 10% mark.

Most new perks are of the voluntary-nature, because the core benefits are already so good. For instance, any staff member unfortunate to face a long-term illness is entitled to six months’ full pay, then six months half pay before statutory sick pay even begins to kick in.

Other existing perks also include long service awards and free rail travel for family as well as themselves. But Parry still wants to offer more.

“We don’t own our trains, or our tracks,” he explains. “The only asset we really have is our employees, so my job is to make them feel as valued and recognised as possible.”

Recent success he’s had included persuading O2 to construct a special deal just for him on mobile phone contracts for staff. “I got O2 to build a scheme where we could give staff up to 30% off and other preferential rates for handsets,” he says. In addition to this, Parry is trialling giving smartphones to all frontline staff.

Not surprisingly, the culmination of these efforts is a huge boost in engagement scores. Total reward statements were launched in October, a month before Merseyrail ran its Employee Engagement Survey. The results have been impressive. Merseyrail’s engagement score rose from 665 to 705 – its highest-ever score and the highest in the rail industry at that time.

Further analysis of the scores showed the reward aspect of its engagement model showed the greatest improvement, with reward increasing by 17% from the previous year, with the score improving from 107 to 128 points.

So, is there anything left he can still do?

“Oh yes,” says Parry. “We need our people to be 150% committed – so that’s still my challenge.

I’m seeing how I can enhance our health and wellbeing offering, and also how we can develop more as a community-based organisation – where our people can help raise awareness of local issues by doing more volunteering and other activities.”

One area that could become reality soon is salary sacrifice cars. He says: “If we go ahead I’ve already decided we wouldn’t pocket the savings, but donate them to our ‘charity of the year’.”

And does he think he’ll be able to make the business case for these, and other ideas? “That’s always difficult,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “But I’m lucky. Our directors know that engaged people have better outputs. Our passenger numbers are going up, our net promoter scores are going up, and we’re holding our best talent, but I’m not prepared to sit still.”