BGL Financial services rewards manager Claire Whieldon knows she has to please a particularly savvy workforce. Peter Crush reports

ClaireWeildon BGL

When your biggest brand is predicated on weighing up what’s out there and showing people what they might be missing – it’s a fair assumption that making comparisons becomes a habit.

But for Claire Whieldon, rewards manager at Peterborough-based BGL Group – the company behind meerkat-marketed site comparethemarket.com – that’s fine. “We always check to make sure our proposition is appropriate,” she says.

But maybe it’s because Whieldon can feel confident that the 2,000 staff who work for comparethemarket.com and the other insurance brands BGL owns (including Beagle

Street and Budget Insurance), probably won’t find any better anywhere. For if BGL is one thing, it’s thorough.

The crucial change came 18 months ago, when the rewards manager role was moved out of shared services into a job in its own right – to reflect, says Whieldon, the fact that BGL is a “high-performance company, where it is only appropriate that if we ask a lot of staff, we also need to give a lot back”.

Since then its approach to reward has been nothing short of extensive, starting with the not-insignificant task of promoting pensions auto-enrolment in October 2013: “The average age of our workforce is 36 – so promoting long-term benefits in particular is difficult,” she says. “But we have had huge success. We had 788 members immediately prior to auto-enrolment but by the time it went live, it was 1,876 members.”

She adds: “Our staff are highly numerate – and that’s been something we’ve really been able to use to our advantage. Our promise to reinvest the savings we gain from staff paying into a pension via salary sacrifice has really resonated.”

Not surprisingly, in a business dominated by staff needing to hit sales/new business targets, pounds-in-the-pocket benefits are still king. Bonuses play a large part of this, but even these were recently changed from being based on individual commission to being based on overall company performance.

“We want to create a one-company culture,” says Whieldon. “To do this though, we also believe in being seen to share our success, to create a more authentic company identity.”

That’s why there’s a plethora of more lighter-touch benefits too: “Integral to this are our once-a-month FAB Awards – a prize draw with 13 prizes, including extra leave, weekend breaks, iPads, and a top prize of £3,000. Everyone’s name is entered – it’s not dependent on performance – and the buzz around it is amazing.”

Also designed to create a buzz are BGL’s ‘Instants’ rewards programme, where colleagues are able to nominate and reward each other. Treats could be anything from managers leaving a cupcake on a person’s desk, to giving away a company car space for a week or awarding half a day’s holiday.

This is in addition to the company’s online platform – called ‘Perkz’ – which also gives staff money off, including 12% off Apple products. In an inventive use of resources, BGL’s IT department recently became involved with this, visiting staff at their desks to audit their personal tech and to see if they could benefit from the discount.

Having ‘fun’ is specifically written in what the culture of BGL should be, so in addition to discounts and bonuses, its head office is no stranger to pop-up bars in the car park on hot summer days. Last autumn it played host to a zombie invasion, when on Halloween everyone dressed up as the walking dead.

The overall list of standard benefits is now hugely impressive (see box, left) – including providing all staff with income protection at 75% replacement income for life (usually this is an exec-level perk), and the phenomenally popular staff canteen (£2 for a full roast dinner).

But although the company is overt about having a performance culture, Whieldon is equally focused on developing its flexibility proposition.

“We offer the buying and selling of holiday – up to three days can be bought each year,” she says. Already this year 617 employees have opted to trade their entitlement.

Whieldon says: “Flexibility is granted on trust. We feel this is simply the right thing to do, and we believe it will help us attract and retain more great people.”

None of these perks are offered on a whim. BGL invites staff feedback, and every 18 months it checks how the reward strategy is performing. “It’s more listening to what people say, rather than always crunching numbers,” says Whieldon, who personally visits staff weekly.

Whieldon herself is a former reward manager at pharmaceuticals company Napp (formerly number 3 in the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For list).

Feedback has resulted in all contact centre staff being able to have a massage at their desk, while a perk being explored at the moment is how well an at-launch 20% life insurance discount has gone. Insurance-related perks should be easy to provide – but only if there is demand for them, Whieldon says.

However, history proves that these are coveted. A £40 cashback for employees buying from comparethemarket.com has encouraged 461 employees to take advantage of 950 insurance products in the past three years.

The latest benefit to come from feedback is the introduction of cycle-to-work. “It is being implemented at the moment,” says Whieldon. “We already have changing facilities, because many staff already do the reverse commute from London to Peterborough. The office is a good ten minutes away from the station, and although we provide a coach service, we see this is a great addition to our health and wellbeing strategy.”

She adds: “In typical BGL style though, the board will take part in a ‘cycle challenge’.”

But perhaps none of this should come as a surprise. “There are some firms that are extremely paternalistic, while others are empowering in their nature,” says Whieldon. “You can see we’re definitely of the empowering variety!”