Everything is moving online, and mobile devices are never far from our hands. Helen Swire examines how the employee benefits industry has capitalised on this
Technology is synonymous for connection with other people,” said Sebastian Thrun, innovator, entrepreneur, computer scientist and former Google vice president. In other words, quite the authority on all things technological.
In a world where everything is accessible online – and most things are accessible in mobile format in our pockets – it is hardly surprising that employers are seizing the opportunities offered by the progression of technology.
Indeed, there has been something of an explosion in this space as hubs, modellers, portals and so on increasingly become the rule for benefit provision.
A portal for everything
So just what can employers do with tech in the reward and benefit space?
“From a company’s point of view the advantage is that it is really driving employee engagement with the benefits package,” says Julian Foster, managing director of Computershare. “If benefits are delivered through disparate means, with separate communications, then employees can’t fully understand the value of their package. By delivering them through one portal, it is easier for the employer to see which benefits are getting most interest and segment or tailor accordingly, as well as reducing administration overheads.”
The key progression in the past year or so has been the major movement towards use of tech by flexible benefit providers via hubs and single sign-on technology.
Single sign-on allows employees to log into their network and access not only their employer’s intranet, but all their benefits – regardless of the individual providers their employer works with.
“The challenge is to create an umbrella system that connects all an employee’s benefits,” says Jamie Mackenzie, director of marketing at Sodexo.
“The user experience is becoming easier to navigate and access. The other key thing about accessibility is the hardware – it used to be desktop-based access, but now by default everything is available in a mobile-optimised format, so both staff and employers can access benefits information anywhere.”
The most common use thus far for employee benefit portals has been this ‘umbrella system’. However, some benefits are seeing their own progression in the space of employee technology:
Pensions and savings
Portals such as Intelligent Pensions’ Pathways have existed for some time – in its case, specifically in the pre- and at-retirement space.
More pensions, financial education and workplace savings providers are moving in this direction, in order to support employees with the huge choices they have to make not just at retirement, but throughout their working lives.
Andrew Storey, sales director at eValue, says: “There is a need to do something about your pension pot before you reach retirement, and work out how much you need to save to get where you want to be. These are fairly monumental decisions – and employers and providers are finding that technology can make it easier.”
The technology is also attracting younger savers. “The tech is now coming into play as an encouragement to people to start saving from an early age,” Storey says. “And it’s helping them to keep that saving going – rather than panicking about finances at a later date.”
Employee health and wellbeing is another area that is taking advantage of our attachment to mobile devices.
From the more ‘rudimentary’ mechanics of healthcare technology such as making claims online or viewing policy details via a portal or account, some providers are driving bigger change via health and wellbeing apps.
BHSF Employee Benefits, for example, is steering this evolution through the use of handheld technology by putting health plans, virtual GPs, prescription services and so on at the touch of a mobile button on a single page.
But they are also thinking outside the box. “If a benefit is seldom used, simply putting it on an app is like planting a dead tree,” warns Brian Hall, managing director of BHSF. “You have to bring it to life: bringing together everyday things like fitness, nutrition or shopping discounts has allowed us to get an interaction with the customer base. By giving employees something interactive and real time, we’ve seen an instant reaction.”
This point is valid beyond healthcare, and similarly, putting in place a flashy portal with all the bells and whistles isn’t a worthwhile investment if employees don’t use it. With technology able to facilitate simple workforce segmentation this should be an easy win for employers.
“What businesses are offering their staff – and how – needs to meet the demographics of the audience and the objectives of the company. We’re encouraging HR teams to study their staff through focus groups and surveys, to understand what it is they’re looking for, and what motivates them and drives them,” says Mackenzie.
The second stage is then, of course, to communicate what you have put in place to meet these needs.
“You can run a programme with every scheme going, but if you don’t communicate it properly, then people aren’t going to be aware of it or use it,” agrees Computershare’s Foster. “The better employers, who understand how to maximise their return on investment, are those who drive engagement with employees, whether through regular feedback or establishing what is used most.”
Connecting with the employer
Mike Morgan, the chief executive and founder of PeopleValue, makes the case for hubs and portals in very simple terms: “People can see their total reward, and it’s a much more engaging interface, especially when it comes to peer-to-peer recognition. The integration of these solutions is making benefits more user-friendly and positive.”
Morgan’s view is shared among industry experts. By consolidating benefits into one easily accessed place, employees can log on and see – in real time – their reward statement, the value of their package, even the things that they didn’t know they had access to.
Many technology providers are able to build portals and hubs to fit the employer brand: adding engagement not just with the benefits on there, but with the employer providing them.
In practical terms, using technology to disseminate benefits has a value to employers:
*Meeting the needs of employees regardless of their role or location
*Easy segmentation and communication of who is eligible for which benefit
*Increased productivity of employees supported by virtual healthcare or financial education
*Visibility of uptake and access to key data analytics
Always at work – or a work/life balance?
All of this is, of course, is to the employee’s advantage: whether that is seeing, and making use of, all of their flexible and voluntary benefits, accessing a GP out-of-hours with a health concern, or learning how to better manage their finances.
But is the 24/7 nature of this technology encouraging the intrusion of work into employees’ free time, or is it allowing them a better, more flexible, work-life balance?
According to Sodexo, 50% of the UK workforce will be made up of millennials by 2020: something that, over the next few years, will trigger a gradual change to the mind-set of employees.
“They will want mobility and work-life balance,” suggests Sodexo’s Mackenzie. “Without question, technology facilitates working outside the office environment, and helps to keep people outside of the office connected to the business.”
Technology also taps into the changing nature of communication among younger people: remote connections via social media are not unusual, and employee technology can tap into this to give more flexibility and communication.
Of course, creating a hub that can be accessed remotely is not an instant solution to issues around flexible hours.
“With flexible working, policies and procedures and applications can of course be automated, too,” concedes Computershare’s Foster. “But that has to be an attitudinal change for some employers, who need to realise that different staff members need different things.”
This attitudinal change won’t happen overnight – but there is no doubt that employee benefits’ tech will continue to make progress, and also become more accessible to smaller companies.
What we can expect is a real focus on the user experience: making portals useful to employers and intuitive for their workforce.
“Next year will be about making websites more modern, simple, informative and sharp,” says eValue’s Storey. “There’ll be modelling and gamification. The trend, short term, is towards more interaction.”
“Ease of use is a core driver in regards to programme delivery,” Mackenzie agrees. “In 2017 businesses will be looking at how they can simplify benefits technology to make it easy for their audience to understand and to access.”
It’s all falling into place – the next stop is engagement.