Technology is no longer the future – it’s the present. Helen Swire asks how employers can harness the power of tech in the world of employee benefits
Hubs and portals, modelling tools, Big Data… they are all words synonymous with workplace processes – but what do they mean in reality?
In an increasingly tech-reliant society, employers are taking a more virtual approach to their benefits and HR systems. Everything from the workplace pension to employee recognition perks are matched by a technological offering. So, with seemingly endless options, how do employers choose – and how can investing in this tech really help them?
The much-discussed pension reforms that came into effect in April mean scheme members really need to understand their savings. The changes may have been talked about, but are still poorly understood.
With members able to take their pension pots on retirement, they have opportunities that were not open to them previously. However, retirees must also understand what they can and can’t do, because they are now responsible for making the choices around their retirement savings. For example, an unexpected tax bill is just one consequence of making the wrong decision.
“Members can lack information access points,” says Richard Llambias, head of product strategy at Equiniti. “But if you give people the enablers, they’ll start to become more engaged, and understand more.”
Pension modelling tools allow employees to track the progress of their savings and see what would happen to their retirement income if, for example, they increased their contributions.
These also provide education about pensions flexibilities and tax implications of early access as well as point members in the direction of advice.
So what is the benefit for the employer? Well, as well as fulfilling a paternalistic requirement to educate the workforce, there are commercial imperatives.
With an impact on benefit spend, healthcare and productivity, the ageing workforce is a serious concern for employers. Many cannot risk having staff on their books who can’t afford to retire simply because they have not understood the decisions in front of them.
And then there is the sheer cost. “The pension scheme is costing employers a huge amount each year,” says Llambias. “They need to ensure their members are getting the best value from it.”
An avalanche of healthcare apps has accompanied the rise of the smartphone, with giants such as Apple and Google providing free health, fitness, nutrition and even sleep apps.
The corporate healthcare industry is now moving fast to keep up with this, and insurance and health product providers have launched a range of apps to accompany their workplace offerings.
The ease of access is a boon to employees – no longer does a product need to be advertised by a poster or an initial email campaign. The advent of at-your-fingertips information about healthcare provision means employees who need help can find it with the touch of a button.
Although health apps can be rather fragmented, some, such as Connect from BHSF, are starting to join things up. “Connect puts all the information staff need regularly on one page,” says Brian Hall, managing director at BHSF. “Alongside employees’ standard healthcare or gym membership, it also gives links to crisis help such as legal advice or counselling.”
Like the pension, healthcare is an expensive perk to provide, and the data analytics behind apps allow companies to see what employees are engaging with, and what is less important to them.
“Everyone has an up-to-date view on what healthcare they have available via an app, and employers can direct people straight to that help and push messages about other health services they’ve invested in,” adds Hall.
A new term emerging from the world of technology is SaaS – Software as a Service. Fundamentally, SaaS is moving benefits away from company intranets or servers to an online, ‘cloud’ model.
The result is that employee benefits are no longer ‘workplace’ ones, but can be accessed anywhere, and with flexible and voluntary ones, this is particularly pertinent.
SaaS technology means not only can employers communicate to the workforce what is on offer whenever and wherever they choose, but staff in turn can make their benefit choices and use them on the go.
Discount vouchers, for example, can be accessed and downloaded instantly, meaning that employees’ day-to-day savings are at the click of a button. Meanwhile, reminders about flexible benefit enrolment windows can be easily communicated.
Mike Morgan, chief executive of People Value, champions this approach. He says: “A lot of discount vouchers and voluntary benefits can be used directly from the phone. It makes it as intuitive as possible and removes usage barriers.”
What constitutes an employee’s financial ‘worth’ in a company?
For many people, they will just consider this to be the value of their salary – disregarding the hidden worth represented by their employer’s pension contributions and other benefits, which may add up to a considerable sum.
For a long time the total reward statement has been the mode of communicating a staff member’s wider value – but this has tended to become just another disconnected piece of paper. Total reward portals are arguably one of the most important ways that companies can connect with their workforces.
When an employee logs into such a portal, the first thing that greets them is a monetary summary of their total reward – so they will have a timely reminder that their total worth is much more than just their salary.
Total reward portals also allow employers to bring all their benefits together in a one stop shop. Portals provide a perfect opportunity to engage and communicate with the workforce.
“You could use the portal to do regular promotions, and each time you’re reminding them how many benefits they have as a member of staff,” suggests Karen Partridge, head of client services at AHC.
“Although every employee is given benefits information when they join, there is a great deal to be said in constantly reminding them of what they have.”
‘The power of thanks’ is more than just an expression. During the recession, spending on benefits fell and bonuses were non-existent for many employees. However, many managers discovered that a personal thank you to staff for a job well done is a genuinely motivating workplace tool.
With the rise of portals, praising colleagues has become an easy win in the recognition and motivation stakes.
Using online peer-to-peer comment, nomination or points systems, employers are able to communicate and recognise their staff’s work.
Motivation portals can be specially tailored, whether through prizes, vouchers, awards or even just a simple ‘thank you’ from the managing director.
Dan Kelly, sales and marketing director at Corporate Rewards, explains the appeal of this recognition system. He says: “When employees are recognised at work, they feel happier in their job, are more productive, and drive business results.
“Using innovative technology to manage the rewards programme is very efficient from a time and organisational perspective, and a platform can incorporate your company values, messaging and branding.”
Undoubtedly technology has made employer-employee communications far easier and more accessible – and has become a powerful tool to help bring benefit communications to life.
However, employers need to be wary of over-indulging in email communications: according to a global international communications survey conducted by Shilling, the overwhelming feedback is that people do not like to be bombarded by constant information.
“Where companies are using technology wisely is around the concept of data-driven, integrated, personal experiences – not just pushing out emails or content and hoping people read it,” says Matt Frost, business development director of communication, Shilling.
Using data analytics to ensure communications are relevant, however, can ensure employees are kept up to date with their benefits in an exciting way.
“By keeping the comms fresh, you can also help keep the company heart beating – especially if you can use the channels to talk about good practice or to praise your colleagues,” adds Frost.
The Analytical Add-on
Beyond all the other important facets of running benefits via the tools discussed here, there is a core strand running through all forms of technology that is key to employers – the ‘back end’ data and analytics. Many platforms allow for data reporting to employers.
Thomsons Online Benefits, for example, has recently launched the Darwin Analytics Centre, which maps demographic, enrolment and usage information, meaning that clients see the trends occurring and the relationship between benefits. In this way, employers can understand how their benefits spend is being used, and what is driving value for their staff.
“If the employer understands what employees value, they can use their spend to offer even better packages,” says Brenden Mielke, director of product management, Thomsons Online Benefits. “They can use the data to understand how to create a happier and healthier workforce with better quality lives.”
Healthcare data is of particular importance – employers can use the aggregated data of their workforce to see where the key health trends and problems lie, and understand what their employees need to remain well.
“With that data, employers can build a benefits programme that is valid, appropriate and relevant,” says John Dean, the managing director at PSHPC.
“And fed into their employee profile, they can use it to make their company a better place to work.”
In such a fast-moving world, it is hard to say where technology will head next. Experts believe that there will be an even greater consolidation of data to make information more accessible for both organisations and their employees.
As communications become more personal, more barriers around benefits understanding and involvement – for example concerning pensions and wellbeing – will be knocked down, and engagement and motivation will increase.
People Value’s Morgan sums it up: “Ease of use and accessibility are the key words – that way we will engage employees and keep them happy.”