"Relevance - the desire to be treated as an individual, with all the stresses and strains that are personal to me, is moving from the world of Facebook and Twitter (instant gratification and appreciation of who I am and what I think) to people's perceptions of their needs in the workplace."
Alex Tullett, Head of Benefits Strategy, emphasises one of the key findings from Capita's Employee Insight Report 2015: the search for individuality. The survey, which was conducted among over 3,000 UK employees between February and March, explores the complex nature of benefits programmes in the workplace.
From the study a consistent trend turns out: people have less appreciation of the benefits being offered by their employers.
It turns out that communication, whether in terms of content, media and timing, has a strong impact on the overall benefits strategy. "Symptomatic perhaps of the immense velocity of technology and how it shapes the way employees expect their employers to communicate with them. We're seeing the employee/employer relationship taking on the shape and characteristics more associated with that of a consumer relationship when it comes to benefits," says Louise Harris, Head of Client Communications at Capita.
Employees as consumers
Today's revolution in technology is fundamentally changing all areas of our lives. The expectation of flexibility and choice that people have in their home life when making purchases and decisions, is becoming the case with being able to choose benefits.
We are used to online retailers such as Amazon or Ebay, which can be accessed via a number of channels, whether it is from the laptop, smartphone or tablet, all day, every day. The same should apply at work. As the report puts it: "Different people want different ways of accessing information; people want to do things at different times."
Needless to say, benefits themselves should not remain static or based solely on previous demand. An employee who becomes a parent, for example, may shift their priorities accordingly.
Mixing online, offline and in-person
The research found that all employees of all age groups, gender and salary bands like all of the following communication approaches: online (such as email, intranet and benefits portal), offline (such as leaflets, posters and guides) and in-person (one-to-one meetings and group presentations).
Indeed, a diverse range of employees with a diverse range of preferences put pressure on the internal communicator who needs to consider a variety of channels. However, with the challenge comes the opportunity to really differentiate themselves.
Asking people what they want is the first crucial step. This is also the essence of Capita's study: "it is about listening to what people are saying, to look at their current attitudes and consider what this means." Today, organisations have also the opportunity to combine data analytics to measure the actual decisions with the preferences that employees indicate they would value.
By the same token, the act of asking alone can send a positive message to staff - it shows the organisation's interest in harnessing people's views. But by doing so, action on the given feedback needs to follow.
The 'benefits' of social media?
Generally speaking, while the technology may be ready, people are not. Only 11% of employees would be happy to access benefits via social media. Interestingly, this is a fall from the previous year where 20.8% of people said they wanted to be communicated that way.
The research shows that 30% of employees want to keep their social life and work life completely separate; 28.5% feel that this type of information should be kept private; 23.3% don't want their employer "snooping into their private lives." Privacy is a concern for 22.6% of respondents.
And, if you think that it is a generational thing, think again - the study found that just 18.5% of 16-24 year olds and 15.5% of 25-34 year olds would like to access employee benefits through social media.
A non-invasive solution
However, "a non-invasive social media platform can work," notices the report. Instead of adopting a social platform that staff would associate with their personal life such as Facebook, the alternative would be a new purpose-built tool: "An additional channel for employers to recognise and reward employees on a regular basis could be the way forward."
A good example of such an implementation comes from Capita's itself. The Employee Benefits division have their own benefits portal called 'Orbit' where staff can select benefits from a range. According to the report, individuals are very active when they access to the online benefits platform - over the last year they saw around 1 million log-ins.
"We saw 57,370 employees going online to either review their benefits or make active changes to their benefits via Orbit. Each decision translated to an individual benefit decision - that is 57,370 people making 57,370 benefit choices online," reads the paper. "We also saw 33,445 employees sign-up to regular fund updates on their pension fund; this can be via emails or SMS texts. Although these employees may not be able to keep up-to-date with how their pension is doing, in a format that suits them."
The language that is used to describe benefits can also cause problems. 50% of employees find pension-related terminology to be complicated and confusing, and 39% don't understand the 'jargon'. "It's no surprise, therefore, that many people felt disconnected and unengaged with the pension and benefits their employer provided," claims the paper.
In short, unclear guidelines and explanations put employees off. It would be natural to respond to this finding by providing staff with simple information, focusing less on the scheme itself and more on who the organisation is talking to.
Audience of one
Another interesting highlight is around the notion of the 'audience of one.' Online retailers such us Amazon recommend products to users based on previous purchases, as well as items that people rate and put into their virtual shopping cart.
Capita notes that the same technology exists in the world of employee benefits. Their own Orbit benefits portal has been customised for the 'audience of one' experience. "Behind-the-scenes intelligence ensures the user experience is relevant, based on who the person is and how they are accessing the site. The technology enables employees to get a more relevant experience to them. This in turn can help the overall perception and increase understanding."
So, each employee is presented with information and choices that are personal, which is more likely to make their benefit's journey relevant, simpler, and engaging.
The health of business
Capita's work is able to make workplace benefits an interesting subject to explore. The study is a reminder that we live in a complex yet fascinating world, where social, economic and technological factors constantly shape how we live and work. "Be aware that something new is just under the corner."
Wearable technology like Fitbit, wellbeing apps for mobile, or developments such as Babylon can already provide people with novel means of tracking their health at work. As Alex Tullett puts it: "It is time to think differently about the health of business."
The paper hits the nail on the head when it reports that "technology is part of our lives, in almost everything we do. And technology will continue to be part of our lives, in ways we have yet to dream of.
"People will always have ideas. Perhaps the things that really hold technology back are the public's perception (do we really want this?) and economics (is this affordable?) and, of course, our own imaginations."
So, as long as we care to think about people first and their practical purposes, so does come the opportunity to bring about meaningful change and benefits to employees.