By Gloria Lombardi

Everyone – not just Millennials – wants to be treated as an individual. Leaders and recruiters recognise the value of having people ‘bring their whole selves’ to work, and of hiring for diversity of background and diversity of thought. This focus on the individual challenges traditional benefits programmes.

The fourth industrial revolution, driven by digital technology, changes all areas of our lives. We expect flexibility and choice in how we earn and spend our money.

We’re used to spending our time and money within easy-to-use apps to help us get things done on the way home from work and while ‘second screening’ in front of the TV. Amazon and eBay have made shopping convenient, providing choice and removing payment barriers. Our work apps should be equally pleasant to use and give us more control over our work life, especially when ‘life events’ change our priorities. For example, a new parent’s priorities will have shifted considerably – shouldn’t their benefits shift in sync as desired?

These types of 21st century considerations prompted the telecommunications service provider Plusnet to work with Benefex to create ‘Plusnet Perks‘ – a benefits strategy and digital platform, which adapts to the individual needs of the employees across the UK.

Tech savvy, highly driven employees

The journey towards Plusnet Perks started in 2015 when Plusnet needed to increase attraction and retention. The workforce was predominantly made up of tech-savvy millennials. Pay and ‘market typical’ benefits were not meeting people’s expectations.

“Employees were asking for greater support with benefits that could help them improve their lifestyle, wellbeing, as well as cost savings,” explains Andrea Kilgour (pictured above), who was the HR Director at Plusnet at the time.

So the organisation needed to reshape its offering, focusing on flexible benefits which would rival the competition and, importantly, represent the unique Plusnet culture.

Employee choice and voice

Plusnet Perks’ guiding principle was ‘employee choice and voice’. Plusnet wanted to exceed expectations and provide benefits that would strike employees as exceptional.

Research was the key. Kilgour and her team initiated an analysis of the employee profile, asking individuals to go through a personal wish list, followed by in-depth surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one conversations. The process is on-going, to ensure Plusnet remains aware of the shifting needs and wants of staff.

“This is absolutely essential now – and it is not just about Millennials. It’s about the whole of what work means to people; 21st century employees want much more than work and pay. Work is a community; work is friendship; work is something to feel proud of because the work matters, and the organisation cares on a number of levels. People want meaning in their everyday work,” says Kilgour.

Championing employee choice and voice at all times allowed Plusnet leaders to learn much more about what was on people’s minds. “Having such close contact with people at every level provided us with a very good understanding of our colleagues’ requirements.”

Employees indicated specific interests in a wide variety of benefits, including discounts on mobile phones, laptops, and TVs; cheaper car parking in city centre locations; and vouchers for holidays abroad.

Analysis of the digital workplace experience marketplace

Kilgour spoke with a number of employee experience and benefits providers and realised “there was a real, mutual fit between ourselves and Benefex”.

Plusnet is a tech and service oriented company. Benefex is too. “They offered us a simple, easy, digital workplace hub – the benefits could be accessed in a way that was quick, intuitive, easy-to-use, and built into an appealing system.

“Our staff could access and view all the benefits at home and discuss them with their family. They could identify what was possible for them, and make a choice from anywhere rather than feeling constrained to make a decision from their desk computers in the office.”

Plusnet being an agile company, needed an agile partner. “We thrive when doing things differently in the market.” Similarly, Benefex was willing to provide beyond ordinary benefits. “They worked hard to help us find solutions to specific problems for our staff rather than merely listing the standard fare.” Employees need benefits to be relevant if they’re to find them attractive and useful.

Benefex also supported Plusnet’s internal communications strategy. “They were able to work with us on this front as well, enabling us to be ourselves. They thought carefully about the kind of campaign that would be right for the culture of the company, as well as right for the types of benefits offered.”

So, with the right technology platform, suitable benefits, the comms support, and the willingness to do things differently, a solid partnership formed.

A unique campaign that centres on the employee

Any new initiative or change needs communicating well – going beyond creating awareness to help drive action.

To build anticipation before launching Plusnet Perks, teaser campaigns and competitions got staff thinking about benefit themes. “Again, we involved our staff, having them be the face of the brand. We included them on all the posters, booklet, and a promotional video,” explains Kilgour.

They identified 18 champions from across the business to be advocates, training them on the system and the benefits so they could be the point of contact for staff to find out more.

To launch the new benefits programme, Kilgour and the team organised a roadshow where staff could talk to benefit suppliers and get their questions answered. Everyone got a slice of branded cake to enjoy as they walked around and collected freebies.

“We kept it relaxed and regional focused as Plusnet is famously Yorkshire based. The invitation was ‘desk dropped’ along with a branded mug, Yorkshire teabag, and biscuits. The opening line was ‘Make a brew and take a gander’.”

The benefits of working at Plusnet

As research revealed, employees wanted more help with the everyday essentials, for example, car parking options. Plusnet and Benefex worked with a local car park and local transport providers to broker a deal to halve the cost of car parking, and reduce and spread the cost of public transport.

Employees could access affordable gadgets such as gaming consoles, laptops, TVs, and mobile phones via salary sacrifice.

To increase employee retention, tenure-based benefits were offered; the longer someone works at Plusnet, the more benefit choices they get. It’s an additional reward, a perk, for longer service.

A number of personal stories have showed the effects of offering employee-focused benefits. One member of staff was worried about the cost of childcare. The childcare vouchers benefit meant she was able to return to full-time work after maternity leave knowing that the vouchers gave the savings she needed. “This was especially important to her as she was in the early stages of a new career, and wanted as much experience and development as possible.” The employee regularly tells people how awesome Plusnet Perks is.

According to Kilgour, there was an exceptional uptake of Plusnet Perks from the start. There was an improvement in attrition rates and in overall absence. The organisation saw greater employee engagement off the back of it. “Ninety per cent of our call centre employees were saying they were proud to be part of the company; very few people who had taken any of our benefits left the company the following year; the number of colleagues referring friends to come and work in the business started to rise.”

The scheme has also become a unique attraction tool for recruitment. A Front End Developer, Luke Todd, says, “When I was going through the recruitment process, Plusnet Perks was brought up a couple of times. The job itself was already a big interest to me. But with the addition of all the perks, it made it seem even better! It definitely had a very positive impact on my decision to join.”

Engagement is a complicated and complex matter, and the improvements in retention, absence, and recruitment will have been affected by many factors. But the successful take-up of Benefex’s flexible benefits platform indicated to Kilgour that they’d made a positive impact. That and the many happy stories shared by staff. “That gave us the confidence that we were doing the right things. From an employee experience perspective, we were showing that we were listening to our people. We looked like a company that genuinely cared.”

Moving forward

Nothing stands still at Plusnet. Employees have continued to voice their preferences, and a new range of initiatives has been introduced along with a second wave of benefits. “We have addressed much wider needs across a broader demographic.”

Benefit choices have expanded to respond to employee wishes. Benefits now include cinema passes, charitable giving schemes, health screenings, and breakdown cover, for example. The ‘Fabyouless card’ is a pre-paid card that offers multiple discounts, and saves staff from selected several different online vouchers. “People want to shop more spontaneously.”

Shift patterns, which are challenging in any call centre environment, have been continuously refined, to get the balance right between serving the company’s customers and giving staff as much flexibility as possible. Opening hours have been streamlined.

Plusnet Perks is going from strength to strength and take-up rates continue to rise. Every 12 months the company will launch a new wave of benefits based on staff requests and feedback, keeping the offering fresh and relevant.

By focusing on employee voice and choice, Plusnet Perks will satisfy people’s practical and, in some ways, emotional needs. “It has become part of the fabric of who we are. Plusnet is a family, and it’s important, from a cultural perspective, to get the offering properly tailored. Standard products offered in the marketplace wouldn’t work.”

Picture of Andrea Kilgour at Benefex Winter Forum: courtesy of Tina Downham photography