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Andy Parry, HR Change and Projects manager, discusses how relaunching a new benefits programme involved face-to-face communications and ultimately raised both levels of engagement and customer service.

Key learning points:

  1. Face-to-face communications are essential
  2. Surveys can help identify the need for a benefits review
  3. Keep the message simple and accessible
  4. Use prominently displayed posters to promote benefits

We operate trains on the Wirral and Northern Lines, running almost 800 trains per day and carrying over 100,000 passengers on an average weekday. We employ approximately 1,200 people and operate from over 65 locations across the Merseyside region.

Despite offering employees a comprehensive selection of core benefits — including a staff pension, free rail travel and discounted mobile telephone offers — we felt there was still room for improvement. Following feedback from our employee engagement surveys, we recognised the opportunity to review our benefits offering and find a way to showcase the full package to employees in the most positive manner. Benefits and communications were not tied together and therefore we didn’t feel we were explaining the benefits of the products and services available to employees clearly enough.

A key challenge was communicating with them effectively. There are just 100 people based in our head office with the rest working across the network. Alongside this we have a very diverse workforce — from drivers, guards and retail workers to platform staff, engineers and cleaners who all work different shift patterns at different locations. As such it is very hard to reach them.

Taking action and making plans

To address the benefits and communication challenges we had identified, we took steps to identify an employee benefits provider that could help overcome the logistical difficulties of benefits communication but which also offered an enhanced benefits package with a range of voluntary products and services. Personal Group offered a face-to-face communications solution we felt would work for our organisation. There were also benefits; books and posters alongside a range of new voluntary benefits, such as lifestyle benefits, retail vouchers and leisure discounts. The benefits book solution enabled us to align our benefits offering alongside the existing company-wide reward scheme.

Implementing the new scheme

We wanted to develop a campaign that accessed people as individuals. To achieve this we undertook a lot of upfront work to develop key messages. We needed our messaging to be simple and accessible so employees not only recognised the reasons behind the relaunch of the benefits, but they were able to consider the benefits available and really get to know — and use them — on a regular basis.

We also discussed the new proposals with the ASLEF, RMT and TSSA trade unions to gain their backing and ensure they were fully behind the new programme prior to its implementation. Unions hold significant influence and it was important to involve them in the communications process. By ensuring they were comfortable and informed from the start meant they were able to see the true value of the benefits for their members, and nothing came as a surprise or caused any concern.

The influence of senior management was also acknowledged in the lead up to implementation. Face-to-face briefings were held with members of the senior team to ensure they were on board with the scheme and could act as advocates, promoting it to the wider workforce. Line manager involvement was also vital. This group was also very important as advocates of the programme, as well as being willing points of contact when facilitating meetings with employees. All line managers were contacted individually and offered an informal meeting so they could ask any questions they had and enable them to promote the offering to their teams. They were also provided with the communication plan for their employees.

Face-to-face communications

Face-to-face communication played a crucial role in the rollout of our enhanced benefits package. By
simply asking — ‘have you received a benefits book?’, ‘have you used it?’ ‘do you know how these products and services can add value for you?’ — it is possible to fully understand an individual’s current perception of benefits and then discuss individual queries on a personal level. When the scheme launched, individual presentations with employees were held.

Where necessary, group meetings were conducted, but regardless of the meeting format, the aim was consistent: communicating simply to each employee about the true benefit of the package to themselves and their families.
Our ever-changing shift patterns — especially for train drivers and guards who needed their sessions scheduled during rest breaks or after their shift — meant we had to be flexible during the rollout. With some of our workforce it was easy to arrange during working hours, but with others it was a case of grabbing them in their free time. Although other forms of communication were used alongside these meetings, face-to-face was essential to get the scheme off the ground and ensure a good return on investment.

Ultimately, the feedback we received from employees was fantastic. The greatest result was they openly talked about the sessions with their peers. The power of word-of-mouth was clear to see with the majority of employees attending sessions. Demonstrating how benefits have helped an employee and their family is a great news story and encourages others to investigate how their own benefits could help them

Capitalising on employee communications

We capitalised on these word-of-mouth recommendations by dedicating a section of their monthly newsletter to benefits. We featured a case study or employee testimonial to demonstrate the value an individual has derived from their benefits package.

Demonstrating how benefits have helped an employee and their family is a great news story and encourages others to investigate how their own benefits could help them. We recently featured a member of our train crew, for example, who had saved a significant amount on his family holiday. This led to a substantial increase in the use of our holiday discounts. Alongside the newsletter, we hold regular benefits promotions and competitions to coincide with key events in the region, such as horse racing or football. Regardless of the focus, these items are designed to make benefits messages clear and simple, and make the scheme personal to employees.

We also took the opportunity to ensure posters promoting benefits were displayed as effectively as possible. There was a lockable board for benefits communication in every location. This allowed promotions to be placed and sealed inside the board and therefore could be viewed by everyone.

Impressive results and positive impact

The launch of the new benefits scheme has proved a great success. Though we have launched a number of initiatives, this has been the smoothest rollout yet by far. We have seen consistently good levels of take-up. Yet there is an ongoing need to continue benefits communication on a regular basis. We have continued working to produce effective, creative communications that form, among other things, weekly meetings and rolling messages on screens at each location. Being able to easily explain the benefits of the products and services available in our package, and how it can impact employees and their families, has led to a definite increase in engagement levels. For us, better engagement means better customer service and happier, more loyal customers. It has also had a positive effect on retention levels, which ensures we keep the best employees while also reducing our recruitment costs.

Following the success of the initial launch, we have plans to relaunch the scheme to employees in 2011.
Once again the focus will be on face-to-face communication, with the objective of meeting with at least
725 individuals to offer a refresher on the benefits package.

We also have plans to explore ways to implement electronic benefit communications. This project is already underway with the launch of a new intranet system where employees can access information about their benefits.Due to the nature of our workforce and the way the business operates, moving further with e-communications is a big step that requires a great deal of planning. Many employees don’t have access to computers or the skills to use technology so we have invested significantly in providing basic IT skills training to help employees understand how the internet and software can help them get ahead.

We also plan to provide part of the workforce with smart phones, again to help them get online. Investing in communications and benefits is so important to us. The business environment is challenging at the moment and the train industry needs to be high performing in order to succeed. We need better customer service and loyalty and the only way to achieve this is to ensure our employees are happy and engaged. We regard benefits, learning and development as the vital tools to deliver and sustain this engagement.

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