There’s a 56-year gap between British Gas’s oldest and youngest workers. Such diversity in age calls for a flexible approach to benefits, says its HR Director Angela Williams

Angela Williams

When it comes to longevity, British Gas plc is hard to beat. It can trace its history back 200 years, to its roots as the London Light and Coke Company. It has undergone several changes of name and organisational structure since then and its current incarnation has a large, diverse workforce of 35,000 employees of whom the youngest is 16 and the oldest 72.

In addition to a generous defined contribution pension scheme, British Gas offers a share-save scheme and a range of other benefits, from retail vouchers to private medical cover. All employees are actively encouraged to join the pension scheme, and in addition can manage other benefits according to their own requirements. Based on feedback from employees, a new, even more flexible, benefits system is due to be introduced next year.

Younger workers might view the share-save scheme as more attractive than the pension”

That flexibility means employees are in control of their own benefits throughout their career. “We don’t differentiate by age in terms of the benefits we offer, but give all of our employees the ability to meet their own needs,” says Angela Williams, HR director at the energy and services supplier. “There is a high take-up of benefits across the board. We encourage, but we don’t dictate to employees about what they should choose.”

British Gas’s share-save scheme has proved popular. “Younger workers in particular might view the share-save scheme as more attractive than the pension,” Williams says. “Pensions are a key part of the package and we actively encourage membership. However, some employees prefer to invest in something they can gain a return from after 3 to 5 years and we provide that opportunity too.”

Although Williams and her team at British Gas will need to auto-enrol between 10,000 and 11,000 employees into the company’s pension scheme when the company hits its staging date in January 2013, she estimates that only around 1,000 employees are not involved in any sort of workplace savings at all.

“Older workers have more of an emphasis on their pensions,” Williams concedes, but that doesn’t mean younger employees are not just as committed to saving for their futures, even if they are not in the pension scheme at present. 

Being flexible

Has such a wide-ranging benefits arrangement helped British Gas in managing an ageing workforce? “The default retirement age hasn’t made much difference to us,” says Williams. “We’re not governed by people retiring at a certain time. As long as they are fit, willing and able they can continue to work. In fact, British Gas have people in their 60s with good pensions in place who could easily retire – but we don’t want them to and they don’t want to either.”

“We support step-back of employees into mentoring or buddy roles with younger workers as they get older, or look at changes to role as appropriate,” Williams adds.

Flexible working plays a key role in this: “We have workers who have been with the company for 40-plus years, and have changed role significantly over that time, eventually moving into part-time, flexible roles of around 3.5 days a week as their needs have changed.”

The default retirement age hasn’t made much difference to us”

Accommodating older employees doesn’t just apply to existing workers – British Gas has also removed the age limitations on its apprenticeship schemes. Once restricted to 16 to 19 year-olds, now anyone of any age can take up an apprenticeship.

British Gas’s workforce includes many workers who have to balance carer roles against their employment – whether based around children, or supporting elderly parents or grandparents. And, as workers get older, the likelihood of them playing a carer role increases. “Where we can, we enable people to work at home, or introduce flexible working for employees with caring responsibilities,” says Williams.

While both the broad nature of British Gas’s reward package and its accommodating approach to flexible working are positive benefits for all ages of its workforce, Williams is also clear that this must have a positive end result for the business as well. “Flexible working can’t be a free-for-all. Not everyone gets what they want, but we work to meet employees’ needs as far as possible.” 

She adds: “We measure our output on employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction. If the employee is content, the customer will be, too. We don’t just do this to be nice, we do it to keep customers and shareholders happy.”