When it comes to attracting and retaining members of staff with benefits via a digital platform, employers and providers need to consider everyone as customers first and foremost, writes Kimberley Dondo

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For the majority of the UK workforce, a lot of what they do is online, so it is only natural that employees now expect benefits platforms to provide the same user experience they get in the consumer space.

In the consumer space there is a dynamic digital platform for many parts of our lives – from banking on the move to managing a household using an app.

James Akers, Head of Product Management at Thomsons Online Benefits says “It might once have been considered unrealistic for enterprise technology to keep pace with consumer technology, but now it is essential that it does. Businesses and providers alike have realised the critical role that workplace technology plays in engaging and enabling employees – and the negative impact that poor technology can have on retention and motivation. Ultimately, employees are consumers, and they increasingly expect the technology they interact with at work to be as good as that they have in their personal lives.”

Consumer tech is constantly evolving, finding new ways to engage and gamify the user experience. Consumers are becoming increasingly trend sensitive meaning product lifecycles are decreasing. It is no longer a case of releasing a new product or platform and that’s it. Benefits providers in this environment must do more to ensure they regularly update their products and offering to stay relevant. Trends are changing so quickly that they can often be difficult to study and adapt to. Benefit providers are therefore adopting methods that gather preferences from users and based on these personalise the service to them.

Providers are adapting by shortening development lifecycles as they continue to push for faster innovation. If benefits tech falls behind and looks out-dated, user engagement will drop and the return on investment will also fall. Just like the consumer market, providers need to make sure that benefits technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace, and deliver improvements before employees realise they want them.

As these lifecycles continue to speed up, expect to see the line between consumer and enterprise technology move from blurred to non-existent. In order to develop the lean and agile working environments most employers aim for, they will need to adopt these methodologies. A good benefits platform shouldn’t feel any different from any experience of shopping elsewhere.

Sevil Rahimova, head of product at Reward Gateway says “It’s not only realistic, but an absolute must for benefits technology to keep pace with the rest of consumer tech. We’re under no illusion that our user audience interacts with other software products that we can learn from and align to. It’s not a matter of ‘we’ against ‘other tech’, but how we can make the most out of existing consumer behaviour and expectations when using external tech and expand the concept internally.”

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Consumer trends and developing products

“At the heart of all new development, UX (user experience) should be the starting point.” says Dom Manley, UK technology product owner – health & benefits at Aon Employee Benefits. “It’s important to always think about who the users are, how they would expect to engage with that feature or benefit, as well as what type of device is likely to be used. We should never forget what the measure of success is, and make sure we adapt to feedback and trends to continually improve.”

To deliver a seamless user experience, all organisations (regardless of whether they are benefits providers) need to ensure the technology that is created in the back-end is strong and adaptable. Just as the best houses are built on strong foundations, the best technology emerges from robust groundwork. This means that there must be full administration control and data automation.

“Once this is in place, there are lots of engaging front-end tactics that can be employed to improve the user experience. Accessibility; ensuring that the benefits platform is accessible anywhere, from any device, is key to improving user engagement and experience,” says Akers. “Other, simpler tactics can also be employed, for example echoing the look of familiar interfaces. Most commonly-used consumer applications offer remarkably similar interfaces, and using well-known iconography – a cog for settings, a disk for save, shopping carts – helps to create a sense of familiarity for software users. This reduces the learning curve and improves employees’ experiences by making them feel at home in a growing set of diverse applications.”

It is important to put employees at the centre of the platform that is being produced. While it is important to monitor current trends that are happening within the benefits technology space as well as consumer technology space, developers can’t put too much focus in that area as it may obstruct innovation. Adopt the trends that are useful and valuable to your specific audience

Benefits meet current ‘consumer tech’ trends

Consumer technology is meant to engage its users by cutting down on waiting times and making our lives that much easier. The emergence and growth of video call appointments to GPs is an example of how consumer tech trends have altered the landscape of the benefits industry. For most of the UK workforce, something as simple as attending a GP appointment can be nearly impossible without taking time off work. The ability to video chat with your GP in the comfort of your own home at a time that suits you is perfect for the often-oversubscribed worker. “Social gamification in health platforms has been around for some time, but providers are finding new ways to engage with groups of users to make positive changes, and collaborate in new ways. People are no longer seeing health and benefits as a n individual exercise, but more of a group experience within a workforce,” says Manley. “Mobile apps that help to deliver these services to the workforce are no longer a nice to have, but an expectation from employers and employees. Tailored journeys are being used to give relevant content and solutions to individual users that adapt as they do within the platform. One size fits all is no longer dated, it’ s dead and buried.”

telemedicine doctor by mobile phone

Private medical insurance (PMI) has undergone the most change in order to align with consumer technology. Enrolling in PMI used to be a paper-heavy chore but now employees can simply log in to their benefits software to apply for PMI. Once they enter the required information into the system it is sent automatically to the insurer to generate a policy. For the employee, the system is easy to use, intuitive and reliable – key to a rewarding user experience. Automation means that the risk of error is reduced as information is regularly updated by the user and HR administrator, so if there are any changes the insurer is made aware quickly.

Changes are also occurring within financial services as employees are increasingly demanding more from their pension providers and are looking for more personalised solutions. “Where previously employees would invest into their default funds they are now looking for personalised investment solutions that match their attitude to risk and retirement flexibility. Many employees have encouraged their employers to engage with robo or digital advisers in their GPP (group personal pension) to deliver personalised recommendations. These solutions leverage artificial intelligence and big data to identify user preferences and provide solutions that are simple to understand and highly personalised,” says Phil Blows, sales director at Wealth Wizards.

Other benefits platforms such as Personal Group’s Hapi platform try to go beyond just employee benefits by embracing mobile use to create an internal communications system that creates a real-time connection with staff wherever they may be. Mark Scanlon, Personal Group CEO adds “Every time we add a feature, we think hard about how Hapi will be used at the end of a tough day at work or at home. We work hard to eliminate every point of friction so that it’s never a hassle for your staff to make the most of the perks they’re entitled to. That’s why it’s the most intuitive and simple design on the market.”

The future of benefits technology

Benefits offerings and technology have already begun to adapt at rapid pace, with more and more providers moving to cater for user demands. Employees want quick access in the palm of their hand when they need it for everything from banking to GP services to financial advice and employers want to deliver these solutions.

Women using a smartphone

Blows believes benefits tech will continue to use advances in artificial intelligence to make user experiences simpler and more intuitive. Access to data sources such as banking data, insurance information and health data will mean employees will receive holistic personalised recommendations based on their personal circumstances.

“AI and predictive analytics can now be harnessed to personalise not only user experience, but also which specific benefits are promoted based on demographic, transactional and behavioural data collected during recruitment and throughout an employee’s tenure. While one individual, for example, may respond well to personalised communications which detail a childcare voucher scheme, somebody else may be statistically more likely to take up subsidised gym membership,” adds Laurie Padua, director of consulting, Alexander Mann Solutions.

While it is difficult to determine how benefits technology will progress in the future, in the short to medium term, the data that is currently being collected by benefits platforms can be used in a much more sophisticated manner. Intelligent analytics will enable employers to model the outcome of making specific changes to their benefits scheme. HR leaders will be able to draw on the data generated to create an accurate picture of their workforce, enabling them to segment employees and deliver a highly personalised reward schemes that enhance employee experience and wellbeing. The technology could suggest benefits using similar techniques to online retailer Amazon’s recommendations, showing what other comparable employees may have picked. HR professionals will also be able to set automated intelligent reminders to individual employees. In the longer term, machine learning will allow employers to place an increasing amount of scheme design and administration into the hands of their platform. This will almost certainly lead to an increasing amount of privacy controls, Graham Meinke, head of product management, Zest speculates.

While communications channels must currently be intuitive to reflect the way in which we browse and connect today, future opportunities for HR and reward technology are immense. There is the potential to interact more with hardware like cameras, fingerprint scanners, VR headsets and wearables to track and engage with employees –offering some type of value-exchange to those who display positive or healthy behaviours. For innovative organisations who are willing to embrace technology, the potential to engage talent through technology is endless.

“Exciting new engagement channels are also likely to emerge. Up until now, benefit communications and platforms have been delivered using phones, tablets and desktops. An increasing number of people are already using virtual digital assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa, in their home. As well as turning on and off the lights, these assistants could also provide their users with an overview of their insurance cover, help them get the most from selected memberships and subscriptions, or deliver a summary of their current financial position.” Meinke says. “In the longer term, augmented reality could allow personalised information to be overlaid on the world that people see around them. This will allow personalised content to be delivered to employees when it’s of most value to them.”