FirstGroup has more than 120,000 employees worldwide and it is John Chilman's job to ensure their pensions and benefits are taken care of. Owain Thomas reviews the main points from his PBUK keynote session.
FirstGroup is reaching 90% of its workforce with its in-house benefits platform, but reward and pensions director John Chilman believes that is not the real success of the system.
Speaking at PBUK, Chilman explained that the main aim of the company’s investment in the system was to allow employees to make a more informed decision about their benefit choices.
“We want to apply choice and also recognise that the key metric isn’t 60% take-up of any given benefit,” he said.
“We want an informed and engaged choice – so a massive amount of our programme is spent on financial education to give them the skills to make the right decisions for themselves. I don’t think it’s appropriate to just template somebody into a box that says, ‘You’re 35 years old and female, so you should be taking that.’ We want to understand what their desires are and go from there.”
This has proved particularly challenging as only 5% of the organisation’s employees sit at a desk in front of a computer. And Chilman himself has a team of just half a dozen to work with. So the group has made the system compatible with smartphones and other new technology and installed learning centres in places such as bus depots.
“So drivers have gone in during their down time and a lot of people have gone in and developed themselves and also used this system,” he continued.
“As such, we were shocked. We took a big leap of faith when we started developing this but one of the things we decided at the start was not to put PDF documents on a website. Put powerful tools that help people to understand what it’s about. Put modellers, videos that explain things, and what you’re more likely to do is explain but also get people to say, ‘It was useful; it helped me to make a decision.’ As opposed to them saying, ‘The app told me how to invest, but really I could have done with just a printed thing and read it.’ So we tried to make it a lot more engaging, a lot more different from the traditional model.”
And that appears to have worked, with 90% usage among employees to make benefit choices. However, the most well-used and appreciated benefit is an in-house one – the ability to take advantage of preferential rates on other FirstGroup services. And while this has an obvious benefit for staff, the advantage for the business is clear, too.
“Our most widely used benefit is our in-house benefit. It’s actually allowing our workforce to travel on our trains and on our buses for a deeply discounted price,” explained Chilman.
“The trade unions are saying that their members can get a £5 return ticket from Manchester to Glasgow and that’s a great deal. By facilitating that, we’re not just linking people to saying, ‘I don’t want to lose that because it’s a £80 full price’, but they’re also experiencing other areas of our product. People who work in bus division experience rail and vice versa, and that’s obviously great because they give us customer feedback as well.”
Chilman also pointed towards the heightened responsibility employers are facing in respect of an aging workforce, highlighting flexibility regarding healthcare and management as key to supporting these employees.
“We’ve got to recognise with the older workforce that you’re going to have grandparents working that have childcare responsibilities for their grandchildren – and parents with children, and they are going to need flexibility because they have aging parents that suffer from dementia and other various illnesses you get through old age,” he concluded.
“I think the flexibility that is required through healthcare and in management is increasingly difficult and it’s very hard in my role. Unfortunately, you need the bus driver to turn up at the right time at the depot to take the bus out. So flexibility is a lot harder in our industry than it is in some, but I think it’s absolutely important and vital.”
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