Freedom to select a suitable package

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2007, 12:00am

Imagine a world in which you get to pick the types of corporate benefits that suit your lifestyle; a workplace that allows you to use part of your holidays to subsidise a gym membership, top up your health insurance to cover the entire family or get discounts on hotels and airfares each time you take a holiday, all backed by an employer who understands that winning workforce loyalty isn't simply about fat paycheques.

'Many employers in Hong Kong think cash is king but we have found there to be a disconnection between what employees really want and what employers think they want. Employees actually place more value on 'enhanced' wealth benefits rather than traditional health benefits,' explained Kevin Rice, head of empower, adding, these value added benefits could include healthy lifestyle programmes, advice on how to manage specific diseases or a gym membership. Mr Rice will speak at the 2007 Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management Annual Conference.

Set up by insurance group Prudential, empower is in the business of developing flexible benefits programmes for companies and will customise each benefits scheme around the needs of a specific employer and its workforce.

'The flexible benefits concept is not new to Asia but it has traditionally been restricted to areas of health and life insurance,' explained Mr Rice.

Research commissioned by empower and conducted by Synovate and TNS this year showed that Hong Kong employees were not fully aware of the benefits available to them and have even less understanding of their true value.

The research also dispels the belief that employers can buy employees with money. The majority of workers in the survey not only embraced the notion of having more choice, cost advantage and convenience in their corporate benefits, but 71 per cent said they were likely to top up their corporate benefits with their own cash.

One-stop-shop benefit schemes like empower's may help HR professionals to resolve a conundrum they are likely to face for years to come: how to attract talent and improve retention.

Empower will work with benefit providers and partners to create a menu of choices and services that fit the needs of the company and its workforce. Such benefits will then be articulated through a benefits portal which every employee will have access to. They can then alter and trade the benefits in addition to being supported by a multilingual contact centre.

'The employer will have discretion over key elements of the scheme, specifically in defining which benefits are fixed and which ones are tradable,' said Mr Rice.

Negotiating on behalf of a group of employers will more likely land empower with better deals with partners and brokers. Aside from the usual life and health insurance brokers, partnerships could be forged with vendors including gyms and spas, disease management centres, social clubs, travel agencies, restaurants and cinemas.

The scheme's approach is pertinent as diversity in the workplace becomes increasingly common. It will have a much wider workforce appeal than the traditional model that is confined to the needs of a niche few. For example, older staff may prefer better pension and subsidies for their children's education while younger staff would rather opt for more leave and retail discounts.

Pioneered in Britain in the early 1990s, the model took off seven years ago as more scheme providers entered the market and technology came into its own.

'Hong Kong is about seven years behind Britain but we are confident that with more providers expected to enter the market, the cost of setting up such schemes will be reduced in time,' Mr Rice said. 'Our eventual goal is to drive the scheme down to the SME level.'

Research in Britain showed that over half of employers felt the scheme improved their recruitment while 49 per cent agreed that it boosted retention.

A resounding 89 per cent of Hong Kong employees said they would likely stay with the company longer if such a scheme was made available and 92 per cent would recommend their company as a good place to work, research by Synovate and TNS found.

Empower chose Hong Kong as its launch pad in Asia due to Prudential's established insurance business here and support from the local business community.

Mr Rice said he hopes to roll out the plan in 'all 13 markets in Asia where Prudential has a presence'.