The way to stay Hapi

Higher pay is a good start, but it isn’t the only way to attract new staff and retain existing ones. Oxford Bus Company has achieved better staff and customer engagement through the launch of a new employee benefits scheme from Personal Group. Jessamy Chapman reports

In a very competitive recruitment market – where operators are vying not only with other commercial vehicle operators for staff, but also with the retail sector – there's only so much money can buy.

Those that offer the most competitive wages can still find themselves struggling to find and retain staff. Wherever you are in the UK, offering a higher rate of pay isn't the only way to attract drivers.

It comes down to how the individual benefits more widely, and that's where a good employee benefits package can really work.

Oxford Bus Company's benefits package, supplied by Personal Group, went live in September 2015 and has already seen take-up of 30% of all staff – about twice as many as the previous package, which was in place for several years.

It offers an array of salary sacrifice schemes as well as a huge variety of discount vouchers for the high street and supermarkets.

It's all delivered through one easy-to-use platform, ‘Hapi’ Benefits, and along with relevant company information on pensions and procedures, for Go-Ahead-owned OBC, the whole package amounts to an online company handbook.

Improving relations

The operator has just won Investors in People accreditation, the culmination of almost two years of effort to improve employee engagement.

That stems partly from the appointment of Phil Southall as Managing Director in 2014. “The business was good and well-managed before, but there was a slight 'if it's not broke, don't fix it' mentality,” says Luke Marion, Finance and Commercial Director. “We wanted to do things a bit differently to engage people, make it modern and move it forward.”

Engaged and happy people are more productive and more likely to stay with us. They’re likely to be ambassadors for us

The practical reasons for doing so include better staff recruitment and retention, in a highly competitive labour market.

“Unemployment is low in the city and there's a new retail centre opening locally, competing for the same people as we are,” says Luke. “Historically we have paid a better wage, but that's not enough anymore – we've got to make ourselves more attractive as a business.

“There are big benefits for us if we're getting people to engage in the business. More engaged staff leads to better customer service – the drivers are friendlier towards our customers, for example, and more likely to go out of their way to help them.”

The latest Passenger Satisfaction survey shows that the business is moving in the right direction. OBC’s score has increased to 91%, from 86% in 2014, while subsidiary Thames Travel’s has increased to 89% from 81% in 2014.

Best practice examples across the industry have been followed to get to this point. The initiatives recently introduced to promote engagement include a Star of the Month, refer-a-friend recruitment and the facility for staff to submit their ideas for the business, using the ‘Hapi’ Benefits platform. “It's about getting the staff to trust us and believe that we're all one team,” says Luke.

But one of the biggest drivers of staff engagement has been the new, improved benefits scheme. “We're trying to make people feel more a part of what we're doing, and this is a key part of that,” says Luke. It's the first time OBC's subsidiaries Thames Travel and Carousel Buses have had a staff benefits package, and a major upgrade for OBC itself.

‘Hapi’ is a simple, modern online platform, personalised to the business using it. “It's an aggregation point for benefits and employee-related documents, such as employee handbooks and payslips,” says Paul Bresnihan, Director of Personal Group.

The different sections are clearly marked, so it's easy for the employee to select core benefits, company information, health and wellbeing and everyday discounts. Most compellingly, a counter in the top-right corner tells the user how much money they've saved from using the offers, discounts and cashback – and the pounds soon add up.

Hub of information

The ‘Hapi’ platform gives OBC an opportunity to put all relevant employee documentation in one place with their benefits, so that everything is easy to use for employees. The nature of bus operation makes this particularly useful – it's impossible to get drivers together all at once, and OBC's drivers don't have office email addresses. “A lot of information can now be found in the same place, without installing our own intranet,” says Luke. Drivers signing up to ‘Hapi’ use their own email addresses – giving OBC a less formal way to communicate with them.

“With everything in one place, people are more likely to see and use relevant information and benefits,” says Paul.

Discounts at dozens of high-street brands available

The company information page includes details of policies, a facility to check your driving entitlement, any forms staff might need, the driver’s handbook and OBC’s vision and values.

It also has a link to ‘On Board’, OBC’s new monthly staff magazine, with details of staff achievements, company news and stories arising from the benefits package. It’s a good way to give cohesion to a decentralised workforce, says Luke, allowing drivers to hear from the MD, and it spreads publicity about the many benefits available. The company prints 600 copies, but staff primarily see it on ‘Hapi’.

Coming soon will also be a link to routeONE’s website. “We don't have any copies to pass around to the drivers,” says Luke. “But as we're trying to increase engagement in the business, it’s good to keep them informed about the wider industry, for them to see what other businesses are doing, and we can take ideas from the team.”

The health and wellbeing page includes easy-read details on Personal Group’s hospital plan, death benefit and medical assessment, as well as eyecare vouchers and details on the cycle-to-work scheme.

A charity donations page allows staff to ‘give as they earn’, donate to the company’s causes, contribute to the company hardship fund or join the Transport Benevolent Fund.

The reward and recognition page gives links to ‘pick a star’, refer a friend, or read about the company’s loyalty and staff award schemes. The entire site has the feeling of being distinctly OBC’s.

It’s not just company information and discounts, however. The package has the advantage of Personal Group’s wider offering – for example, the health and wellbeing page includes ‘Hapi-life’, a frequently-updated blog with topical posts on diet, fitness, and lifestyle.

Cashback

Luke says that while new employees will hear in their induction about the benefits they're entitled to, until now there haven't been many ways of reminding them of what they can access.

Now, there are opportunities for Personal Group to come in to talk to employees about the benefits. A new initiative is a money-saving home technology salary sacrifice scheme, allowing employees access to the latest home technology – including smart TVs, laptops and gaming consoles – deposit-free from the company, before National Insurance is deducted. The take-up has been strong already, but Personal Group will shortly come in to the business for a second time to explain more about it.

Meanwhile, Pete Huddlestone, Project Manager, is always available for staff to talk to about the benefits scheme, and Personal Group has a team at the end of the phone employees can talk to.

There is a host of salary sacrifice schemes, including cycle-to-work, home technology, pension upgrade and childcare – with more in the pipeline (including, potentially, a car scheme). A smartphone scheme has recently been launched, giving staff access to state-of-the-art smartphones and contracts with reductions of 32-47% on monthly bills, including insurance.

But there are other, more immediate ways to save money too. Through the ‘Hapi’ platform OBC employees can access a long list of retailers that will offer discounts to employees using its benefits packages, and now OBC staff can get money off at Argos, Boots, M&S, B&Q, Thomas Cook and Currys PC World, among others, on the everyday discounts page. E-vouchers for Ticketmaster and iTunes are also available, as well as Costa and Starbucks, and staff can save on grocery shopping at Sainsburys, Tesco and Morrisons.

The way it works is simple: The user buys a reloadable giftcard, and chooses on a sliding scale how much money they want on it. The website displays how much they will actually pay; if you buy a Sainsbury’s giftcard worth £200, it will only cost you £190. 

It also offers cashback on online shopping, and savings on holidays, from flight-only bookings to full package deals.

“The key points are that you can save between 5% and 10% on groceries and goods at many well-known stores on the high street, 30-40% on cinema tickets, and 10% on package holidays,” says Paul. “And the site shows you what you save.”

Savings on some of the salary sacrifice schemes, including home technology and smartphones, will also be displayed in the savings counter in the near future – giving a more complete picture. Effectively, it gives staff a visible marker of how much the job is worth to them.

There are more developments in store for the website, including its conversion into a mobile engagement app – which will enable OBC to send push notifications to its staff.

Business benefits

From OBC’s perspective, the site can only help to drive its employee engagement and make it a better business.

A back-office hub is currently in beta, which will allow OBC to check how well the scheme’s being taken up, and give it a greater understanding of how it should be promoting the benefits – to potential recruits as well as existing staff. “It's useful to know what people are looking at and to what extent it's being used,” says Luke.

There are currently 254 OBC staff activated on the site. “We’ve still got a way to go,” he adds. “We want to get at least around 500 staff on board with it.

“But there’s already been an increase of 15% since we changed to the new benefits package, and that wasn’t even a year ago. We’re still activating new users all the time, and we can pre-register new starters, so they can just log on straight away.

“This package is a big part of our employee engagement plan. As a team, we really want to improve our relationship with our staff, and having so many employee benefits all in one place is a key to that. We do an employee engagement survey every year – in 2014, the level of engagement was 41%, but at the last survey it had improved to 46%. Over the long term, we’re aiming to get to 65% or better.

“We want people to believe in what we're doing, support what we're doing and to be an advocate of what we're doing.

“We want them to see themselves as crucial to the success of the company. And they are – what the customer thinks of us is down to them.

“There's a perception that it's a 'transactional' type job, so a lot of what we need to do involves listening to staff and being visible, and showing that there's value in working for us.

“Engaged and happy people are more productive and more likely to stay with us. They’re more likely to be better ambassadors for the business, and tell others that it’s a good place to work. If you can get that kind of engagement, it’s a win-win situation.”