Not just about money

When I first started work, all I knew about my benefits package was what it said on the monthly wage slip I pried open with a paper knife.

To be honest, I didn’t really understand what it meant; the figure in the bottom right hand corner was all I ever looked at.

Now employees can access portals containing everything they need to know about their benefits packages - including details of their wage and pension fund, videos explaining the different healthcare packages and advice to help plan for retirement.

Technology is certainly making things easier for companies and more informative for employees. According to the Society of Human Resource Management, more than half of HR professionals are expanding their use of technology-based employee and manager self-service applications. Taking advantage of technology and encouraging employees to conduct as many of their own processes as possible is curbing the administrative costs and reducing the workload.

Workforce.com says a robust benefits package can be the difference between a talented candidate choosing to join your company rather than go elsewhere.

But with the costs rising each year, providing an attractive benefits package is getting harder.

Total South Africa runs SAP’s human resources modules to manage its 800 employees, says Siyabonga Radebe, Total South Africa human capital manager.

The company has affiliates in Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland and reports to headquarters in France. “It’s a challenge to manage affiliates with different terms and conditions based on the law in different countries, so we try as much as we can to standardise,” he says. “If the provisions in Botswana are less than in South Africa we always push it up to make sure we standardise the benefits. That makes it much easier to manage and to report to France.”

Total still prefers to do a lot of its employee interactions face to face, particularly for performance reviews, career progression and salary discussions.

For medical aid, Total South Africa offers its staff a choice of two service providers, and the system provides links to the different brochures. But, since medical schemes are confusing, new employees have their choice confirmed with them in person to make sure it is the best before they sign up.

Total’s annual employee individual assessment (EIA) mixes technology and personal meetings. Details are sent out by email and an electronic system captures the ratings staff fill in on how well they have met their objectives. “They rate themselves from one to five with five being walking on water, then they click send and boom, it goes to their line manager,” says Radebe. “He looks at it and says ‘I agree’ or ‘don’t agree’ because the EIA is on both their systems.” During a physical meeting the manager and employee discuss career development training and file that request into the system too.

“Technology is one of the things we are driving because it’s really improved efficiencies with forms changing from a physical format into an automated process,” Radebe says. “We are now moving to an upgraded SAP HR system called Harmony. We are really eager to see what this system can do for us because there are always new ways of doing things. As part of a global company we are looking for very innovative ways to deliver via new platforms that can assist us in the management of talent including benefits and remuneration.”

A white paper called Five Ways to Manage the Rising Costs of Benefits confirmed that making good use of benefits technology, automation and employee self-service is a critical best practice. The paper, published by TriNet, an HR company working with entrepreneurs, cited a study conducted by the Gantry Group. The study found that online HR tools such as payroll entry and benefits enrollment saved a significant amount of money by preventing data errors and eliminating paper-based activities. It estimated those tools could save up to 432 hours annually, even in a small business.

Advantages include quicker data preparation and entry, fewer errors and higher employee satisfaction with the access to information about their benefits.

Often firms do not even realise how much time and money they waste on manual tasks, yet even small offices can benefit from human resource management systems (HRMS) by cutting costs and delivering information to employees in a faster, more efficient way. 

Several major software companies provide HRMS, including SAP, PeopleSoft and Oracle. Modules can include software that logs employee leave and tracks traditional benefits as well as unusual perks such as paid parking or club memberships. 

Some offerings have separate portals for employees and managers for any-time access to their benefit information. The employee portals let staff become self-sufficient by going online to enrol for benefits, view their benefit information, update personal details, download forms and read helpful documents. Accuracy is ensured by intelligent menus that only offer the benefit choices they are eligible for.

Some platforms offer salary modeling, showing employees the impact of choosing a specific benefit on their pay packet. Decision-support tools can offer suggestions for plans that best meet their needs.  

Technology can also help employees understand the benefits by using online storyboards to create an engaging, interactive way of explaining the various options.

Manager portals let managers review and edit benefits and HR data, update it, communicate easily with employees and control the services offered to the participants. 

Changes in legislation and the consumerisation of IT are altering the administration of employee benefits, says Chris Wakely of Thomsons Online Benefits. In his report, Benefits Administration Trends, Truths and Tech in 2014, Wakely says HR technology will play an increasing role in helping businesses reduce their costs, manage new regulations and keep their employees engaged. 

Software as a Service (SaaS) will gain ground for online benefit administration, Wakely believes. “This technology has the potential to improve processes for companies with complicated benefits administration structures, including multinational companies with workforces that span multiple regions. Partnering with an SaaS service provider means an array of opportunities for global companies, including reduced cost, ease of software integration and improved employee user experience.”

Managing employee benefits should be an ever-evolving process and HR teams must be prepared to continuously adapt their tools and approaches to stay relevant and retain talented staff, Wakely says. 

Vanessa Raath, general manager of Johannesburg-based recruitment company It’s About People, confirms that software like Microsoft Sharepoint is rapidly replacing paper-based compensation and benefits processes. “A lot of people don’t get a set wage any more, they get paid for the number of hours worked, so they enter their hours online to work out their wage,” Raath says. 

Expense claims are also entered online via systems like Sharepoint, since receipts can be scanned and attached to the claim. “People no longer submit paper requests for leave, either, they just log onto the intranet and apply,” Raath says.

This article is part of a larger supplement which can be found here.

The supplement has been made possible by the Mail & Guardian’s advertisers and the content has been vetted by the Top Employers Institute.