Embrace technology or fall behind, reward professionals are told

Employees want flexibility but HR is not keeping pace, Unilever reward leader tells CIPD conference

Organisations that fail to keep pace with rapid technological change when it comes to reward and benefit strategy risk falling behind, Unilever’s global reward director has warned. 

Speaking at the CIPD Reward and Benefits Conference in Birmingham yesterday, Nicola Wells said employees now expected the choice, flexibility and personalisation they experienced as consumers to be replicated in the workplace. 

“If tech is evolving, it will infiltrate into our space. We can’t just stay the same and we can’t ignore it,” she told People Management.  

Wells referenced the speed of change in the music industry – which had shifted from cassettes to iPods and into streaming – to highlight how agile HR needed to be. She added that in her 20-year career, the profession had not “kept up with the outside world” in relation to reward.

“It’s coming. It’s already happening. The train has left the station. Now we all have to find our place in it. Not every company will be at the front, not everyone will be at the back but it’s moving all the time. Employees are going to start asking for this and we need to deliver.”

Wells said the two most important factors in a reward strategy were access to data and a high quality platform. Genuinely understanding the workforce, and why they made certain choices around benefits, was not possible without access to data, she added.

She explained people tended to want to make benefits choices at important moments in their lives – such as having a child or getting married – and a flexible system would facilitate that. Failure to be responsive to such needs could lead to employees leaving at key points, Wells added. 

“We’re all individuals at the end of the day,” Wells said. “I don’t go home and think ‘I’m just going to sit down and think about my pension’. I think, ‘we would like a family holiday this year but we also need to fix the boiler.’ I don’t think about them in isolation.”  

She reassured businesses concerned by the associated costs that they would not need an “all singing, all dancing” system to be more responsive. 

“The biggest thing is to start researching technologies – and they don’t have to be the expensive ones – that start to give you the data. The data is what will change and reshape those programmes. And make sure they can all integrate: the tech space is such that most should be able to interface with each other so your employees are getting a better, more holistic experience,” Wells said. “At the moment, we’re still too siloed.”

She added a platform should ultimately be user-friendly, accessible via smartphone, available 24/7 and should enable individuals to either make choices or even just see what was available to them. 

The responsibility that came with offering more choice was something employers would have to consider, however. Wells warned that if HR professionals weren’t on hand to financially educate their employees to make savvy decisions, the shift to greater flexibility could prove detrimental. 

Meanwhile, in a talk entitled Driving change in reward: how to create momentum and make it happen, Maria Strid, head of performance and reward at HSBC, started with the quote: “Today is the slowest day of the rest of your life.”

She explained this meant the pace of change was only going to get faster inside businesses: “When I first heard that, I thought no, my life is feeling pretty hectic. But the fact is that technology will continue to change and evolve and it will impact day-to-day lives more than yesterday. As consumers, we expect most things to be in demand, when we want it. 

“That also has an impact on organisations. If we take a look inside, things are changing internally for the HR function as well. It may not be as on demand and as high speed as some of the things we can do as consumers, but it gives us a great opportunity and a catalyst for driving some change.”