Utilities provider Ovo Energy has experienced a sharp growth trajectory over the 10 years it has been operating, and as such, has created a benefits strategy that can both meet the needs of a fairly young workforce, while also supporting a talent management strategy that focuses on attracting and retaining top employees.
Jo Fairweather, head of reward and wellbeing at Ovo, says: “The business has grown really rapidly and, as a result, we know that we’ve had to place the talent strategy at the heart of the business from the beginning. Creating a great place to work, where people feel inspired to do their best work, has always been our ambition.”
Flexible benefits fund
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The energy supply company had a goal to create a benefits package that underpinned this people strategy and made the organisation stand out as an employer of choice.
In 2015, it launched its flexible benefits scheme, MyRewards, provided by Thomsons Online Benefits. An online proposition, the scheme gives employees access to a range of benefits that can be purchased through a flex fund worth 4% of their base salary, provided in addition to their pay.
“We’ve deliberately thought about how to create a benefits package that felt different, and that was part of the rationale for the flexible benefits pot,” says Fairweather.
Having an online platform gave Ovo the means to offer staff a benefits package that can be tailored to their personal wants and needs. It also allows the organisation to adapt and expand its benefits offering on an ongoing basis.
“The technology platform enables us to offer benefits on a one-stop-shop basis and really gives the flexibility of individual personalisation,” explains Fairweather. “The whole idea [is] that we are consistent in offering this 4% to people, but everyone is going to want to mix different benefits within that.”
Being able to offer employees a flex fund is, in itself, a hugely valuable benefit, particularly in the effort to engage and retain employees, Fairweather adds: “Ultimately, the most valuable thing we do is offer this 4% pot. We deliberately don’t have a return-to-pay option because we think it’s really important that people engage with it actively.
“That vehicle in itself is the single most important thing [we offer], because without that, sure we would offer some of those benefits, but it [would] relinquish this feeling of autonomy and choice to people.”
Financial wellbeing approach
In the past two years, Ovo has used this flexible benefits platform to build further on its approach of supporting the financial wellbeing of its employees.
In October 2017, the organisation introduced a workplace individual savings account (Isa) in conjunction with Thomsons Online Benefits and Smarterly. This allows employees to save for the future by investing their 4% flex fund into the Isa if they wish. This focus on financial wellbeing led to Ovo winning the award for Best financial wellbeing strategy at the Employee Benefits Awards in June 2018.
With a workforce of which 85% are aged under 35, Ovo recognised that a big financial challenge for many employees is to get on the housing ladder, so in 2019, it went on to launch a lifetime Isa (Lisa).
“We’ve been doing a lot of work in recognition that our teams were asking us for more help, specifically with financial wellbeing support, and ways to help them with some of those real-life scenarios,” explains Fairweather. “Many of our people are looking to get on the property ladder for the first time, so were wanting to use their benefits pot in a way that can directly help them towards that. The Isa has allowed us to achieve that.”
Ovo further expanded on its financial support with the launch of a wellbeing hub at the start of 2019, through pensions provider Legal and General. This provides tools and information for employees about managing money, and is an extension to Ovo’s pensions microsite. It forms part of the employer’s strategy to address financial support in a holistic way.
“People [are wanting] to, and are engaging with, saving for a pension from their 20s onwards, but they want to do that alongside other things,” explains Fairweather. “Therefore, launching [the hub] and being able to bring those tools together has been really successful for us.”
This, coupled with the provision of a one-stop benefits platform, helps to build employee retention, she adds. “It opens up so many more options for people; they can now look at a lifetime savings plan, weigh up their pensions contributions, their Isa contributions, and they can genuinely flex and look at it holistically, rather than it being purely about retirement savings and that being the only financial savings vehicle that we could engage with our people on.”
When moving into an increasingly comprehensive approach to reward, part of the challenge has been to help employees fully understand the benefits available to them, and how they can actually help throughout their daily lives.
Fairweather works closely with the internal communications team, rather than an external consultancy, to ensure that the right messages are getting through to staff. “We do that so that we can really personalise and think deeply about tone of voice, and make the communications very real,” she says.
Ovo uses a mixture of online and offline channels, including its intranet, targeted emails and big screens in open areas of the workplace. It also runs benefits fairs, lunch and learns, provider-led sessions, and prize draws to encourage employees to review their benefits and engage with their 4% flex fund.
The future will see Ovo looking outward, as during 2020 the organisation plans to focus on how reward can align more closely with its sustainability strategy, Plan Zero. This, for example, whill include looking at how to shape benefits so as to encourage and incentivise sustainable behaviours among staff.
“Ovo has had sustainability ambitions from the outset, but that really sharpened our strategy around specific targets and mission statements looking to 2030,” Fairweather explains. “As a result, in reward, we are working really closely with the sustainability team on how to align our people offering closer to our objectives.”
At a glance
Ovo Energy is an energy supply firm which launched in 2009. It currently serves half a million customers across the UK, and strives to deliver a more affordable source of clean energy.
The organisation has 2,000 employees in roles that include customer services, software engineering, marketing and HR.
Ovo is committed to being an entirely inclusive workplace. It does not have a specific target make-up, but currently has a young demographic: 85% of its employees are aged under 35, and the average age is 29. The gender split is 60% male, 40% female.
Business objectives that impact on employee benefits
- To more closely align its people offering to the sustainability objectives of helping its customers to eliminate their household emissions and halve their total carbon footprint by 2030.
Jo Fairweather joined Ovo Energy in 2016. Her responsibility is to lead on all areas of the reward and wellbeing strategy.
Prior to joining Ovo, Fairweather held a variety of senior people management roles. She initially started at Marks and Spencer as an HR business partner, before moving into people policies and then specialising in reward.
“[I’m particularly proud] about the transition from generalist HR into reward, and the reason is because of the skills and specialism that I’ve learnt coming into reward,” she says. “I’ve never regretted the generalist footing that I’ve had. I feel that that’s been a really important part of my career path, that I’ve actually had that very broad people management experience initially, partnering with the business and being able to take that into the way in which I approach reward.”
Within Ovo, Fairweather is particularly proud of helping to implement a new HR system, Workday, and also of creating and implementing a pay framework across the group.