Richard Fitzjohn: Effective pensions communication is essential during pandemic

For Thames Water, it is not simply that we are an important service, we deliver life’s essential service so that our customers, communities and the environment can thrive. As such, meeting the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic matters not only to our employees, but also to every home, every business, every customer, every visitor and every resident across London and the Thames Valley.

Some challenges are obvious. In everything we do, we are guided by a clear front-line first approach because our front-line employees deliver for our customers and our communities. Providing additional personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep these operational teams safe is one challenge. Successfully enabling half our employees to work safely from home is another.

The biggest worry for our employees is their ability to manage finances, possibly meeting short-term needs by reducing contributions for long-term savings. We have continued to pay employees normally. Nobody has been furloughed and we extended sick pay, meaning no-one had to risk spreading the virus by coming in when self-isolating or ill with Covid-19.

Before the pandemic, we were already developing improvements to our pensions scheme. Most of our employees are members of the Thames Water defined contribution (DC) scheme under which the organisation pays double employee contributions up to a maximum of 12%, making it one of the better schemes across UK industries.

Not satisfied with the levels of engagement or the value people were placing on this significant benefit, we began a review of the scheme in 2019 in line with good governance. This identified that pensions are simply too complex for many people and the support offered by our existing provider was insufficient. In approaching the problem, our priority was always to find a scheme that was easy for members to use, offered simple plain-speaking advice and support, gave members access to a wider range of investment options and offered great value for money.

At the end of the review, we launched a new master trust scheme, provided by Aon, on 1 October 2020. Ahead of its launch, we engaged members through live events where Aon demonstrated its interactive benefits portal, answered questions on investment options and together we addressed employee concerns. This has been followed up with clearly written introductory packs, access to Aon’s micro-site for members to have a look around and play with, and various masterclasses. Overall, feedback has been hugely positive.

The pandemic has provided significant practical challenges, however we have approached the problems, whether relating to PPE or pensions in the same way. We talk to our people aided by a good relationship with our partners, aim to simplify complex matters and provide plain-speaking information. In short everything is guided by the principle of front-line first.

Richard Fitzjohn is head of reward, pensions and industrial relations at Thames Water