Good Work for All: Financial wellbeing at the Co-op, a lesson in knowing your people

Co-op, the consumer cooperative, had excellent staff engagment but rising absence rates and a higher-than-average staff turnover suggested they could do more to address employee wellbeing. They identified financial wellbeing as an area where they could make a significant difference to colleagues’ lives. ​Co-op repackaged existing benefits and information to increase take-up and are introducing new services for colleagues in 2018.
The Co-op is one of the world’s largest consumer co-operatives, with over 4.5 million active members. The Co-op employs almost 66,000 people and has more than 2,700 local, convenience and medium-sized food stores, over 1,000 funeral homes, as well as insurance, legal and online electrical retailing businesses.

As part of the work being carried out through the Co-op Way policy framework, the organisation is taking action to improve the financial wellbeing of its workforce, gaining valuable insights about its colleagues along the way.
Having an engaged workforce is key for the Co-op, where colleagues across its stores and other parts of the business are ambassadors of the Co-op’s values. In 2017, the Co-op’s employee engagement score was 75%, which is both higher than previous years and than a benchmark of other retailers. However, rising absence rates and a higher-than-average staff turnover suggested that more could be done to improve productivity and retention. A key part of this picture is colleague wellbeing, which forms one of the nine key policy areas of The Co-op Way policy framework for the group’s approach to ethics and sustainability.

The starting point
As well as mental and physical health, in 2016 the Co-op identified financial wellbeing as an area where it could make a significant difference to colleagues’ lives. The Co-op began by exploring pension planning, in response to concerns raised by its trade union that colleagues may not be financially prepared for retirement. However, it was quickly apparent that although pension planning is important for financial wellbeing, it would not be a number one priority for many Co-op colleagues.

This was a steep learning curve for the Co-op, revealing that the business needed to start by helping colleagues to establish a basic level of financial stability and wellbeing. At the Co-op’s 2016 AGM, Co-op members voted for the Group ‘to take further positive steps on colleague pay, having regard to hourly rates recommended as a living wage by the Living Wage Foundation’, and good progress continues to be made. However, while pay and benefits are an important part of the equation, there’s plenty of evidence to show that people can experience debt and money worries whatever their level of income. So the Co-op began to explore other ways to help.

Doing the groundwork
To understand where it could make a ‘Co-op difference’ in this area, a small team began by researching what support could be accessed through external providers. Guided by the Money Advice Service’s UK strategy on financial capability, and working with providers like Nudge, they then compared the demographic of Co-op colleagues to wider UK demographics, which gave a good picture of the kind of financial concerns Co-op colleagues might be facing. This was supported by a detailed review of the current colleague benefit offer, including carrying out colleague interviews to understand where the gaps in Co-op’s existing wellbeing benefits package might be.
Understanding the needs of colleagues
This research revealed two main things: first that Co-op colleagues would value more support to manage day-to-day finances in order to be prepared for unexpected costs and avoid debt; and second that more needed to be done to increase knowledge and take-up of the company’s existing financial wellbeing benefits.

Along with a business case based on improving productivity and absence and turnover rates, these findings were presented to the Wellbeing Steering Committee, made up of leaders from HR and the different Co-op businesses. The Committee approved a programme of activity to improve financial wellbeing across the business.

Moving forwards
Many of the financial wellbeing benefits Co-op offered had not previously been shown to colleagues as a single package of support. So the first step in this programme was the repackaging of the existing key benefits and information in a helpful way, to increase take-up. A good case in point is the Co-op’s rental deposit scheme introduced in 2015, which provides staff with an interest-free loan to help colleagues split the cost of a rental deposit across a number of months rather than having to find all the money up front.

Take-up for the scheme has been relatively low, and so the Co-op has repackaged the loan as part of a factsheet on Renting a Home, which also points to support for other areas such as saving, budgeting, covering travel expenses, insurance and eating well. The Co-op has also produced similar guidance for colleagues on saving and borrowing, ensuring the information is simple and quick to understand.

The Co-op hopes these factsheets will help to equip managers to have better conversations with colleagues about financial wellbeing, and also equip colleagues with the information they need to access the support on their own. However the business is also exploring other means of communicating the support it provides on financial wellbeing to ensure it reaches frontline colleagues. For example the Co-op will be moved its Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) to a new service provider, Lifeworks, in January 2018. Lifeworks provides the full range of traditional EAP services, but also provides colleagues with a mobile phone app. This will allow colleagues to access the financial support offered by the Co-op alongside the wider EAP support, 24-7 wherever they are. They will also have access to Lifeworks’ own wellbeing content written by experts.

The new factsheets and information will be supplemented by new services for colleagues which launch in 2018. For example, the Co-op will be working with Neyber, a company that provides affordable loans to colleagues with repayments deducted from their salary, so that whenever possible colleagues who have to borrow money have a chance to do so at a fair rate of interest. The Co-op will also be offering a colleague ISA (Individual Savings Account), to help colleagues to save for the medium to long term (eg for a house deposit) in a tax-efficient way and will continue to promote the use of credit unions.

Top tips for other businesses
Co-op’s venture into financial wellbeing has been a lesson in the importance of understanding the needs of its colleagues, as Gary Dewin, Director of Pensions, Reward, Benefits and Employee Relations, explains:

“Our top tip is an obvious but essential one; understand your people. You’ve got to know enough about who your colleagues are, especially those on the front line who represent your business every day. It’s very easy to lose sight of that from the HR team in our support centre. You might start off by thinking that financial wellbeing is about pension planning but you need to really understand some of the challenges your colleagues are facing to identify where you can make a tangible difference.”