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The Greater Bay Area Initiative: Connecting A Region Through Shared Interests

27 December, 2018
  • Jackson Kam

    Career Practice Leader, Talent Strategy, Mercer, Hong Kong

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“A fair distribution of pay and opportunity is essential to ensuring the free movement of talent in China's Greater Bay Area region.”

It is human nature to disagree. From how to make the perfect soup dumpling to which system of government works best, people have always perceived the world (and dumplings) in different ways. Our propensity to disagree makes China’s Greater Bay Area (GBA) Initiative a marvel of human collaboration. The GBA Initiative is an ambitious plan to connect 11 municipalities spanning the Guangdong province, Hong Kong and Macau—and align their financial, cultural, geographic and governmental interests.  A daunting, yet immensely exciting challenge, indeed.

Background: From Grand Idea to Modern Reality

In a 2017 government report released by Premier Li Keqiang, China officially announced its intentions to move forward with plans to develop the GBA—which, before that point, had only been theoretical. The idea was first introduced in the 2011 study, “The Action Plan for the Bay Area of the Pearl River Estuary.” This directive from Beijing thrust the plan into the international spotlight, outlining the “city cluster” strategy that leverages the distinct financial, cultural and economic assets of the 11 participating municipalities.1 However, though the region may be geographically close, the participating societies are remarkably different.

For example, differences in regulatory instruments and policies, business practices and tax structures, and cultural perspectives and priorities present challenges to creating a seamless and streamlined alignment of resources and capabilities. The key to success for the GBA is the free flow of everything from talent and information to capital and resources. Significant progress has already been made. China has built the 55-kilometer Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge and expanded the high-speed rail network into Hong Kong. This infrastructure represents only part of a sweeping initiative to facilitate the free flow and exchange of ideas, capital and resources. 


(Source: Research Gate_W Martin de Jong)

 

Aligning Cultural and Economic Differences

Convincing each of the 11 municipalities in the GBA to pursue regional business objectives while prioritizing the well-being of the collective group will require some savvy and diplomatic governance. There will be hurdles to aligning the legal, economic, technical, workforce and geographic complexities of the initiative.2 Companies in the GBA region must be open to innovative thinking. Leaders and policymakers must explore a variety of strategies and business models, from joint ventures and strategic partnerships to mergers and acquisitions. Each region must embrace these issues with a focus on long-term success.

The scope of cooperation and transparency required by the GBA is enormous. The comprehensive framework ensures there will be agreeable mechanisms in place to solve disputes on everything from workforce immigration legalities and environmental policies to project development benchmarks and operational standards. However, today, this complex relationship is largely theoretical as many companies from all over the GBA region continue to navigate cultural, regulatory and operational differences. It will take time to integrate the key processes that directly impact cross-border talent. For example, sometimes Mainland staff who work in Hong Kong are stuck in Shenzhen or Guangzhou for days or even weeks as they await visa extensions. Examples like these demonstrate the role human capital plays in the success of the GBA Initiative. Ultimately, figuring out how to manage human capital across borders and cultures will be critical.

To address these realities, many multinational companies are increasingly hiring Mainland graduates who studied in Hong Kong universities. These graduates are familiar with cultures in both markets, making them suitable to work on GBA-related assignments. Additionally, many companies are actively working to manage the disruption caused by entrenched but disparate policies: differences in salaries, tax regimes, medical benefits and the quality of education available to employees and their families. A fair distribution of pay and opportunity is essential to ensuring the free movement of talent in the GBA region.

Leveraging the Power of Compromise

Perhaps the most impressive policy achievement that contributed to the development of the GBA was resolving the territorial disputes between Hong Kong and Shenzhen over the Lok Mau Chau Loop.3 This swath of territory, both geographically and symbolically, separated the people and ideals of western-influenced Hong Kong from the Beijing-centric interests and culture of Shenzhen. The most poignant aspect of this agreement is the display of a true willingness by both parties to compromise in order to advance their interests.

The Chinese mainland, after all, offers Hong Kong access to one of the world’s most lucrative marketplaces. For Shenzhen, Hong Kong is the gateway to the global economy. This agreement serves as a proof of concept for the entire initiative – finding creative ways to work together to navigate cultural differences and seemingly divergent business priorities. Together, Mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau can create a revolutionary geographic center for technological innovation, financial influence and international trade. The stakes are high, and the whole world is watching.

The GBA, after having surpassed the San Francisco Bay region, ranks second in terms of global GDP for bay-area regions, behind only Tokyo Bay. In fact, with a current GDP of US $13 trillion and a population of 70 million, the GBA region represents 12 percent of China’s entire economy.4 With vastly different political, financial and institutional systems in place, people infrastructure will be key to sustainable and equitable growth for the collective region. Effective cross-pollination requires cutting-edge insights from human capital management experts, thoughtful business leaders and government policymakers. For those of us with expertise in the region, this initiative offers groundbreaking opportunities to build partnerships and negotiate unparalleled collaborations in southern China.

It’s all about compromise, except when it comes to soup dumplings; real soup dumplings have 18 pleats. Just ask your mom. 

For more information on human capital management in China visit: Mercer (Mercer China).

 

 

1News Analysis: New Opportunities For Hong Kong in Emerging ...
www.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-03/11/c_136121179.htm

2China's Greater Bay Area Puts Hong Kong in the Lead As Super Connector To the World
https://www.dorsey.com/newsresources/publications/client-alerts/2018/02/chinas-greater-bay-area-puts-hong-kong-in-the-lead

3Hong Kong’s Startup Scene: the Future Of Mainland–hong ...
www.china-briefing.com/news/2017/08/08/hong-kongs-startup-scene...

4 China Is Building 19 'supercity Clusters'
Andrew Sheng-Xiao Geng- Fung Global Institute- University of Hong Kong - https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/09/how-cities-are-saving-china

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Editorial Staff | 19 Aug 2019

Learn about the latest employee financial wellness trends emerging in 2019. Employees and employers alike can agree on at least one value: financial security. Finances can affect every function of a company and, for the individual, their personal life. When employees face a difficult financial situation, it can impede on job satisfaction, attitude and performance. Financially stressed workers miss more work and incur higher healthcare costs than their peers. These factors inevitably take a toll on a company’s employee engagement levelsand eventually the bottom line—especially if financial hardship impacts multiple employees. At the same time, HR professionals know that people don’t just work for the paycheck and that increasing salary alone won’t necessarily boost job satisfaction. Workers also strive for positive company culture, flexible scheduling, recognition, L&D opportunities, retirement plans, and other benefits. Naturally, apart from the salary figure, employees want to work for a company that values them and offers a bright future. As global unemployment reaches its lowest point in 40 years and we enter an employment economy, employers are facing an increasingly competitive hiring landscape where the benefits package is an increasingly important tool for attracting and retaining top talent. One benefit that continues to gain traction is a structured financial wellness program. With financial wellness solutions, employees receive financial education through courses on goal planning, basic financial literacy, budgeting, debt management and alleviating financial stress. The aim of a financial wellness program is to guide employees towards actions that help them reach goals for every stage of their financial lives, such as saving for a house, a car, college, or retirement. Mercer’s Healthy Wealthy and Work-wise report found employees (as well as employers) report higher satisfaction with their benefit plans when financial wellness is offered. Furthermore, companies report up to a 3-to-1 return on their financial wellness investment. Employees are worried about their finances   For many employees, money is the number one source of stress. Mercer’s Inside Employees Minds report asked 3,000 workers questions about the extent to which financial stress affected their work, finding that 62% of those who are financially challenged identify being able to pay monthly expenses as their biggest financial concern—even among people with an annual household income of $100,000 or more. Financial stress varies among demographics. Young adults are burdened with high levels of debt, especially with educated-related expenses for university. Families can struggle to meet financial goals due to cash flow issues or unexpected expenses. Even older adults often carry financial stress from caring for aging parents or children who have moved back home. Single parents have their own set of financial stressors. Therefore, when designing a financial wellness program, it is important to consider the entire scope of your workforce and the various financial lives they may lead. Financial wellness trends to have on your radar   For all the struggles brought on by financial hardship, there is hope that financial wellness programs can remedy the situation to the benefit of both employees and employers. A Gallup poll found financial wellness is closely linked with positive behavioral changes and stronger relationships, regardless of income levels. By implementing financial wellness programs, employers also enjoy the benefit of having a happier, healthier and more productive workforce. A joint study from Morgan Stanley and the Financial Health Network found that 75% of employees said a financial wellness program is an important benefit and 60% said they would be more inclined to stay at a company that offered financial wellness solutions. While employers are recognizing the importance of combating financial stress among employees, it appears they may need to improve these efforts to help employees. Cigna’s global well-being survey of employees in Asia Pacific, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and North America found that 87% of employees are stressed at work—with personal finances being the top stressor—and 38% claim no stress management support is provided at all. While 46% of employees report they receive support from their employer, only 28% feel this support is adequate. It’s time to raise the bar on financial wellness benefits. Here are some emerging trends and strategies companies are considering so they can maximize employee financial wellness solutions and stand out in the marketplace. 1.  Users are demanding technology-driven solutions for personalization. For financial planning solutions, users want a modern, simple interface that offers a comprehensive view of their financial situation and outlines a guided, personalized path to reaching their financial goals and staying accountable. According to a recent Forrester study, customers of wealth management firms are demanding more functionality and digitalization with financial planning solutions. This demand is making features like account aggregation, personalized content delivery and accountability triggers standard elements for a successful financial wellness program. “Help me help myself” tools are being personalized for the user with finance snapshots, budget planners and loan repayment calculators. Notably, a study from Morgan Stanley and the Financial Health Network found that 42% of employees said they feel inadequately informed about the benefits and programs their employer offers. Of the employees who do not use all of the benefits, many said they would be more apt to use them if they were explained more clearly and made easier to access. According to Thompsons Online Benefits Watch, 70% of employees want mobile access to their benefits packages but only 51% of employers are offering it. These gaps mean there is an opportunity for companies to elevate their financial wellness programs and make them more usable and appealing to employees. Employers should consider informing employees about benefits through live webinars, social media or SMS alerts. The program should also be fully accessible by mobile and offer online tools that personalize the user experience. 2.  Data analytics & digital technology are personalizing financial wellness programs. Data analytics is shaping financial wellness programs to provide the level of personalization employees have come to expect in the digital age. These data analytics can help differentiate between types and categories of employees, allowing programs to be personalized for live events and stages. Just as online stores use aggregated consumer preference and demographic data to make recommendations and suggestions, financial wellness platforms are beginning to employ data analytics and algorithms to determine whether an employee is making progress or might need some extra assistance to stay on track. Some programs employ data analytics to frame an employees’ savings and spending habits and compare them to their peers. These programs can also analyze behaviors and provide scores to help employees see if they are improving on their savings or debt managements. Some programs can also offer employers the ability to create targeted marketing campaigns that focus on personal milestones for employees, such as buying a new car or getting married. These milestones can be used to inspire specific savings behaviors and spending habits, which might mean recommending homeowners insurance or opening an education savings account. Data analytics can also be used to build each employee a profile, which can then be supported by customized self-service tools to help employees get answers to specific questions and better plan for possible life changes. For example, with their profile input and all their financial information accounted for, employees can determine just how much additional life insurance they might need to purchase if they have a child. Without data analytics, the manual process of calculating this figure would be tedious, time consuming and require a potentially costly meeting with a financial advisor. On the employer side, data can be collected to determine how well the financial wellness program is performing. This data can help drive the program to offer new components and functions in ways that better meet the needs of employees. 3.  Employees want actual help not hype. As financial wellness programs continue to shape the benefits ecosystem, more employees are expecting that their employers will care about their financial security beyond just signing their paycheck. According to Thompsons Online Benefits Watch, 79% of employees trust their employers to deliver sound advice on planning, saving and investing. Employers are expected to deliver real, actionable ways to help employees improve upon their financial situation. A study from Merrill Lynch found a sharp disconnect in what employees want to have and what employers are offering in financial wellness programs. For example, employees generally want to work on meeting end goals, and they’d prefer to focus on one goal at a time. But employers are taking a heavy approach, emphasizing a comprehensive approach to controlling overall finances. While the comprehensive strategy of employers is certainly well-intentioned, it has a tendency to overwhelm users. Financial planning can be intimidating, especially for those in stressful situations. To counter this, companies in the wellness space are designing programs from the employee perspective to offer a holistic approach. Holistic programs, which integrate financial health with mental and physical health, can help employees open their financial “junk drawer” and make connections between the various elements of financial health and life—from saving for a wedding, buying a home, managing loan debt, etc. Well-designed programs will demystify the topic of financial wellness rather than scare employees away with an onslaught of complex information and suggestions for services and financial products they don’t understand. 4.  Building the business case for financial wellness programs: engagement, productivity & success. Whether management wants to admit it or not, employees are bringing financial stress to work and it’s impacting the company’s bottom line. In a survey from the Society for Human Resource Management, 83% of respondents reported that personal financial challenges had at least some effect on their overall performance at work in the past year. This disengagement means big losses for businesses. Workforce stress is potentially costing companies more than $5 million a year.  Because of the business losses incurred, supporting employees’ financial wellness is becoming a major priority for organizations and the trend is catching on. Research from GuideSpark found that financial wellness is the third most important type of wellness program to employees, at 82%, behind stress management (86%) and physical fitness (85%). The results of employee wellness programs are promising. According to Employee Benefit News, participants in financial wellness programs demonstrate progress in their finances. The percentage of participants feeling “highly stressed” about personal finances fell from 52.4% to 19.2% after the completion of a financial wellness program. Similarly, 56% of participants said they believe they’re in a better position to manage their monthly cash flow after the completion of a financial wellness program. 5.  An increased focus on student loan repayment & affordable education. In the HR industry, employee development has become an impetus for employee engagement. But the truth is that for many employees, their past continues to weigh them down. Higher education costs are contributing to unprecedented student loan debt challenges in both developed and developing countries. As university tuition costs continue to rise, student loan debts have reached concerning record levels for graduates. The World Bank reports that developing countries face greater higher-education challenges than developed countries. Enormous debt and high tuition costs are setting back many employees before they have the chance to get ahead, which is widening the talent gap and thinning talent pools for companies. Amid rising tuition and mounting debt, HR professionals owe it to companies and employees to offer solutions to the challenges they both face. This can be done through loan repayment education that helps employees strategize to pay off loans as quickly as possible. Taking it a step further, some HR departments may be able to convince companies to offer loan repayment and tuition reimbursement programs. When employees are worried about finances, they may have to switch jobs and find an employer willing to give them the tools and monetary compensation they need. Offering loan repayment advice or support offers employees a solution to a personal problem they face. They will likely become more invested in the company, which can translate to boosted morale and productivity across the company’s workforce. Tuition reimbursement and the encouragement of further education can also go a long way in helping companies thrive in the digital transformation and foster a culture of lifelong learning. Amid digitalization, the workforce is shifting from fixed job titles and detailed job descriptions to ever-revolving roles. At the current pace of technology growth, chances are that many of today’s prized technical skills will be obsolete within a few short years. As the skill gap grows, companies won’t have the luxury of easily recruiting new hires. They will instead need to focus on upskilling and recruiting lifelong learners who have a passion for integrating new technology into business operations. Offering tuition reimbursement or education planning advice will help attract and develop a talented workforce for the digital age. People around the world are experiencing record amounts of stress, according to Gallup’s Annual Global Emotions Report, and finances are certainly among the greatest stressors. As the stress escalates, more companies will find their employees’ personal bottom lines eroding the company’s bottom line. Without intervention, employees’ financial stress will rise, and companies will suffer drops in productivity, increased absenteeism, and low engagement levels. When implemented properly, financial wellness solutions can be a rising tide that lifts all boats—benefiting both employees and the company. The HR department is in a unique position to make this connection, sending the message that employees and companies are in this together.

Africa's unique position as a continent largely comprised of young people who are embracing digital transformation provides banks around the world with a glimpse into the future. This new generation favours agility over bureaucracy and online automation over conventional interactions plagued by human inefficiencies, geographical constraints and a lack of adaptability. In fact, 40% of African bank customers report they prefer to use digital channels for their banking needs.1 This dramatic shift in consumer preference is propelling Africa to the forefront of change and making the African banking sector a hotbed for innovation. In particular, South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Cote D'Ivoire are leading the way as they navigate the unprecedented impact and consequences that the digitization of banking and rise of fintech are having on customers, revenue and the future of bank employees. The Rise of Mobile Usage and Digital Banking   Mobile usage and digital banking go hand in hand. African banking users prefer digital banking, because they've already integrated digital channels into their lifestyles. In 2017, more than 90% of Sub-Saharan Africa was covered by 2G networks, and more advanced mobile broadband networks are being implemented rapidly throughout these regions, where a third of mobile users — 250 million people — have a smartphone.2 This familiarity with mobile technology and trust for digital platforms make adopting digital banking channels easier. Creating Unprecedented Access to Wealth   Faster, cheaper devices and greater access to robust networks are empowering poor countries across Africa to leapfrog into a new era of connectivity, information and online resources. This profound development not only overshadows the impact of landline telephony but also creates a new reality where, in Sub-Saharan Africa, mobile phones are more common than access to electricity. Mobile-money systems that allow people to send cash directly from their phones has elevated the economic fates of populations — lifting, for example, 2% of Kenyan households out of poverty between 2008 and 2014.3 Nigeria (where 60% of the population is under 25 years old) combined with China, India, Pakistan and Indonesia will make up 50% of the 1.6 billion mobile internet users projected to be online by 2025.4 The continued rise of connected and tech-savvy generations of bank users is set to disrupt the entire industry and its workforces. The Challenges of Modernizing Banking Workforces   To understand the impact digital transformation and mobile banking are having on banks and their employees, look no further than the recent developments at Standard Bank: Even as one of Africa's most powerful and influential banks, it announced a plan to close up to 91 branches throughout the country, putting more than 1,000 jobs in jeopardy.5 The digitization of transactions and processes that were once performed by human beings is creating profound challenges for banks and bank employees who make a living from increasingly antiquated skills sets. For the global banking industry, Africa represents an inevitable and very near future, and employees are understandably concerned about the viability of their banking careers. As major banks are searching for innovative ways to combat increasing competition and drive growth within their portfolios amid complicated trading conditions, a new generation of tech-oriented banks and fintech organizations are emerging, including TymeBank and Bank Zero. Finding Opportunity in Times of Change   With change, there is always opportunity. Mercer's Global Talent Trends 2019 report details that innovation can often present legacy workforces with significant obstacles, but it can also provide unprecedented opportunities for career development and professional growth. Mercer can provide CEOs, CFOs and banking executives with the knowledge and resources they need to implement digitization throughout the finance industry, using lessons from Africa's digital banking boom. Africa's intersection of technology and tech-savvy customers has accelerated the rate at which the digital banking industry is growing, and the potential of this growth can elevate the global marketplace. As tech-savvy consumers across the world demand that banks migrate investments, resources and strategies into fintech and mobile-friendly platforms, Mercer's trusted expertise offers transparency and clear strategies that empower banks — and their workforces — to adapt to a new age of digital transformation. Sources: 1Agabi, Chris. "40% of African bank customers prefer digital channels transactions — Report." Mobile Money Africa, 23 Apr. 2019, https://mobilemoneyafrica.com/blog/40-of-african-bank-customers-prefer-digital-channels-transactions-report. 2Radcliffe, Damien. "Mobile in Sub-Saharan Africa: Can world's fastest-growing mobile region keep it up?" ZDNet, 16 Oct. 2018, https://www.zdnet.com/article/mobile-in-sub-saharan-africa-can-worlds-fastest-growing-mobile-region-keep-it-up/. 3"In much of sub-Saharan Africa, mobile phones are more common than access to electricity." The Economist, 8 Nov. 2017, https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2017/11/08/in-much-of-sub-saharan-africa-mobile-phones-are-more-common-than-access-to-electricity. 4Kazeem, Yomi. "Nigeria's young population will help drive global mobile internet user growth over the next decade." Quartz Africa, 18 Sept. 2018, https://qz.com/africa/1393908/gsma-nigeria-to-add-50-million-mobile-internet-users-by-2025/. 5Khumalo, Kabelo. "Customer behaviour triggered Standard Bank move to close 91 branches." Business Report, 15 Mar. 2019, https://www.iol.co.za/business-report/companies/customer-behaviour-triggered-standard-bank-move-to-close-91-branches-19896105.

Sean Daykin | 13 Jun 2019

Private equity (PE) is becoming increasingly important in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) in light of recent intensified economic diversification and development efforts. It is emerging as a relatively new asset class in the region, with interest in "growth capital" rather than the more traditional "buy out" PE has seen in the developed markets of the UAE and Western Europe, in which fund managers take a majority stake. Indeed, venture capital (VC) has seen a surge of fundraising following the success of the region's VC unicorns, such as Careem, and the purchase of Souq.com by Amazon. Private equity can play an important role in driving economic growth. Factors, like the region's increasing wealth, recent important economic reforms and regional governments' strong initiatives to strengthen local entrepreneurship and promote small to medium-sized enterprises, make it highly attractive for PE investments. Governments in the region are attempting to foster further growth in VC by creating incubators and regional hubs with reduced regulations to encourage entrepreneurs to set up in the region. These efforts will ultimately drive sustainable economic growth, greater prosperity, and more highly skilled jobs. However, following the highly publicized case of Abraaj Group,1 the industry is calling for more robust corporate governance in the region. Local PE managers are facing far greater scrutiny as investors are starting to pay more attention to how their funds are handled. Regional investors are asking for a better understanding in gauging the performance of private markets. Buyers and investors want to base their decisions to enter the PE market on proven and tested information, considering factors like past performance and doing their due diligence on investment and operations. While measuring the absolute and relative performance of private markets is critical, it is significantly nuanced. As "value creation" is an important aspect in the private equity story, measurement should be not only accurate but also meaningful. As with all investments, evaluating past performance is always a factor when deciding whether or not to include private equity within the overall asset allocation of a portfolio. However, PE investors must look deeper to determine a Fund's true performance, through rigorous due diligence. A combination of metrics and qualitative measures are important for providing a holistic understanding of the Fund's track record and its future performance potential. In terms of quantitative metrics, the three most commonly used ones are Internal Rate of Return (IRR), Total Value to Paid (TVPI) ratio and Distributed to Paid-In (DPI) ratio. IRR is the most widely cited metric for measuring the performance of a private market investment. This is a time-based measurement which takes into account the investment made and acquired over a period of time. The longer an investment takes to mature (or sell at a given price), the more a given annualized IRR will fall. The second measure, TVPI, considers the total of how much value is received from investments (through dividends and a sale at the end), compared to the initial investment made. The final measure is the DPI ratio, which measures how much of the initial capital is returned (through dividends or other payments) compared to how much was invested initially. DPI is a barometer of realized value, not total value. All three of these metrics play an important role in helping investors evaluate a private equity fund's historical performance. While there is no single answer for comprehensively and accurately assessing the performance of a private equity fund, these metrics when employed together can help get a better understanding of it. Gauging past performance of a fund doesn't tell you much about the performance of the next private equity fund. These commitments have a long life, and it is, therefore, necessary to consider other investment related factors. They could include the stability of the investment team, looking at how the investment team sources deals or how they create value at their portfolio companies. Following the Abraaj case, assessing managers and back office operations have become an essential measure of due diligence. Effective internal controls, strong systems and a well-staffed operations team are also critical for a private equity fund to succeed. Measuring private market performance is certainly more complicated than measuring public market performance. It requires a clear view of relevant metrics and methodologies, is informed through multiple perspectives and demands specificity of analysis. Additionally, it can be subjective, prone to manipulation and ultimately represents an imperfect assessment of the success of a private market investment. However, private market performance measurement is likely to continue to evolve, thereby improving its current shortcomings. The key for investors is to identify investment talent who can generate strong investment sustainably over time. While past performance is useful in evaluating a managers' historical track record, it won't guarantee future results. Hence, an investor needs to undertake deep "qualitative" investment with operational due diligence together to assess the likelihood of future investment success. To learn more about how Mercer can help you with your investment strategies, click here. 1 Ramady, Mohamed, "Abraaj Capital: The Rise and Fall of a Middle East Star," Al Arabiya, July 3, 2018,https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2018/07/03/Abraaj-Capital-The-rise-and-fall-of-a-Middle-East-star.html#.

More from Voice on Growth

Editorial Staff | 19 Aug 2019

Learn about the latest employee financial wellness trends emerging in 2019. Employees and employers alike can agree on at least one value: financial security. Finances can affect every function of a company and, for the individual, their personal life. When employees face a difficult financial situation, it can impede on job satisfaction, attitude and performance. Financially stressed workers miss more work and incur higher healthcare costs than their peers. These factors inevitably take a toll on a company’s employee engagement levelsand eventually the bottom line—especially if financial hardship impacts multiple employees. At the same time, HR professionals know that people don’t just work for the paycheck and that increasing salary alone won’t necessarily boost job satisfaction. Workers also strive for positive company culture, flexible scheduling, recognition, L&D opportunities, retirement plans, and other benefits. Naturally, apart from the salary figure, employees want to work for a company that values them and offers a bright future. As global unemployment reaches its lowest point in 40 years and we enter an employment economy, employers are facing an increasingly competitive hiring landscape where the benefits package is an increasingly important tool for attracting and retaining top talent. One benefit that continues to gain traction is a structured financial wellness program. With financial wellness solutions, employees receive financial education through courses on goal planning, basic financial literacy, budgeting, debt management and alleviating financial stress. The aim of a financial wellness program is to guide employees towards actions that help them reach goals for every stage of their financial lives, such as saving for a house, a car, college, or retirement. Mercer’s Healthy Wealthy and Work-wise report found employees (as well as employers) report higher satisfaction with their benefit plans when financial wellness is offered. Furthermore, companies report up to a 3-to-1 return on their financial wellness investment. Employees are worried about their finances   For many employees, money is the number one source of stress. Mercer’s Inside Employees Minds report asked 3,000 workers questions about the extent to which financial stress affected their work, finding that 62% of those who are financially challenged identify being able to pay monthly expenses as their biggest financial concern—even among people with an annual household income of $100,000 or more. Financial stress varies among demographics. Young adults are burdened with high levels of debt, especially with educated-related expenses for university. Families can struggle to meet financial goals due to cash flow issues or unexpected expenses. Even older adults often carry financial stress from caring for aging parents or children who have moved back home. Single parents have their own set of financial stressors. Therefore, when designing a financial wellness program, it is important to consider the entire scope of your workforce and the various financial lives they may lead. Financial wellness trends to have on your radar   For all the struggles brought on by financial hardship, there is hope that financial wellness programs can remedy the situation to the benefit of both employees and employers. A Gallup poll found financial wellness is closely linked with positive behavioral changes and stronger relationships, regardless of income levels. By implementing financial wellness programs, employers also enjoy the benefit of having a happier, healthier and more productive workforce. A joint study from Morgan Stanley and the Financial Health Network found that 75% of employees said a financial wellness program is an important benefit and 60% said they would be more inclined to stay at a company that offered financial wellness solutions. While employers are recognizing the importance of combating financial stress among employees, it appears they may need to improve these efforts to help employees. Cigna’s global well-being survey of employees in Asia Pacific, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and North America found that 87% of employees are stressed at work—with personal finances being the top stressor—and 38% claim no stress management support is provided at all. While 46% of employees report they receive support from their employer, only 28% feel this support is adequate. It’s time to raise the bar on financial wellness benefits. Here are some emerging trends and strategies companies are considering so they can maximize employee financial wellness solutions and stand out in the marketplace. 1.  Users are demanding technology-driven solutions for personalization. For financial planning solutions, users want a modern, simple interface that offers a comprehensive view of their financial situation and outlines a guided, personalized path to reaching their financial goals and staying accountable. According to a recent Forrester study, customers of wealth management firms are demanding more functionality and digitalization with financial planning solutions. This demand is making features like account aggregation, personalized content delivery and accountability triggers standard elements for a successful financial wellness program. “Help me help myself” tools are being personalized for the user with finance snapshots, budget planners and loan repayment calculators. Notably, a study from Morgan Stanley and the Financial Health Network found that 42% of employees said they feel inadequately informed about the benefits and programs their employer offers. Of the employees who do not use all of the benefits, many said they would be more apt to use them if they were explained more clearly and made easier to access. According to Thompsons Online Benefits Watch, 70% of employees want mobile access to their benefits packages but only 51% of employers are offering it. These gaps mean there is an opportunity for companies to elevate their financial wellness programs and make them more usable and appealing to employees. Employers should consider informing employees about benefits through live webinars, social media or SMS alerts. The program should also be fully accessible by mobile and offer online tools that personalize the user experience. 2.  Data analytics & digital technology are personalizing financial wellness programs. Data analytics is shaping financial wellness programs to provide the level of personalization employees have come to expect in the digital age. These data analytics can help differentiate between types and categories of employees, allowing programs to be personalized for live events and stages. Just as online stores use aggregated consumer preference and demographic data to make recommendations and suggestions, financial wellness platforms are beginning to employ data analytics and algorithms to determine whether an employee is making progress or might need some extra assistance to stay on track. Some programs employ data analytics to frame an employees’ savings and spending habits and compare them to their peers. These programs can also analyze behaviors and provide scores to help employees see if they are improving on their savings or debt managements. Some programs can also offer employers the ability to create targeted marketing campaigns that focus on personal milestones for employees, such as buying a new car or getting married. These milestones can be used to inspire specific savings behaviors and spending habits, which might mean recommending homeowners insurance or opening an education savings account. Data analytics can also be used to build each employee a profile, which can then be supported by customized self-service tools to help employees get answers to specific questions and better plan for possible life changes. For example, with their profile input and all their financial information accounted for, employees can determine just how much additional life insurance they might need to purchase if they have a child. Without data analytics, the manual process of calculating this figure would be tedious, time consuming and require a potentially costly meeting with a financial advisor. On the employer side, data can be collected to determine how well the financial wellness program is performing. This data can help drive the program to offer new components and functions in ways that better meet the needs of employees. 3.  Employees want actual help not hype. As financial wellness programs continue to shape the benefits ecosystem, more employees are expecting that their employers will care about their financial security beyond just signing their paycheck. According to Thompsons Online Benefits Watch, 79% of employees trust their employers to deliver sound advice on planning, saving and investing. Employers are expected to deliver real, actionable ways to help employees improve upon their financial situation. A study from Merrill Lynch found a sharp disconnect in what employees want to have and what employers are offering in financial wellness programs. For example, employees generally want to work on meeting end goals, and they’d prefer to focus on one goal at a time. But employers are taking a heavy approach, emphasizing a comprehensive approach to controlling overall finances. While the comprehensive strategy of employers is certainly well-intentioned, it has a tendency to overwhelm users. Financial planning can be intimidating, especially for those in stressful situations. To counter this, companies in the wellness space are designing programs from the employee perspective to offer a holistic approach. Holistic programs, which integrate financial health with mental and physical health, can help employees open their financial “junk drawer” and make connections between the various elements of financial health and life—from saving for a wedding, buying a home, managing loan debt, etc. Well-designed programs will demystify the topic of financial wellness rather than scare employees away with an onslaught of complex information and suggestions for services and financial products they don’t understand. 4.  Building the business case for financial wellness programs: engagement, productivity & success. Whether management wants to admit it or not, employees are bringing financial stress to work and it’s impacting the company’s bottom line. In a survey from the Society for Human Resource Management, 83% of respondents reported that personal financial challenges had at least some effect on their overall performance at work in the past year. This disengagement means big losses for businesses. Workforce stress is potentially costing companies more than $5 million a year.  Because of the business losses incurred, supporting employees’ financial wellness is becoming a major priority for organizations and the trend is catching on. Research from GuideSpark found that financial wellness is the third most important type of wellness program to employees, at 82%, behind stress management (86%) and physical fitness (85%). The results of employee wellness programs are promising. According to Employee Benefit News, participants in financial wellness programs demonstrate progress in their finances. The percentage of participants feeling “highly stressed” about personal finances fell from 52.4% to 19.2% after the completion of a financial wellness program. Similarly, 56% of participants said they believe they’re in a better position to manage their monthly cash flow after the completion of a financial wellness program. 5.  An increased focus on student loan repayment & affordable education. In the HR industry, employee development has become an impetus for employee engagement. But the truth is that for many employees, their past continues to weigh them down. Higher education costs are contributing to unprecedented student loan debt challenges in both developed and developing countries. As university tuition costs continue to rise, student loan debts have reached concerning record levels for graduates. The World Bank reports that developing countries face greater higher-education challenges than developed countries. Enormous debt and high tuition costs are setting back many employees before they have the chance to get ahead, which is widening the talent gap and thinning talent pools for companies. Amid rising tuition and mounting debt, HR professionals owe it to companies and employees to offer solutions to the challenges they both face. This can be done through loan repayment education that helps employees strategize to pay off loans as quickly as possible. Taking it a step further, some HR departments may be able to convince companies to offer loan repayment and tuition reimbursement programs. When employees are worried about finances, they may have to switch jobs and find an employer willing to give them the tools and monetary compensation they need. Offering loan repayment advice or support offers employees a solution to a personal problem they face. They will likely become more invested in the company, which can translate to boosted morale and productivity across the company’s workforce. Tuition reimbursement and the encouragement of further education can also go a long way in helping companies thrive in the digital transformation and foster a culture of lifelong learning. Amid digitalization, the workforce is shifting from fixed job titles and detailed job descriptions to ever-revolving roles. At the current pace of technology growth, chances are that many of today’s prized technical skills will be obsolete within a few short years. As the skill gap grows, companies won’t have the luxury of easily recruiting new hires. They will instead need to focus on upskilling and recruiting lifelong learners who have a passion for integrating new technology into business operations. Offering tuition reimbursement or education planning advice will help attract and develop a talented workforce for the digital age. People around the world are experiencing record amounts of stress, according to Gallup’s Annual Global Emotions Report, and finances are certainly among the greatest stressors. As the stress escalates, more companies will find their employees’ personal bottom lines eroding the company’s bottom line. Without intervention, employees’ financial stress will rise, and companies will suffer drops in productivity, increased absenteeism, and low engagement levels. When implemented properly, financial wellness solutions can be a rising tide that lifts all boats—benefiting both employees and the company. The HR department is in a unique position to make this connection, sending the message that employees and companies are in this together.

Isabelle Hernu-Sfeir | 19 Aug 2019

In accordance with the ‘Professional Future’ law passed on September 5, 2018, French companies/subsidiaries with over 50 employees are now required to publish on their website their Gender Pay Equity Index on an annual basis. The deadline imposed by the law for the first publication of the index depends on the size of the French entities: - 1st March 2019 for entities with over 1,000 employees; - 1st September 2019 for entities with 250 to 1,000 employees; - 1st March 2020 for entities with 50 to 250 employees. The law sets out the five indicators that should be assessed to establish the index value. If the value of the index turns out to be less than 75 out of 100, the company then must implement actions to reach this threshold within a three-year timeframe. Should the threshold not be reached after three years or should the company not publish the index, then the company will incur a financial penalty of up to 1% of payroll. The French State intends to follow this very closely and is expected to review 7,000 companies in 2019. This is a wonderful opportunity to revisit your company action plan to reduce the gender pay gap. It is a call to take action to improve diversity and inclusion in organizations’ career, talent and performance management processes. The French pay equity index is a score out of 100 points defined as the total of 5 indicators: 1. The Gender Pay Gap, for identical positions and ages (up to 40 points) (0 points allocated if the gap is more than 20%); 2. The difference between the number of men and women given a pay increase during the year (up to 20 points); 3. The difference between the number of men and women promoted during the year (up to 15 points); 4. The percentage of employees given a pay rise on their return from maternity leave (up to 15 points). This catching-up pay rise has been mandatory since 2006. If only one employee did not get it over the year on return from maternity leave, then the company gets no points for this criteria; 5. The number of people from the under-represented gender (usually women) among the 10 highest earners (up to 10 points). Based on published indices to date, this last indicator is the one on which companies score the lowest. The average representation of the women in the 10 highest earners is two or three out of ten. The above indicators 2 and 3 are merged into one indicator over 35 points for French entities with less than 250 employees. Would you like to find out more?      Mercer France can help you ensure you are compliant with the gender pay equity law in France and can help you implement efficient actions to reduce your Gender Pay Gap and improve diversity and inclusion in your HR processes. Click here to get in touch.

Editorial Staff | 17 Aug 2019

There is a huge opportunity for blockchain to establish itself in the healthcare sector. Learn more about specific use cases that can help innovate how HR departments deliver healthcare & wellness benefits. Blockchain technology is one of the most disruptive technologies on the market today, with multiple industries adopting it to optimize processes and innovate the way companies function. It has proven to be a game changer in the business arena and the global blockchain technology market is estimated to amass US$20 billion in revenue by 2024. Meanwhile, SAP reports that 71% of business leaders who are actively using blockchain believe it plays a key role in advancing technology and reestablishing industry standards.  While blockchain has already been widely integrated in processes for supply chains, banking and cryptocurrency (e.g. Bitcoin), the healthcare industry has also been identified as one of the top industries likely to be disrupted. Blockchain technology could offer solutions to some of  healthcare’s greatest challenges, from securely managing patients’ medical data to tracking large databases of drugs through the supply chain or extracting healthcare data from clinical trials. As the technology advances and becomes more readily available, more healthcare organizations across the industry will be adopting blockchain solutions to redesign the global healthcare ecosystem.  HR serves a critical function for the healthcare industry and is an intermediate between employees and one of the most valued aspects of life: their health. According to Bitfortune, 55% of healthcare applications will adopt blockchain platforms for commercial deployment by 2025. Meanwhile, adoption seems to be ramping up with multiple governments around the world announcing plans to invest in blockchain and encourage its implementation. For example, Singapore’s government has announced financial incentives to enterprises for adopting the technology. Amid an evolving industry, it is imperative HR professionals stay current with how blockchain’s ledger technology is disrupting the healthcare industry. They should especially keep a pulse on the implications blockchain holds for delivering the employee experience with improved healthcare and other benefits. Use cases: how blockchain can help HR transform in delivering healthcare & benefits   While the use of blockchain technology is still more commonly associated with payment functions, its disruption to HR will be profound and pervasive in coming years with many possible use cases across the functions of an HR department. To prepare for the coming blockchain revolution, HR departments should focus on identifying problem areas and inefficient processes that could be addressed by the transparency, accuracy and speed that blockchain provides. The processes most primed for blockchain disruption are those that are burdensome and expensive with substantial data collection and third-party verification. For this reason, healthcare and benefits could be the ideal match for an HR department looking to adopt blockchain technology. 1.  Enhancing fraud prevention & cybersecurity for sensitive data in HR. HR teams conduct some of the highest-volume financial transactions for an organization and handle sensitive employee data related to healthcare (as well as, banking, disciplinary records, performance records, expense reimbursement, and more). Unfortunately, all of the data an HR department maintains is at risk of being exploited and, as more companies face data breaches, it is becoming increasingly important that proper measures are in place to maintain security and prevent fraud. A company’s cyber risks largely emerge from an underlying lack of transparency and accuracy in its data systems. Because of its capacity for promoting transparency and accuracy, blockchain technology is being lauded as a solution for combating cybersecurity crime and protecting data. While blockchain’s popularity grows among large companies and companies that hold critical, sensitive data (for example, Lockheed Martin is trusting it to secure data), it is also being used by nonprofits to collect donations securely. It is important to consider that blockchain technology can mitigate both internal fraud and external hacks of sensitive employee records. Access to the blockchain is limited and controlled—even those who have access are not able to modify the records. This limits both internal fraud and external hacks of sensitive employee records. In the digital age, data is a major asset for a company. Blockchain essentially functions to decentralize data and places it across a large network of computer storage spaces to reduce the risk that a single hacking event could usurp all the data a company has. By using blockchain, HR departments can introduce a solid measure of security against cyber threats to protect their employees’ health information. 2.  Improving health insurance, health records & patient experience with ‘smart contracts.’ Much of blockchain’s power comes in the application of ‘smart contracts’, which many organizations are using to make payments to employees, contractors and vendors. In fact, it is reported that 45% of early adopters of blockchain are already implementing smart contracts within their organizations. A smart contract codes a set of parameters using statements in ‘if this, then that” (IFTTT) language. These contracts are designed so that, once executed, the entire process is dictated by these codes. It is also made irreversible unless of course terms of a contract need to be updated. While smart contracts have many applications for HR functions in terms of payroll, there are some very important considerations HR departments should be aware of in terms of healthcare. Smart contracts have the potential to be used for insurance, including how patients buy insurance. Through a smart contract, all details of an insuree’s policy could be stored in a patient profile. This profile would then be stored on the blockchain platform in a safe and secure ledger that is less prone to hacks than the databases currently used.  Smart contracts could also impact the insurance claim process by eliminating the need for lengthy forms and time lags. If an insuree undergoes a medical procedure covered by the policy, a smart contract would be automatically triggered to transfer money from the insurance company’s account straight to the hospital or medical provider. The automation cuts out delays and hassles, allowing for correct payment of the medical service. There are also numerous implications for electronic medical records, information and medical data sharing. Storing patient’s electronic health records (EHR) on secured ledgers, for example, would allow a patient to move easily from one hospital to another without having to fill out numerous forms. The blockchain network would safely store their records, allowing their new physician to access them without delay. While hospitals and healthcare providers currently rely on a number of databases filled with patient data, these can be too centralized and restrictive for sharing potentially life-saving insights around the globe. If health records were to be kept in a smart contract stored on the blockchain, the data analytics would be available to hospitals, providers and research institutions everywhere. With widespread adoption of this healthcare blockchain technology, an individual could essentially walk into any hospital in the world for treatment and, with their private key, their health data would be accessible instantly. 3.  Offering better access to healthcare & other benefits. Blockchain’s ‘smart contracts’ could also change how employees gain access to healthcare and benefits. Once the employer outlines the terms of employment prior to hiring, HR is charged with upholding the conditions in the contract. These terms include provisions that employees value in their employee experience, such as healthcare insurance, wellness programs or other benefits. The current model of manually delivering benefits runs risks of errors and could get in the way of properly servicing employees. With blockchain, HR could seamlessly deliver upon these benefits by implementing smart contracts that automate the process. For example, if a company outlines that an employee’s benefits packages begins after a specific waiting period, the smart contract would be written to automate these benefits at the right time and in the right fashion. Not only does blockchain have the potential to improve security and automation of benefits, it is possible for benefits to be more personalized to each individual employee. In today’s digital world, consumers are accustomed to enjoying personalized experiences and this trend of hyper-personalization is reaching the workplace. Through blockchain’s smart contracts, which could be integrated with artificial intelligence (AI) and IoT technology, companies would be able to empower employees with benefits packages and wellness programs that are tailored specifically for them and their evolving needs. These personalized packages could become a critical tool for enhancing the employee experience. Challenges HR faces in implementing blockchain to deliver benefits   Blockchain is a quickly evolving technology with new applications and trends regularly emerging. Though it is becoming more widely adopted across a variety of industries, it is inevitable that first-time users will run into issues and challenges in implementing it. For HR departments, it is imperative to consider these challenges as they explore which processes might be impacted by blockchain. 1.  Data standardization & integration with legacy systems. With blockchain being a new technology, protocols and standards for its application are not yet established. When the internet began to commercialize, it initially struggled without proper protocols. But over time, controls were implemented to allow for browser compatibility, cross-platform multimedia and better interconnectivity between servers. As more sectors adopt blockchain—especially healthcare which handles sensitive and personal data—ensuring that blockchains offer an industry-wide benefit will require widespread collaboration and standardization. For example, it will have to be determined when private, as opposed to public, if blockchains make sense. Otherwise, this could impact the security and functionality of blockchain technology. All industries will have to get over a major hurdle when it comes to integrating blockchain solutions with legacy systems—or replacing legacy systems altogether. But the hurdle is especially high for HR and healthcare, which are often bound to specific legal regulations and already have very specific HR or healthcare systems in place that incorporate these parameters. Synching these systems or replacing them with blockchain technology could prove to be difficult. 2.  Adoption & incentives for participation. Despite enthusiasm and a strong record of success, blockchain adoption has proven to be difficult for companies. Greenwich Associates surveyed companies that have implemented blockchain and 57% reported its integration has been harder than expected. In terms of scalability, 42% of respondents reported it as a major issue, 39% said it is a minor issue and 19% said it is no issue at all. Much of the challenges are culture or people-related, rather than technical. For example, most people resist change and, if they do tolerate it, they generally prefer it to happen gradually and incrementally. The oppositions to change could be even more pronounced for those in HR, especially with employees across an organization resisting how healthcare and employee benefits—which are very personal—is administered. Some of the proposed uses for blockchain would result in systemic changes that rapidly transform the entire system. Even if employees and management are open to change, HR still has work cut out in hiring, education and training. Blockchain will require companies to hire more research and analytical staff as well as offer training on how to properly implement it. But this is where HR thrives. By helping to cultivate a culture of digital transformation, HR departments can also guide companies on their blockchain journey. 3.  High costs of developing & operating blockchain technology. The adoption of blockchain technology is likely to offer long-term benefits in regard to productivity, efficiency, timeliness, and reduced costs. However, one of the greatest obstacles to widespread adoption of blockchain is the high cost to initially install it. The software required to implement blockchain within an organization must typically be developed specifically for each individual company. This makes it expensive to obtain, whether hiring in-house or buying from a developer. Moreover, even after the blockchain software is developed, the company would also have to purchase specialized hardware to be used with it.  In addition to the software development costs, companies must also find qualified personnel to operate the technology.  The blockchain space is new and growing so rapidly that the demand for professionals in the field outweighs the supply. This makes hiring qualified blockchain experts—either in-house or as consultants—quite costly. Currently, it appears that the world’s largest corporations are the only ones benefiting from blockchain because they have the money, resources and data to spare. Furthermore, the technology itself seems too new and not yet fully understood for SMEs to adopt in droves. However, this is all likely to change over time. The commercialization of the internet was gradual and in the early days it required companies who wanted to go online to put up a substantial amount of money upfront and invest in customized solutions. Eventually, as blockchain becomes more mainstream, it will also become much less expensive, more streamlined and more accessible to companies. Blockchain is already demonstrating its potential to disrupt business as we know it. Because the HR department guards and manages large amounts of sensitive data that are critical to employees’ lives and how a company operates, it is likely that blockchain technology will be infused directly into the HR function to add transparency and trust to various processes. Healthcare and benefits administration is one of the processes that blockchain technology is likely to directly transform. Though there are challenges in cost, scalability and perception to overcome, HR departments could potentially use blockchain technology to provide employees with greater access to more personalized benefits packages. Furthermore, as time is freed up by automated processing, HR departments will be able to turn their efforts to more value-adding activities such as building employee engagement and experience.

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