Employers hungry for improved enrollment, communications tools

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Editor’s note: A new technology survey of benefits decision makers was conducted by EBN in early October, providing some key insight into the technology priorities and the dollars earmarked for benefits systems in the year ahead. All this week, EBN will feature findings from that survey, as well as key observations from our industry experts, as well as the results of a parallel survey of advisers and their clients, conducted by Employee Benefit Adviser.

Just like their consumer counterparts, employers continue to immerse themselves in an ongoing technological revolution. Portable devices and wearable wellness tools, including Google Glass, Fitbit and even the much-anticipated Apple Watch, are being embraced by employers looking to the betterment of their workers, as well as better ways of enrolling employees in benefits offerings.

EBN’s technology survey indicates that 41% of respondents plan to increase their spending on technology next year, with 45% having already increased their spending from 2013 to 2014. Much of that spending is directed toward new employee portals and front-end systems to better integrate and utilize various benefits functionalities (health, retirement, voluntary benefits and more).

Also see: Maximizing the dollars spent on benefits technology

The survey, which attracted 280 responses, also found that almost 21% of those polled — drawn from a broad swath of industries including health care, financial services, construction and transportation — are spending more than $250,000 a year on tech tools, and nearly 10% say they’ll spend $1 million or more.

“For a company like ours — we’ve got 35,000 employees — that’s very on point, given all of the huge expense of doing a rollout of new technology,” says Dan Houston, director of HR technology and analytics with a global fashion company, and a member of SHRM’s technology and HR management special expertise panel. “We also have to factor in all the training hours that are included, and taking managers out of their stores for that — so new benefits technology can be very expensive, especially for a larger employer.”

Barry Hall, global innovation research leader with Buck Consultants, says EBN readers’ figures are consistent with benefits technology innovation, including benefits administration services.

“A rough average for a 1,000-head employer indicates $250 spend per employee, which is not out of line with historical ballpark figures,” Hall notes. “We’re at an interesting time today, where many employers feel like they’re playing catch-up with the rest of the world in areas like mobile technology, which requires additional attention and resources. Gamification and social media technology are of high interest in the benefits world, and typically require new spending.”

Also see: How new technologies are changing the face of benefits enrollment

And with ACA compliance issues all the more real in 2015, better communication with employees is critical and an excellent incentive; the lack of connection between benefits systems and other important company HR functionalities may also create serious issues on the audit trails in years ahead.

Most importantly, as employees demand the same kind of seamless and personalized user experience they’re getting in the consumer marketplace, many benefits professionals say their systems fall short — or clumsily crowd too many unconnected but critical tools into the same employee-focused portal.

“As great the amount of time that [benefits managers] spend to make sure they have a good benefits philosophy, the reality is that our employees often aren’t getting that information,” says Dawn Cacciotti, former SVP of HR for the National Restaurant Association, now heading up Engage HR, a Washington, D.C.-based benefits consultancy. “You have to help figure out what’s different about the benefits you offer, and how to get that across to staff. Smaller organizations have an even bigger challenge, as they don’t have the money to spend on helping employees make those decisions.”

Also see: How technology decodes the impact of benefit plan decisions

Across the benefits industry, there is a growing understanding that better enrollment and communication technology is critical, she says. And figuring out a way to do that with a self-service platform that’s much more intuitive to employees — many of whom may only be accessing the tools via their portable devices — has also become more critical, notes Craig Johnson, partner and talent specialist with Mercer.

“You need to [offer] a site that acts like a traffic cop, that sits on all of those other systems and directs employees to the right place,” says Johnson. “It’s like we’ve given the employees a house, but everything is in the wrong place — we’ve put the refrigerator in the bedroom, and left all the wiring exposed. That immediately causes confusion. People want to get in and efficiently get out, not spend two hours looking around.”

That lack of user-friendly appeal flies in the face of what respondents suggested were their biggest objectives for benefits technology: 46% say they prioritize electronic tools that will help employees enroll in, use and monitor their benefits, even more importantly than controlling benefit costs (16%) or gaining better control of its benefits offerings (33%).

Also see: Technology pushing HR delivery changes

Many say they are facing additional challenges as they work to confront an increasingly diversified workplace: “Writing code for all the different types of positions and making sure they are eligible for the correct benefits is a major issue,” noted one survey respondent. Others say they are working to find solutions to more effectively communicate with an employee base that’s not necessarily computer-based or even particularly computer savvy, especially as ACA requirements necessitate their full involvement.

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