How one global company transformed its benefit communications

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Miranda Nicholson quickly rose through the HR ranks at Formstack to HR director, where she now aims to transform the way employees receive benefits and HR communication. The 35-year-old Indianapolis native was promoted twice since joining the data management technology company in 2013, with her most recent promotion to HR director in October 2016. She spoke to Employee Benefit News about how the global company communicated its benefits before she took on her new role, and what she has done to change that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.

Employee Benefit News: You started your career as an executive assistant and worked for several people. I imagine that you had to deal with a lot of different personalities. Did working for so many people help you succeed in your current position?

Miranda Nicholson: Absolutely. I think [the title] executive assistant doesn’t capture what I actually did, and quite often I found myself in positions where I’m taking on more of an HR department role based on the needs of the organization. Over time, I’ve been in charge of benefit broker selection, rolling out benefits, enrollment, doing admin — things of that nature. It’s very second nature to me at this point.

EBN: What do your day-to-day operations look like?

Nicholson: There are six people, including myself, on the HR team. We have a payroll and benefits administrator, [who] manages our HRIS. We have an HR adviser, an HR generalist, myself, two recruiters and an HR analyst. Day-to-day operations are overseeing people operations for Formstack, whether that’s related to hiring, onboarding, performance, engagement, retention — basically just making sure Formstackers are happy and healthy.

We’re a remote organization, so it’s not like you can just walk down the hall and talk to somebody, so very frequently, people will use Slack or email to communicate. There is no such thing as office hours for me. We have people in Poland and the Netherlands and Canada and Argentina and Mexico, and then from the West to the East Coast.

EBN: Does that present any challenges for you in terms of communicating everything for employees who are in different time zones?

Nicholson: Yes and no. What we’ve tried to do is be very aware that what is lunch for someone is the beginning of someone else’s day. So when we host information sessions or we communicate things, I actually use an app called Boomerang to schedule emails out because I know that if I communicate something first thing in the morning for me on the East Coast, that’s the end of their day if they’re in Poland. I try to time those things so I’m getting the most read receipts, if you will, of people opening those emails and checking them out.

The same with any sort of communication, one time is not enough to sink in for everybody. Making sure you’re communicating the same thing more than once and in different ways is the best way to make sure that the information is retained and any action items are being taken care of.

EBN: You mentioned communication tools like Boomerang and Slack. Was the company using those tools before you came on as HR director?

Nicholson: They were using a version of Slack, something called HipChat. Boomerang, no. I found Boomerang just to help a need I had specifically. It’s not a company-wide used tool. I don’t think most people in the organization are communicating as much as I do.

EBN: What other benefits technology do you use?

Nicholson: We use Confluence, which is actually our internal wiki. It’s where all of the information resides within the organization. So outside of email, benefits information is located in there. “How do I submit PTO?” is in there. We have links to our most used Formstack forms, so we utilize our product a lot for employees to submit reimbursement and time cards. Employees will request snacks, and they’ll request equipment. They’ll use it to submit feedback. A lot of times my team will pull some feedback from the organization. How did this initiative go? How was this communication received? Is there anything we can do to improve? That’s really important for us, especially with communication, just really fine tuning it because it does change over time. We need to address the needs of new individuals that come on board and not always think, “It used to work so it’s going to always work.”

EBN: What was communication like before?

Nicholson: I can tell you horror stories about people posting really important information in water cooler instant messaging rooms. I could talk about someone thinking that shouting something across an office is going to resonate with people that aren’t in the office. Those horror stories exist anywhere in any organization, regardless how big or small you are. One thing that I made a priority for myself was to standardize the way that we communicate things and to create strategy, or intentional communication. That includes understanding who else in that organization might need to communicate things and trying to time that in a way that you’re not doubling up or your information’s not getting lost.

EBN: Was it an issue of poor communication or lack of strategy?

Nicholson: I don’t think it was strategized properly and I think also it is very, very easy not to take stock of what other people need to communicate. Naturally, as an HR team, that affects the broad range of the people in the organization, but there is some communication that only impacts a few people. So just understanding what is rolling out, what is more important and what the best timing is for that. For me, I tend to send emails on Mondays and Fridays. Typically, on Monday afternoon once a person’s had a chance to login, check their email, kind of get set up with the day or the week, and then on Fridays it’s just sort of a bookend. That goes for anything from benefits communication to initiatives, performance reviews to, “Hey, we’re having a party on Friday”— those types of things. Those tend to be great times for people to receive communication.

EBN: Why did you focus on communication as a priority?

Nicholson: I think the one thing that any person in my position in any organization will tell you that they hate doing is babysitting. You need 100% of an organization to do something. A really great example of that is enroll or decline benefits, and when you need to send 15 emails to get that accomplished, you realize something needs to change. [We realized] we needed to hold information sessions. Some people better receive information when it’s presented to them visually, like having a slide deck or an online conference call. Some people would prefer to watch the video afterward, so we’ll record those sessions. Those are all ways we address that challenge, and we’ve seen great results from that because again, while not 100% of our organization will enroll or waive their benefits right away, we’re capturing a larger group of those people with the first and second attempt.

Almost every day when I came on board, I was saying, “Hey, you have to enroll or waive your benefits or else you’re going to be auto-enrolled.” It’s just very frustrating, but I definitely think not wanting to babysit or follow up with people constantly was definitely the catalyst for that change.

EBN: Was there an immediate change?

Nicholson: When we initially hosted open enrollment sessions, we did zero lead-up to the open enrollment session. We kind of said, “Hey there’s an open enrollment session on Friday. Come show up and listen to someone talk at you for an hour and then ask questions at an end.” No one asked any questions during those sessions, and about 50% of the organization actually followed up and submitted their benefit elections. We realized that was not a great way to host that, so we engaged an insurance management team to help us with our open enrollment, lead-up communication and how that information was presented.

One thing I realized was the way we are presenting the information was extremely complicated. People don’t know what an HSA versus an FSA is and what the benefits of that are. By engaging our insurance management team, they gave me this document and the first thing I said was “This needs to be one page.” They got that down to, “This is an FSA. This is an HSA. These are the plans that we offer, this is what they cost.” We gave that information to employees beforehand. We made sure they looked it over and said, “We’re going to host these enrollment sessions. Show up, and you have information in front of you. Come prepared.” From the insurance management side, we said, “I want you to assume that you’re talking to a group of 15-year-olds when you’re describing benefits.” I don’t mean that as in everybody that works at Formstack is not capable of understanding benefits, but there is an element of layman’s terms that they needed to communicate in order for it to resonate with people that are at an organization.

EBN: How did that go over?

Nicholson: When they came in, they talked to them like people. They talked to them as if they had never heard of benefits in their entire life, and it worked really well. There were tons of questions at the end. It became a conversation, and it was really great to see that we improved the curiosity around benefits and people wanting to seek and understand how they work. I think that helps people make more informed decisions and enroll faster because they weren’t left with questions.

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