How to have a more successful open enrollment

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During this often-frenzied benefits open enrollment season, benefits managers are being offered this little bit of soothing advice: Think of this occasion as merely a “milestone” in the effort to stay in contact with employees about their offerings.

That’s how Rhonda Newman, a senior leader of Mercer’s communication consulting practice, puts it. She and other communication experts emphasize the year-round nature of keeping workers up to speed on the more than 30% of their compensation known as employee benefits.

And recent survey data about the importance employees assign to benefit communication provides reassurance that the time and dollars invested in the effort are indeed worthwhile.

A poll by Jellyvision, maker of a benefits communications tool, found that the majority (55%) of employees want help from their employers when selecting a health plan. And more than one-third (36%) find their current enrollment experience “extremely confusing” — strong evidence that there is progress to be made in this area.

Possibly more alarming, 43% of polled employees were unclear about where to direct questions about health benefits. But the good news from the survey is that the overwhelming majority (79%) of employees trust their employers and believe they have their best interests at heart.

In other words, at many organizations, there is an opportunity for improvement in benefit communication, particularly around enrollment, and a welcoming audience to receive it.

So what are the employers on the cutting edge doing to ensure that employees fully leverage their benefits offerings?

While sophisticated information technology plays a major role, it’s important to first think of the communication goal, rather than the tools to achieve it. First, as noted, benefit communication should be a year-round effort, and it should be proactive and engaging.

For example, left to their devices, many employees let inertia drive their decisions, defaulting into the same health plan election they already have in place.

“It’s always a good idea to encourage employees to [actively] re-enroll,” says Jennifer Benz, CEO of Benz Communications, an employee benefits communications agency. At a minimum, re-enrollment jogs employees to update basic information such as their beneficiaries and number of dependents. But on a broader level, re-enrollment encourages employees to consider, if only fleetingly, whether they are choosing the health plan that best meets their needs.

See also: How four employers are getting benefits communications right

Take a stand

Employers typically present employee options with a neutral tone, but that isn’t always a good idea, cautions Benz. As the Jellyvision survey indicates, many employees are looking to their employer for advice. In some cases, the company might want to steer employees to a particular benefit, like a new health plan, she says.

For many years, most employers have been aggressive in their efforts to persuade employees to boost their 401(k) deferral rates. And through their choice of a QDIA, they have, in effect, nudged employees into particular investment options.

Benz believes employers will increasingly do the equivalent in the health plan area. The idea is to design and communicate health plans “so that it’s hard for employees to make a bad choice,” she says.

All of this demands a comprehensive communication strategy. The way to create one is to respond to the unspoken employee request, “Meet me where I am,” according to Mercer’s Newman.

The concept is figurative and literal. The literal dimension is to enable employees to access benefits information and direction wherever they happen to be physically, when they have benefits on the brain. That means mobile platforms, which are becoming increasingly popular.

So many employees instinctively reach for their smartphones for answers to all kinds of questions. If employees want to get an answer to an employee benefit question when they’re waiting at a pizza parlor for a carry-out order to be produced, why not make it available to them then and there?

Maximize engagement

Mobile benefits apps can engage employees, says Alex Ward, regional vice president with Hodges Mace, a benefits enrollment and communication services provider.

He emphasizes that the universe of avid smartphone users cross demographic boundaries. “It’s not just young people; 83% of the population owns a smartphone,” he says.

Ward warns against bombarding smartphone users with benefit information, however. For example, traditional SMS text messages are widely considered too intrusive for benefits communication. But smartphone app icons can, by leveraging the allure of “red dots” (those ubiquitous indicators that a message or update is waiting for you when you launch the app), draw employees in to absorb important messages about their benefits.

Pick a profile

The figurative dimension of “meet me where I am” is about “where I am in my life.” Benefits communication campaigns around appropriate 401(k) deferral and investment category options have long used personas and model employee profiles to lead employees to relevant content.

For example, one might describe a hypothetical employee, “Joe,” using demographic data including his age, marital status, number of children, 401(k) account balance and retirement age goal. The description would be followed by possible questions and concerns Joe might have about his progress toward achieving his retirement goals, and suggest possible answers.

The employer could offer other profiles as well.

Then employees can pick out a profile from the supplied roster that looks most like themselves as a starting point for assessing his benefit options and thinking about what to do. Newman believes this approach can and will increasingly be used more broadly to help employees with all of their benefit choices.

One of her clients, a Fortune 100 employer with 25,000 employees, has gone down this path, using six different employee models. The goal of creating these personas is both to personalize benefit decision-making, and keep things as simple as possible (hence not creating dozens of personas).

This communication tactic works well to help employees think more holistically about their benefit choices, according to Newman. “Employees often haven’t thought about how decisions they make about their health benefits spill over into retirement savings and other areas.”

For example, an employee persona might be lead to consider the relationship between her health plan selection and her retirement savings needs. Suppose, for example, a symbolic employee is serious about maintaining good heath, and this is reflected in her health benefit selections (including voluntary benefits). The employee communication text might make a statement along the lines of, “Susan needs to be thinking about whether her commitment to staying very healthy will lead to a longer life in retirement, which might require her to increase her 401(k) contributions.”

More fundamental messages about other benefits could be put in front of employee personas based on their age: “As a 40-year-old with children, ‘Joe’ should be thinking about disability income and life insurance.”

Whatever the communication theme at enrollment and throughout the rest of the year, the key to getting through to employees, consultants say, is brevity. While this is hardly novel advice, benefit professionals steeped in the jargon of the field often fail to imagine reading information about benefits options through their employees’ eyes.

“Make sure it’s simple and clear, especially about what people need to do, what’s changing, and what it is going to cost,” counsels Benz. “And give them a lot of different ways to understand it,” including access to more detailed information if their appetite is sufficiently whetted.

System integration

Customized and timely messages also are possible with the integration of benefits communication and HRIS databases. For example, employees who have enrolled in a high deductible health plan with a health savings account option, who have not after a certain time period begun making payroll-deducted contributions to their HSA, can get a message advising them of the missed opportunity.

Those “different ways” include deploying varied communication media — not to exclude good old-fashioned paper and face-to-face employee encounters. Even at a time when electronic communications tools are growing increasingly sophisticated, employee meetings, staffed information tables and webcasts are being put to greater use, especially around enrollment time, according to Newman.

When employees are receiving so many messages in varied ways, corporate branding takes on greater importance in the eternal challenge of combatting information overload. “HR is getting focused on what materials look like,” Newman says. Not only is visual thematic consistency important, but also design elements including infographics that enable employees to digest important information easily. “Say less, show more,” Newman says.

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This approach isn’t limited to explaining benefit choices at enrollment time. It also includes basic direction on how to take advantage of the benefits employees have chosen. Perhaps nowhere is this more important than helping employees utilize their health benefits efficiently.

Mobile benefit communication apps can make it easy for employees to get quick answers to common late night medical questions like, “My 2-year-old has a fever. Should I take her to the emergency room?” Suggesting the most appropriate source of care, possibly a nearby after-hours primary care clinic, can lead to prompter and more affordable service.

Angst avoidance

To underscore the case against a “one-and-done” approach to benefits communication around enrollment, Newman reminds employers of the need to be proactive in fending off an onslaught of inquiries from confused or irritated employees soon after the start of the new benefit year. In January or February, when employees start going to medical providers or picking up prescription drug orders, if they are facing new deductible or copay amounts without a reminder of changes to their plan, there will be a lot of unnecessary “angst,” Newman warns.

The alternative is on the eve the new plan year, remind employees of any financial or procedural changes they will face. “Walk people through what’s going to happen, the steps they will need to take, to avoid a big hubbub,” she adds.

And, if there is a hubbub, when it dies down, a critical step for planning for next year’s enrollment cycle is to take stock of how things went this year. Critical to that process, particularly when new benefit communication and enrollment tools and tactics are being introduced, is to set quantifiable goals, such as the percentage of employees enrolled by the deadline, the number of employees who switched from one particular benefit to another, and so on.

With respect to electronic systems, metrics can include the number and frequency of user system access, and the volume of downloads, notes Hodges Mace’s Ward. “You need to determine whether new methods had an impact on achieving your goals,” he says.

With any luck and careful planning, when the dust settles, the conclusion won’t be, “It’s back to the drawing board,” but instead, “That was a piece of cake.”

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