This is the sixth article in a 10-part series on successful open enrollment. Previous segments can be found here.

Designing the right communication plan to help employees understand their benefits can smooth the open-enrollment process — but only if hurdles such as information overload and demographic differences are cleared along the way.

Some of the most pressing strategic objectives may include steering employee populations into a certain plan, explaining the value of benefits or conveying a change in coverage and, ultimately, achieving buy in.

Even when there are only modest changes involved, “annual enrollment is an opportunity to galvanize people’s attention and get them to take the actions that you want,” explains Jennifer Benz, co-founder of Benz Communications, which focuses on employee benefits.

One company with a proven track record in this area is AECOM, a global provider of professional technical and management support services to transportation, energy, water, government and other employers. The company won Employee Benefit News’ 2014 i-COMM Award for Best Overall Communications Campaign.

“We purposely use a multimedia approach to reach our multi-generational and diverse workforce,” says Bernie Knobbe, corporate vice president of global benefits at AECOM, which has about 40,000 benefit-eligible employees in the U.S.

When communicating during open enrollment, AECOM favors brevity (the initial communication always features a one-page highlights brochure), simplicity and frequency. The company also tries to avoid overly technical terms to ensure the tones of its communiques are as personal as possible. AECOM’s communications strategy includes, among other features, mailings to homes and a website featuring tools and resources to navigate enrollment decisions.

Other keys to designing a strong communications plan:

· Communicate year round. Given the sheer volume of information that often needs to be communicated during annual enrollment, Benz recommends year-round communication whenever possible to keep employees from feeling overwhelmed.

· Keep it simple. She says messages also need to resonate with employees who struggle with the complexity of health plan design changes as more employers move to high-deductible plans, reference-based pricing and centers of excellence, as well as add new products or services.

· Tailor messages. Alan Schulman, vice president of the Meltzer Group insurance brokerage and advisory firm specializing in employee benefits, says it’s critical to find the most helpful way to communicate to each employee. That starts with recognizing the unique needs of different audiences based on surveys or focus groups and then finding the most effective communication vehicles. His arsenal of assistance includes print publication enrollment guides, email, online newsletters, how-to-videos, total compensation reports, plan descriptions, posters, face-to-face meetings and other media.

· Hit the road. If a workforce is scattered in different locations and significant alterations are being made to the benefits plan, or if a new enrollment system is being implemented, many experts feel it’s best for the organization’s benefit professionals to hold in-person meetings with the teams. “If we make major changes to our platform or program,” says Amy Warycha, vice president of human resources for Maxx Properties, a real-estate management firm. “I prefer to be right in front of them.”

Shutan is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. Phil Albinus contributed to this report.

Tomorrow: Answering employees’ questions

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