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. In the second part of our survey, benefits managers reveal their feelings on the state of current benefits technology and their top priorities for spending in 2015.

EBN’s research suggests that on the whole, benefits professionals do feel a high level of satisfaction with the majority of technology they use — some 69.5% said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their overall benefits systems — but those shortcomings in end-user experience remain a frustration. More than 11% admitted being very dissatisfied or dissatisfied with their benefits communications system, plus another 11% having the same level of dissatisfaction with their employee benefits portal.

With the complicated decisions required during open enrollment or when digging around to file a short-term disability claim or access other benefits, it’s not quite as easy to find a platform that replicates the ease of Amazon.com or the like, says Chris Ryan, VP of strategic advisory services with ADP.

For part 1 of this series, see: Employers hungry for improved enrollment, communication tools

“Many employees have an expectation about the level of personalization they’ll receive — ‘why can’t I get that same friendly consumer experience I get on the websites I use?’ they’ll say — but to deal with benefits, you have to go through a sequential process,” Ryan says. “In the end, you’re trying to deliver an experience.” More importantly, he says, technology focused on delivering messages and helping to guide employee wellness also needs to be more user-friendly and well-presented, if employers hope their workers will change behavior.

Also see: Tap technology to connect with millennial employees

Survey respondents also indicated that their employer’s overall benefits and HR systems aren’t necessarily well integrated — 20% said “partly” and 22% said “not at all” — indicating another potential issue. Finding appropriate technology to bridge the divide not only between the multiplicity benefits offerings but also other associated HR functionalities (payroll, finance and personnel) can also help prevent compliance issues that will become a much more tangible threat for IRS auditors in 2015. The good news, Ryan says, is that more companies are demonstrating a forward-looking approach to addressing these issues — with compliance helping to nudge them along the way.

“It used to be that only benefits people would show up when I’d have a [consulting] meeting about technology, but as people in finance and payroll found out that the ACA is going to be audited through the IRS, they too need to be vouching for the accuracy of their time, payroll and absence management systems,” he says. “Benefits is no longer just an isolated and specialized field.”

The wish list

The items that benefits technology decision-makers are planning to spend money on focus largely on better employee-facing systems: 39% would like new benefits enrollment systems, 32.7% seek better benefits administration tools and 30.9% are planning to spend money on an improved employee benefits portal. Money is also being allocated for new wellness enrollment tools (29.1%) and improved benefits communications systems, excluding social media (25.5%). Wellness tracking and analytics tools are also high on the priority list (22.7%)

Other items getting the biggest consideration for technology spending include voluntary administration systems, wellness enrollment systems, employee benefit analytics and social media systems specialized for benefits communication.

Also see: 5 reasons wearable wellness is here to stay

But not all systems are getting funding, as employers need to prioritize their resources. Respondents say their top priorities in replacing systems are still health care and retirement benefits enrollment and administration systems, followed by employee benefits portals, their voluntary benefit enrollment systems and existing but out-of-date wellness tracking and analytics systems.

“So $250,000 may not be a lot of money for one company might be for another,” suggests Craig Johnson, partner and talent specialist with Mercer. “Other factors to be taken into consideration include employee-facing technology like an HR website, enrollment application, and the like.”

Some solutions

In seeking better employee-focused technology and communications tools, Hall suggests benefit leaders take a page from the commercial online experience.

“You have to think like a marketer, and treat your employers like a customer using those consumer technologies to influence their behaviors,” says Barry Hall, global innovation research leader with Buck Consultants at Xerox. “Unfortunately, that’s sometimes not a skill that a typical benefits or HR person has, and the notion of doing that may make some people a little squeamish, but it all can be very positive.”

In the end, seeking easier-to-use benefits enrollment tools will pay off, he adds: “In the absence of having a good enrollment process, people come out feeling worse than they did when they started. Think about how the employee sees this, not just how it works through the HR org chart.”

Also see: 8 tips to share with employees to ensure a successful open enrollment

And unique solutions to better communicate with a diverse, non-office-based employee group can be found, notes Ryan.

“In some cases, this can be handled by mobile tech — we’re starting to see some employers even using texting as a primary tool for benefits reminders,” he says. “The ability to segment and uniquely communicate with your employees will become more and more important.”

Also see: Employers hungry for improved enrollment, communication tools

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