It's a scene all too familiar to HR managers: Weeks spent prepping employees for open enrollment, communicating plan changes, making sure enrollment kits are printed and ready on time.

Despite all the preparation and advance communications, employees inevitably wait until the very last minute, usually the last couple of hours on the last day of open enrollment, to make their enrollment selections. It's just the nature of the beast.

Last year, Affiliated Computer Servies, Inc., a Xerox company, decided to tame the beast by creating a virtual benefits fair in support of its open enrollment season.

The company provided 45,000 of its U.S.-based employees an entirely new way of taking ownership of their health care options through an interactive, realistic and personal experience - all from the comfort of their homes or offices.

"We felt [the technology] was ideally geared toward an enrollment event to help drive better success for employees as they're making some pretty complex decisions that require a level of engagement that, historically, has been tough to garner," says Rohail Khan, executive managing director for total benefits outsourcing with ACS.

The virtual benefits fair not only gave employees greater access to HR support via the educational tools and access to documents provided in the environment, it also helped the company eliminate some of the fixed costs associated with enrollment, such as paper and postage for enrollment kits.

Thousands of employees took advantage of the virtual benefits fair, with more than 20,000 documents being downloaded and the average visit lasting more than an hour.

During the first week of the four-week enrollment period, over 5,000 employees spent an average of 45 minutes in the interactive, virtual benefits fair.

"What that showed us was that if the information is presented in a way that will engage an associate in the right kind of conversation, then associates will actually take the time to understand it and try to leverage it to drive a better outcome," says Khan.

The virtual benefits fair looked like a convention center, with various booths and kiosks.

Employees were welcomed with a video from a senior executive, explaining how the fair worked and what they were about to experience. Employees could click on the booth they were interested in, learn more and save relevant information in their "briefcase."

"It was a way for them to walk a convention floor, collect information that was important or germane in their briefcase and then refer back to it when they wanted to," says Khan.

The booths included voluntary benefits, planning for your expenses, choosing a medical plan, changing your benefits, dental and vision benefits, life and disability benefits, and new hires and rehires.

After clicking on a booth, employees could open a chat window with the person staffing that booth (usually someone from a provider company) or open a Skype video chat. Employees could also choose to chat via text or have the person staffing the booth contact them by phone.

There was also a conference hall employees could visit to watch flash videos on such topics as health plan options, the consumer choice plan (is it right for you?), the health savings account and making the most of your flexible spending account.

The fair also included a virtual lounge where employees could chat with each other about the various benefits and plan features.

The beauty of the technology is that it can be modified to look like whatever an employer wants, says Joerg Rathenberg, vice president of marketing with Unisfair, the company that designed the technology used in ACS's virtual benefits fair.

"In their case, they made it into a conference hall. But you could have a blanket under a tree and do a picnic. It's totally up to you. It can look like your headquarters, the view out your office window. You put on there whatever you want," he says.

ACS, which owns HR consulting firm Buck Consultants, hopes to eventually market the technology to its clients.

"What we were looking for was something we could go to market with that would allow us to provide a much different experience, from an engagement perspective, with employees, ultimately driving a much better outcome," says Khan. "We always drive the level of innovation internally first. We want to eat our own food at the restaurant before we open the doors commercially."

And while the technology was tested during an open enrollment event, Khan says it could easily be modified for other purposes.

"We've got organizations going through an early retirement window or massive hiring events. This technology is very easy to leverage," he says. "We can use this vehicle that we've seen work in a very complex environment - an open enrollment event - and it's applicable to a series of time-bound events."

ACS didn't supplement its virtual benefits fair with a physical one because it would have been too cost prohibitive to get a heavy concentration of employees in one place.

The technology can be used by multinational organizations that have employees in multiple locations. Language translation components can be added, says Rathenberg, and different versions for different countries or even different departments can be created.

Another benefit is that employers can get immediate feedback on what the high traffic areas are, which can help them design their communications.

ACS is currently conducting focus groups with employees to get feedback on the virtual benefits fair. It hopes to learn which three or four booths had the highest utilization and then "craft that communication in a little more streamlined fashion," says Khan.

Informal feedback has been positive. "The early anecdotal feedback I've had from employees is that it was very interesting, it was very engaging," says Khan. "Rarely do you hear 'interesting' and 'benefits enrollment' in the same sentence. It's a rare opportunity to engage our employees in what are ultimately very complex decisions."

Connecting the dots

Each year, most employees engage in some way with their annual health benefits enrollment.

New research from Bank of America Merrill Lynch shows that when employers present employees with an easy, one-click option to enroll in or make a contribution change to their 401(k) plan during the annual health benefits process, the result is significant increases in 401(k) participation - either through new employees signing up to contribute or through current employees increasing their contributions.

In 2010, positive savings actions among active plan participants reached record levels, according to the data. Nearly 398,000 employees changed their retirement plan elections in the fourth quarter of 2010 in connection with the annual health care open enrollment period, an increase of 11% over 2009.

Of all participants who took some type of action in connection with the annual health care open enrollment period, 93% took a positive action (started or increased contributions), compared to 85% during 2009. Seven percent took a negative action (stopped or decreased contributions), compared to 15% during 2009.

Kevin Crain, head of institutional client relationships for Bank of America Merrill Lynch, says that this approach works well for organizations that aren't in love, for whatever reason, with the idea of auto-enrollment or auto-escalation. As well, it offers employers the opportunity to redefine their health benefits open enrollment period to include financial benefits and "to communicate to employees to think about their overall wellness," says Crain.

The technology is embedded within the health care open enrollment system so employees don't have to exit the system and log on to a new one to enroll in, or make contribution changes to, their 401(k).

"Technologically, it's very easy for us to do this," says Crain, adding that while employers are often concerned they will have to rewrite their health care enrollment technology or that this feature will cost too much to implement, neither is true.

Among Bank of America's large clients who have implemented the feature, 401(k) plan participation has doubled. "It's clear that this unified process, at this time of year [during open enrollment], makes it easy for people to take action. It's revolutionary, much like auto-enrollment was years ago," says Crain. "And when you hit them this way, it's year after year because you do health care [enrollment] every year."

As retirement and health care benefits become increasingly intertwined, employers have an opportunity to increase employee engagement in their benefits plans.

"When we think about where health care reform is headed, and you layer pension reform on top of that, the decision criteria employees will be facing going forward will be materially more complex than what they've had to deal with historically," says Rohail Khan, executive managing director for total benefits outsourcing with ACS. "And anything we can do to create ease of navigation to get them to the right place is fundamental."

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