With the hefty price tag organizations pay for employee benefits, effectively communicating those offerings to get the highest return on investment is critical - particularly in the current economic environment. To this end, having a vision to engage and motivate workers is one thing. Turning that vision into a successful campaign is quite another.

Enter the 2011 i-COMM award winners, presented by Employee Benefit News. This year's honorees have brought company offerings full circle, prompting employees to become more active, educated and partnered in benefit plans.

The i-COMMs, marking their fourth year, recognize communication initiatives that enhance the goals of the benefits and human resource departments and the strategic objectives of employer organizations. This year's coveted class includes a winning retirement training program, a communication strategy for a largely dispersed employee base, a reinvigorated company intranet platform and the groundbreaking of a sizeable wellness center and medical clinic.

At the heart of these programs are dedicated members of each organization who push the envelope to meet and surpass the objectives of their company benefit strategies. The reason they go above and beyond comes back to the same thought process for each of the four i-COMM award winners: to facilitate, to the best of their ability, the physical, mental and financial well-being of their fellow employees.

 

Best Training Program

Defined contribution plans have become the rule, rather than the exception, when it comes to retirement vehicles. But employees enrolled in a defined benefit pension plan still require a great deal of education unique in the industry today.

Such a challenge faces the Employees Retirement Fund (ERF) of the City of Dallas. With 6,900 employees and 6,200 retirees spread out across the greater Dallas area, the territory to cover is vast. But an ever-evolving training initiative is making its mark on the retirement front.

City of Dallas communications specialist Melissa Harris is at the forefront of this initiative, bringing pre-retirement and summer sessions to both new and existing employees so that they can take charge of both their pensions and overall financial futures. This became a priority under Cheryl Alston, executive director, who joined the ERF in 2004.

"It was very important to her that we talk to employees," Harris says. "Most of the time employees are not thinking about retirement right now. Our goal is to get them to think now and give a new vision."

When the sessions started seven years ago, participation levels were not very high. But as the program has evolved itself annually with a new theme and logo, the tide is turning in both employee attendance and retirement education.

Harris communicates to employees that a pension will likely not be enough to supplement the lifestyle many workers might desire post- employment. She drives home the fact that out-of-pocket medical costs can more than double and other cost-of-living expenditures can place a considerable financial burden on employees.

In some cases, this is delaying retirement for workers by a few years while they build up more savings and get their financial house in order. Some employees also put funds into an optional 401(k) plan the ERF offers to further strengthen their retirement portfolio.

This year's theme, "Chart Your Course to Retirement," is helping to steer more ERF employees than ever in the right direction. On average, there are 40 attendees in the pre- retirement sessions. In fact, sessions that used to begin in July now start in March due to increasing demand and interest.

There is also a translator onsite for the growing number of Spanish-speaking members of the ERF employee population. Promotional materials are published in Spanish to appeal to this critical demographic.

One of the biggest advantages the company is reaping from these seminars is getting employees to fill out designee forms that designate a beneficiary in the event of their death. This has been a pain point for a number of years, but since the communication program began, the number of employees completing and submitting the designee form has increased from 25% to 75%, saving the ERF benefits team a lot of time that can now be redirected to other crucial education efforts.

Overall, Harris says she is encouraged that workers in a plan that is over 90% funded are realizing this is not a golden parachute. They are taking control of their financial destinations and meeting challenges with increased knowledge and determination.

Harris is thrilled with the employee empowerment that has resulted from the ERF's training program, but says this is something she has not been able to accomplish on her own.

"You don't do this all by yourself," Harris says. "For the past seven years, the ERF staff has helped me out a lot. This award is for all of us."

She continues: "The biggest factor is to get somebody to change their mind and be informed. Employees are thinking about their retirement now and learning it's not just about your pension."

 

Best Print or E-newsletter Design & Usability

Davidson Companies, a financial servicing holdings firm based in Montana, has a rich history of brokerage and wealth management dating back to the 1930s. Expansion and acquisition have been cornerstones in helping the company grow and flourish.

This progression means the company now boasts some 1,100 employees spread out across 17 states in over 60 different locations. For the benefits team at Davidson Companies, the road to successful employee communications came in the form of online initiatives that break the mold.

Leading this effort is Dena Engstrom, associate vice president of employee benefits at Davidson. Engstrom and her team use a variety of tools and media to deliver timely, effective benefit information to the employee population.

"Technology is a key avenue we use to communicate benefit information and education to our employees throughout the year," Engstrom says. "With everyone being [spread across multiple locations], we communicate both via email, home mailings and postings to the intranet and our benefit blog to get the information to them in a timely manner."

Davidson Companies' quarterly benefits newsletter, HRConnection, was at one time printed on paper and distributed to employees. But four years ago, the company migrated this to an e-newsletter, which provided a winning combination of of cost savings, green-conscious initiatives and widespread employee acceptance.

The move to the e-newsletter provided employees with fingertip access to additional online resources and provided incentive to take action right then and there when it came to benefit and wellness decisions. The e-newsletter also uses videos and graphics to incorporate unique features that hit home with today's technology-savvy workforces.

"HRConnection highlights what we considerto be beneficial information on benefits, key developments and changes and issues that we communicate to all employees, including some fun health and wellness tips," Engstrom says. "[The] marketing [department] liked [the e-newsletter] because they had more flexibility in design and photo production."

The success of the virtual newsletter led to the creation of a benefit blog that encourages interaction between human resource associates and employees as well. Located on the home page of the company's intranet site, the blog is designed to be easily accessible.

Despite being slow coming out the gates, the blog is now picking up steam throughout the organization. Engstrom notes that the blog attracts the most attention during open enrollment period.

"When they use the blog for questions I feel that if one person has the question there are others out there that may have the same question," she says.

For Engstrom and her team, the use of numerous communication channels has clarified the company's benefit polices and offerings and mitigated the most frequently asked questions the HR team previously fielded on a consistent basis.

Core communication vehicles are still in place at Davidson and will be for some time as the firm strives to make employees, their spouses and families aware of benefits enrollment, decisions and how Davidson Companies' contributions are impacting day-to-day life.

"We try to communicate early on any changes or updates with a number of communication tools," Engstrom says. "We will always have the emails and phone calls but for the most part I believe employees understand their benefits and that they are very well-received."

 

Best Web or Intranet Design & Usability

Launching a new intranet site resembling a one-stop-shop for benefit communications can be an undertaking for any organization. Redesigning and refreshing such a site less than a year later is an even more ambitious venture.

For Toys"R"Us, delivering such a platform was a paramount objective to providing employees the tools and information they needed to make critical decisions about their benefit plan options. At the center of this initiative is Michael Greenberg, senior director of benefits and relocation.

Greenberg led the effort to launch and redesign RUsBenefits.com, Toys"R"Us' intranet platform, in 2010 and 2011, respectively. To add to the degree of difficulty, each year the site launch coincided with the annual open enrollment period.

"RUsBenefits.com enables us to provide up-to-date information, rapidly deliver news and plan design changes, and offer interactive decision support modeling tools, videos and channels for sharing benefits plan experiences," Greenberg says. "We know employees constantly rely on technology."

Following the launch in 2010, the benefits team at Toys"R"Us did extensive research to analyze employee usage and disseminated online surveys to collect feedback on the elements of the site that were effective and those that could be improved. Focus groups were also formed to hear how workers would improve usability of the site.

Greenberg and the benefits team paid close attention to the compilation of responses to deliver an even-greater user experience to employees when the redesign was unveiled in April.

"The benefits team knew the company had an opportunity to make the site even more user- friendly by improving navigation, headings and by adding new content," Greenberg says. "Response to RUsBenefits.com has been very positive. Employees, and the HR generalists who support them, are now able to rapidly find benefits information. This has reduced administration, allowing the benefits team to focus more on strategic planning."

The redesigned site now features Spanish translation, helping Toys"R"Us deliver benefits communication to a broad segment of employees. Today, the company offers a Spanish version of all communications found on RUsBenefits.com. Greenberg says this is part of the organizational commitment to ensuring all eligible employees understand the benefit options Toys"R"Us offers.

With blogs that stay fresh through interactive video and RSS feeds, RUsBenefits.com is embracing technological advances to make the site a fun and engaging experience for a growing viewership.

Online traffic during annual enrollment increased nearly three times more in 2011. Employees are also spending a considerable amount of time on the site, averaging nearly 10 minutes per visit.

A central goal is that the site provide the opportunity to get benefit communications in front of the families of Toys"R"Us employees. The site has become a trusted source for households to make important decisions together in regard to their medical and financial futures.

Partnership between Greenberg, the benefits team and numerous other groups was key to success. Information technology, HR, communications and marketing, vendor partners and a benefits communication firm were all at the table to help coordinate and facilitate the launch and redesign of RUsBenefits.com.

"We see consistent usage all year long. It is the first place newly eligible employees are directed for benefits information and it serves as a reference for all employees and their families," Greenberg says. "We believe we have the right communication channels in place to introduce new programs and features in the future, such as more wellness and voluntary programs, but we are always looking for additional ways to improve."

 

Most Innovative Benefit Offering(s) or Internal Company Initiative

Saddled with rising medical costs and alarming claims data, Pennsylvania-headquartered investment management firm Vanguard was not alone in its fight against costs that were pushing benefit budgets beyond their limits. But the aggressive plan of action the company embarked on would help set it apart from others.

A new approach to wellness initiatives became the focus for Dottie McFalls, principal in HR at Vanguard, and her team. The company had an onsite gym and a wellness program, but they weren't doing enough to curtail lifestyle-related diseases (such as diabetes, musculoskeletal issues and coronary artery complications) among its global workforce of 13,000.

"We always had wellness programs and someone partially devoted to them," McFalls says. "We had health screenings, a fitness walking trail and a gym but it wasn't focused or integrated in any way. It was kind of like throwing spaghetti on the wall and seeing if it sticks."

The challenge for McFalls and her team was to leverage the current programs so they'd have an influence on the medical plans and spiraling costs. This began with a restructuring plan in 2008 that removed 100% coverage and reduced the medical options from four to three plans for employees.

Taking the current programs a step further, McFalls and her team proposed having an onsite medical clinic to help manage and improve health of all crew members (as employees are known at Vanguard). Luckily, a change in Vanguard's leadership shortly thereafter did not derail progress.

When a new CEO, Bill McNabb, took over in August 2008, he told McFalls and her team that if Vanguard was going to tackle health-related issues head on, that they were going to do it right. That translated into a new fitness center to replace the onsite gym, integrating physical activity with medical care to provide first-class health-related services. Together, the fitness center (named ShipShape) and clinic (Crew Care) would span over 13,000 square feet.

Vanguard rolled out a multifaceted communications campaign to inspire, motivate and inform its workforce.

Unveiling a theme of "Get up, Get active, Get health-smart," employees would find it hard to miss the message.

Promotional videos highlighted construction progress, executives were featured getting fit themselves and Vanguard's intranet site leveraged the promotional material. Virtual tours featured a health and wellness host as a tour guide, with the help of 3-D animation software.

"I can't underscore how excited people were," McFalls says. "We were very encouraged but very nervous at the opening in the winter."

That nervousness was quickly dismissed when McNabb led the ribbon cutting with the words: 'It's your center, go see it.' Vanguard employees have responded in droves.

ShipShape memberships have increased by more than 115% since the fitness center opened in January. Average visits shot up more than 150%, as did the number of employees who visit more than four times a month (from 35% to 60%). The clinic boasts more than 700 visits a month.

Bookings for the onsite physical therapists became so popular that an extra therapist had to be hired. In addition, all of the onsite professionals are integrated with one another to make sure crew members use all the health-related services Vanguard offers to achieve optimal health results.

Smaller versions of the clinic are on the horizon at other Vanguard locations in Arizona and North Carolina.Though it's too early to see results in the company's health claims, McFalls is optimistic that these numbers will reflect Vanguard's significant investment in the years to come, making the initiative everything that was hoped for.

"This is a long-term investment and the opening of the wellness center was the culmination of a vision," McFalls says.

Kevin Sweeney, a former EBN associate editor, is a freelance writer based in New Brunswick, Md.

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