SUC­CESS­FUL OPEN EN­ROLL­MENT

FOR A PRO­DUC­TIVE BEN­E­FITS ELEC­TION SEA­SON, EM­PLOY­ERS SHOULD EM­BRACE MO­BILE APPS AND IN­FOR­MA­TION TECH­NOL­OGY, AND ABOVE ALL, MEET EM­PLOY­EES WHERE THEY ARE.

Employee Benefit News - - BENEFITS JUDGES - BY RICHARD STOLZ

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 year­round 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.

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” who weren’t en­gaged be­fore, 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 per­sonae).

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 per­sonae based on their age: “As a 40-year-old with chil- dren, ‘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 af­ter spec­i­fied pe­riod of time have not 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.

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 im­port-

ant 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 changes. “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 care- ful 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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