Published in Society for Human Resource Management by Joanne Sammer, August 4, 2021
Another virtual enrollment season for employee benefits approaches
With two-thirds of its 420 employees working remotely, many of whom are relatively new hires, San Francisco-based financial technology firm Human Interest has had to adjust how it develops, manages and communicates about its employee benefits offerings. Despite a series of virtual events during last year’s open enrollment season—backed up with raffles, direct mail, e-mail and new Slack channels devoted to benefits-related topics—employees “still were unaware of the process and deadlines,” said Debbie Gunning, the company’s vice president of talent.
As a new round of open enrollment approaches for its now majority-remote workforce, the company is using lessons from last year’s enrollment period to ensure a smoother experience for all involved and “to make sure employees have the support they need,” Gunning said.
Pandemic Enrollment 2.0
With the COVID-19 pandemic surging again in many areas of the U.S., employers may not be able to bring their workers back onsite as soon as they expected or may have chosen to shift permanently to a hybrid workforce of partly remote and partly onsite employees. This means another open enrollment season for employee benefits that relies heavily on virtual tools and resources. Here are some ways to make the process more effective.
1. ALLOW MORE TIME AND OPTIONS.
Remote workers may need more time and opportunity to gather and consider information before making enrollment decisions. Recognizing this, Octane, a 336-employee New York City-based firm that provides financing for powersports vehicles, has doubled the number of virtual meetings and Q&A sessions for this year’s open enrollment. “We want to ensure our teams have ample opportunity to learn and ask questions about the policies,” said Maria Aveledo, the company’s chief business officer.
HR technology company Elements Global Services in Chicago plans to increase its open enrollment period to 90 days rather than its usual 60-day window. “We also increased employees’ access to carrier representatives and provide them with detailed information outlining their options and plans,” said Rick Hammell, the company’s CEO and founder. “This extra time allows them to gather the information necessary to make an informed decision.”
This extra time and effort are particularly important to remote and hybrid employees. “It is crucial that [these] employees do not feel disconnected, uninformed or penalized for not being present in a brick-and-mortar location,” said Misty Guinn, director of customer advocacy at benefits administration technology firm Benefitfocus in Charleston, S.C. She urged employers to host in-person and virtual office hours where “employees can dial into a Zoom meeting and be able to talk face-to-face with someone in the HR department to get help and guidance.”
2. BUILD ON LAST YEAR.
When the pandemic lockdowns began, “some employers implemented virtual benefits fairs to mirror onsite experiences that give employees more information on benefits programs,” said Karen Frost, vice president of health strategy for Lincolnshire, Ill.-based Alight Solutions, a benefits administration firm.
Virtual benefits fairs may now be permanent fixtures. “Employers can keep them available year-round, with everything employees may need, including enrollment tools and forms, processes, links to additional resources and tools to support shopping for health care, including why it is important and how to do it,” said Kim Buckey, vice president of client services with DirectPath, a benefits education, enrollment and health care transparency firm based in Birmingham, Ala.
Some employers have developed mobile apps to support benefits enrollment. “Employers can use push messages to get information to employees early,” said James Bernstein, a partner with HR consultancy Mercer in Cincinnati. “Plan to touch them five times [with benefits information] before open enrollment starts.”
Employers can also build on the exponential growth and acceptance of virtual and telehealth solutions during the pandemic. “Assess employees’ engagement with digital care and cultivate that online confidence to promote decision-support tools and plan comparison resources,” Guinn suggested.
3. PROMOTE AND MONITOR ENGAGEMENT.
As open enrollment begins, employers should monitor how employees are using online benefits tools and information. Questions to ask, Bernstein said, include “How long are employees staying on site?” and “What benefits vendors are attracting the most engagement?”
On-demand webinars and internal podcasts that address specific benefits topics also lend themselves to measuring engagement based on the number of downloads and participants.
“Telephonic access to benefits educators can help answer employee questions about how to choose and think about benefits,” Buckey said. “In a 20-minute conversation with an employee, a benefits educator can gauge how sophisticated employee questions are and what they know and understand about benefits.” If a number of employees are struggling with the same decisions, that can be a sign that the employer needs to provide some focused education in that area.
Alloy, a New York City-based risk management technology firm, surveyed its 120 employees last year prior to open enrollment and plans to do so again this year. “The best thing we can do is check in with our [employees] directly because they know their needs better than anyone,” said Daria Feneis, the company’s people business partner.
Alloy plans to use the resulting data on employee needs and expectations to finalize its benefits offerings.
Beyond the Enrollment Cycle
The pandemic showed how quickly employees’ lives can change, and the need for employee benefits to meet these changing needs, Guinn said.
“Benefits have a reputation for being extremely complex and something that you only engage with during an open enrollment period,” she noted. “But life happens every day, and employees experience multiple moments that matter to them outside a two-week window in the fall.”
—Published in Society for Human Resource Management by Joanne Sammer, August 4, 2021