As employers prepare to kick off open enrollment for workplace benefits, this year will feel different, like many other aspects of our lives. With the future still uncertain regarding infection rates, future vaccines, and the flu, the decisions employees make could be more critical than ever to ensure they’re protecting themselves, their families, and their finances against unexpected events.
So how can employers best communicate with their remote workforce to help them get the most out of their health care benefits package? This year, you’ll likely need to rely on digital solutions, such as texting, video, on-demand technologies, and virtual events.
In the past, many employees have felt comfortable taking a passive approach to their benefits, often simply defaulting to the previous year’s plan unless they had undergone a major life change. Even in the best of times, communicating the value of their health benefits is a challenge. Now, with millions of employees working from home and social distancing protocols in place, HR professionals cannot rely on past strategies to educate them, in particular in-person fairs and face-to-face counseling.
It is important that employees understand the all the traditional elements of their coverage benefits, premium and out-of-pocket costs, etc., but also those that are as important as ever during the pandemic – like support to stop smoking or wellness programs to lose weight and reduce stress.
Take an active approach to benefits enrollment
Did you know that nearly three-quarters of employees spend less than an hour reviewing their benefits at enrollment time? This year, because the pandemic has radically altered the way employees live and work, rushing through their annual benefits enrollment is ill-advised. Instead of a relaxed approach that assumes employees will choose the benefits they need, employers should encourage them to spend more time learning about all of the offerings.
Rather than default to the prior year's selections, an active enrollment strategy requires that employees review each benefit and make new selections for 2021. This approach can lead to greater awareness of benefits particularly related to the pandemic, such as telehealth, behavioral health and Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), virtual wellness resources, and voluntary benefits specifically related to COVID-19 coverage.
A recent Fidelity report, Uncovering the Real Value of the Benefits You Offer, shows that employees are often unaware of their benefits options and frequently don't take advantage of them. For instance, only 61% of employees could report whether teleheath was offered to them.
Additionally, according to this report, "if you are offering a benefit low in awareness, you may need to go back to basics and increase promotional efforts that emphasize availability, what it is, and how to use it." Fidelity’s report highlights several specific benefits that HR should be sure to highlight:
- Telemedicine: Among Fidelity clients, 76% saw an increase in telemedicine use since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Because this benefit will most likely continue indefinitely, employees should understand how it works.
- Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs): Due to increased levels of stress and anxiety brought on by the pandemic, EAPs saw a 39% increase in use. During this year’s open enrollment, employers with EAPS should make sure employees know about the types of mental health benefits these programs provide.
- Wellness programs: 30% of employees surveyed did not know whether their employer offered programs such as smoking cessation or weight loss—despite the high satisfaction rate among those who use them.
This year, asking a remote workforce to focus their attention on these special offerings will require using digital channels to communicate their benefits.
Leverage your digital communications infrastructure and plan
With more employees at home, employers will need to create communications that will pique their interest. Think about what they need to see, and where, when, and how they want to see it. How are you communicating with your team today as remote work as grown? Do you have caproate intranets, internal social media, email blasts, Zoom or MS Teams meetings? You should leverage all the channels at your disposal to ensure your employees have ways to consume your information that they are familiar with and open to.
Try not to think of your online platform merely as one-way communications. To really be effective, two-way interaction between the company and employees is ideal. Rather than merely post information, assign an HR benefits specialist to monitor and respond to employee questions and concerns in a timely manner.
Build in dates for delivery of your most timely content. And be upfront regarding the content you'll share. Let employees know the kinds of information they can expect to find on their social media feeds. Ideas for content include:
- Reminders about open enrollment dates and deadlines
- Underused benefits that you recommend during the pandemic
- Important updates about COVID 19 (such as vaccine development, flu shots, CDC guidelines)
- Healthy recipes and exercise tips to help stay well
Social media is ideal for reminders and quick updates. But it can’t replace channels that allow for more in-depth details. Instead, think of social media posts as an additional channel that increases the chances employees will take the time to select benefits carefully.
One effective way of delivering brief but targeted benefits information is by posting short, engaging videos on YouTube or Vimeo. A short video can deliver information faster and more energetically than a written document. It’s also a very personal approach, which is often well received with a remote workforce. And you can easily send a link to the video by email, text or social media post.
Examples of video ideas include:
- An address from executive leadership affirming the company’s concern for employee health
- A step-by-step tutorial for changing benefits or applying for benefits
- Explanations of COVID-related benefits
- An overview presentation of how the pandemic might affect benefits in 2021
Now that just about everyone of working age owns a smartphone, text messaging is a direct way to get in touch with employees during open enrollment. Like social media, it is best used to send reminders and links to more in-depth resources.
Of course, for this approach to be effective, you’ll need to create a strategy for collecting mobile phone numbers if you don’t already have them stored in employee profiles. It’s worth considering asking for spouses and partners to provide their numbers as well, since they often are the decision-makers.
A communications plan for texting involves finding the right timeline for sending texts, but in general, it can be very simple. A five-message campaign highlighting key activities or deadlines may be all that’s needed to involve employees who are otherwise difficult to reach.
This year, with social distancing and lockdowns in place, employees don’t have the opportunity to make onsite appointments with HR benefits specialists to walk through their options. This lack of in-person opportunities could result in an overwhelming number of phone calls and interminable hold times.
As alternatives, on-demand solutions are available to increase the opportunities for your employees to get the information they need when benefits specialists are most available. One automated solution that’s relatively easy to implement is a calendar tool that allows employees to book time slots with your HR staff. This has several benefits:
- It lets HR control the volume of inquiries and space them throughout the day.
- Employees understand the session has a hard stop, which can encourage them to prioritize their questions and respect the time limit.
- HR staff won’t be dominated by phone calls and can book out time to complete other critical tasks.
Broadcast an online live town hall meeting
Given so many digital communications options, how do you choose what’s right for your company? One effective method is to hold an online live Town Hall Meeting to poll your employees about their communications preferences--at the earliest stages of the enrollment benefits period, if not sooner.
Using software like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, your company, business unit or department can call a live meeting with employees for an overview of the open enrollment process, any significant benefits changes, and important issues brought about by the pandemic. Employees can also use a messaging platform like Slack to ask questions of the benefits team. As questions are answered, the responses can be seen by other employees who may benefit from team’s insights.
In reverse, the benefits team can ask the workforce about their most preferred ways to communicate during open enrollment. Employees can be polled about their opinions of social media, texting, video, chat and other digital channels. Their insights, in turn, can help employers choose and develop appropriate communication platforms and strategies.
Employees can also use the Town Hall to help HR choose the most essential topics to communicate, such as:
- Which questions and situations are raising the most concerns?
- What topics might need to be covered in more detail?
This feedback loop can narrow the content to be delivered in more manageable doses.
Host an on-demand virtual benefits fair
The centerpiece of a digital Open Enrollment is a on-demand virtual benefits fair — a self-paced, interactive experience that presents your company’s benefits and important resources on any mobile device at any time. Virtual fairs improve communications consistency while also extending your reach to your remote workers.
In fact, the benefits of switching to a virtual benefits are so favorable, you might want to consider this strategy as a viable supplement to a traditional live fair in the long term.
The primary benefit of the virtual open enrollment fair is that it is more convenient for employees, giving more of them access around the clock. Employees can choose to "attend" whatever time works best and can return as often as possible to learn about benefits at their own pace. A virtual fair also allows employees to review resources and key information about benefits with spouses or family members who may be affected by the decision or want to learn about the benefits themselves.
Virtual events allow for a more personal learning experience. Employees can focus on the resources that matter to them most. Therefore, when putting together the content of a virtual fair, consider the following “evergreen” components:
- Downloadable brochures, documents and forms
- Links to helpful resources
A virtual open enrollment fair can save time for employees who already know what benefits they need and just want to learn more about specific coverages. For HR personnel, managing a virtual fair saves them time, too, by significantly reducing the need to print materials, set up information booths, arrange catering and travel, and oversee the complex logistics of a live in-person event.
A virtual open enrollment fair can also reduce costs. There’s no need to print expensive collateral with benefits information. For larger companies, there’s no cost for traveling to distant offices to reach all employees. In addition, online resources can be updated easily for use in subsequent fairs, while outdated print materials must be discarded and reordered.
Tips for a virtual benefits fair
Here are a few tips to help make a virtual fair successful:
- In an email campaign before the fair, provide employees clear instructions on how to log in and user-friendly guidance for navigating the platform and accessing and downloading resources.
- Feature executives in webinars and presentations to show employees that company leadership genuinely cares about engaging with their employees and supporting their well-being.
- Upload positive, trustworthy testimonials from current company employees about the benefits related to the COVID pandemic in effort to boost enrollment.
- Generate interest by including some kind of incentive to participate, such as a raffle.
A wide range of companies now provide virtual benefit fair software packages. Pricing ranges based on the platform, its functionality, and the duration of the event. While somewhat generic, these commercial offerings allow for minimal customization, such as adding your company logo and brand colors.
Sometimes a simpler solution works best. Rather than spend money on a vendor, you can employ existing channels that your company may already access, such as Zoom, Webex or Teams. These technologies may have fewer “bells and whistles” than some commercial options, but they offer a simple, practical, relatively inexpensive way to reach your remote workforce and get the word out about open enrollment.