Benefits Communications Require a Balancing Act

Technology can help but won't replace the need for conversations

By Lin Grensing-Pophal March 4, 2020
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In many organizations, benefits communications mostly take place when onboarding new workers and during annual open-enrollment periods—and these communications tend to be dry and focused on the masses, rather than directed at individual employees' needs and concerns. How can employers make sure workers understand, throughout the year, the value of their benefits and how best to use them?

Technology, such as online platforms that let employees track and manage their benefits, can help keep workers informed and engaged with both core offerings and voluntary options. But technology needs to augment, rather than replace, face-to-face conversations with specialists who can provide advice and answer benefit-related questions. The right balance of both can make a big difference in employee satisfaction.

Why Is Communication Important?

"If you don't communicate about benefits, you may as well not offer them at all," said Jennifer Benz, senior vice president at benefits communications consultancy Segal Benz in San Francisco. Particularly as employers struggle to hire, "benefits are an important piece of the employee value proposition."

Employees who don't fully understand their benefits may be leaving dollars on the table, added Mona Zielke, Minneapolis-based senior vice president of employee benefits claims at Voya Financial, a provider of life insurance and supplemental insurance products. She points to user experience data from BusinessSolver, a benefits administration software firm, that indicate employees spend on average only 17 minutes electing their benefits during open enrollment.

"They're paying for this coverage," Zielke said. "It's important that they understand what it is they've purchased." From experience, she knows that understanding isn't always there.

Room for Improvement

While some companies may believe they do a good job communicating with employees about their benefits, research suggests there is ample room for improvement.

When Health Advocate, a health advocacy and concierge company, surveyed employee preferences in benefits communications, it found that while employees appreciated the option of accessing benefits information through digital communication channels, 73 percent preferred being able to speak directly with a person by phone to discuss health cost and coverage issues.

The survey of more than 500 full-time U.S. employees and 150 U.S. HR leaders also revealed that employees' top complaint regarding benefits communications was that communication was too infrequent, cited by 41 percent of respondents. The survey further revealed a discrepancy between HR managers and employees in perceptions about the frequency of benefit communications.

Health and benefits communications at our organization are received:

 

Employees Said

 

HR Managers Said

Annually, biannually or once during onboarding47%13%

Quarterly

27%

26%

Monthly17%31%

Weekly

4%

28%

Source: Health Advocate.


Employees' frustration with the frequency of their benefits communications may stem, in part, from the channels HR and benefits departments rely on most. According to Health Advocate's report: "At any point in time, there are at least a handful of employees who miss out on companywide in-person benefits program meetings or fail to catch e-mails that come through (especially if they're mass messages blasted across an organization)."

Common Missteps

Zielke highlighted three common missteps that Voya found contributed to ineffective benefits communications:

  • Not communicating year-round.
  • Not using clearly understood language.
  • Not communicating through multiple channels.

The emphasis here is on simple, clear communication, "whether via online technology, e-mails or letters," Zielke said. "Clear, ongoing communication throughout the year is going to help employees when they get to open-enrollment time," she noted. "Trying to give them all of that information during open enrollment is like cramming for a final."

'Trying to give them all of that information during open enrollment is like cramming for a final.' 
— Mona Zielke, SVP at Voya Financial

Zielke tells of important lessons Voya learned after it conducted focus groups with its corporate customers' employees. They had received packets of information about what's known as "port and convert"—insurance benefits exiting employees can pay for and retain after they leave.

Voya had been using an 8- to 10-page packet of information "just full of insurance jargon," she said. Through the focus groups, the company discovered that employees "were left feeling kind of scared about what would happen if they didn't do something with that paperwork, and we were receiving a lot of calls into our call center."

Voya whittled down the information to the 20 most-asked questions. Zielke created a one-page letter for exiting employees and posted it online. Voya also offered a dedicated 800-number for those who wanted to call in with questions.

What Role Can Technology Play?

Technology lets employees access benefits information as they need it—and pushes information out to them when HR feels they should receive it.

The HR benefits team needs a strategy for mass communications. But a mass-communications plan also needs to be translated down and made accessible to individuals—providing them with information and answers specific to their needs and situations, said Taylor Clausen, vice president of strategic partnerships at Jellyvision, an employee communication software firm. After all, he pointed out, employees are used to getting that type of personalization, as with recommendations from Amazon or Netflix.

"Technology is an important piece, but I caution folks that there's no silver bullet," Benz said. "There's no one technology platform, or one technology channel, or one kind of new, exciting advancement that is going to solve" the challenge of effectively communicating about benefits.

Companies can have the most sophisticated technology available, she noted, but getting employees to engage with that technology can be a problem. "Amazon doesn't have a problem with getting people to use their app because they're always buying something. But when it comes to getting people to engage with a benefit platform, you have to put a lot of energy into getting people into that platform and helping them understand that there's value there."

This, she said, is where a lot of organizations make a mistake. "They invest in a super-sophisticated technology platform and think they don't have to do anything else. But you still have to remind people to download the app" and to use it as a resource.

It's not that organizations and their HR staffs don't know how to communicate about benefits, Benz said. "We know the best practices. It's fairly formulaic. It just takes a commitment to say, 'we're going to make this a priority for our organization, and we're going to spend the money and resources to do it the right way.' "

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance writer in Chippewa Falls, Wis.


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