This aritcle has been updated.
The need for effective open enrollment communications has never been more critical—or more complicated, given the rise of hybrid mixes of remote and onsite work arrangements. This requires a renewed focus on developing communications that meet employees' needs wherever they are and whenever they need to connect.
Economic uncertainty is another complication employees are facing. With inflation on the rise and talk of an upcoming recession, "you need to educate your employees so they can make the best choices for this year," said Jennifer Benz, senior vice president and communications leader at Segal Benz, a San Francisco-based employee benefits consulting firm.
Two-way communication is a must-have, said Karen Sturdivant, benefits director with LandrumHR, an HR services firm in Pensacola, Fla. "Ensure that employees have full information on each plan and that they have an avenue to ask questions to help them make educated decisions," she recommended.
Virtual Communications Are Here to Stay
Communication during the pandemic focused heavily on digital channels. That's not likely to stop, experts say, even as more employees are returning to onsite work.
"While it is a challenge to replicate the personal nature of an in-person meeting, virtual meetings offer a logistical benefit in that they provide time for all parties to do more," Sturdivant said. Virtual communications can provide employees with the information they need, when and where they need it, she added. That can help boost the odds that employees better understand, and are better prepared to take advantage of, the value of their benefits offerings.
"Time formerly spent traveling from one meeting to another is now used for additional communication," Sturdivant said. "We have the ability to reach out to more clients, employees and vendors, and are able to have more educational and consultative meetings."
Casey Hauch, managing director of communication and change management with consultancy WTW in Boston, agrees. And, she said, the virtual environment can emulate the traditional benefits fair. "You can go to different booths and vendors. You can chat with the vendors." In addition, she noted, employers can add in elements of gamification that offer some fun and competition.
Virtual Benefit Fairs
One of the best reasons to consider a virtual benefits fair is that they offer "a bevy of possibilities for connecting with employees" and allow organizations to try new things, such as an online employee resource center, rolling expert panels and interactive benefits quizzes, blogged Ross Simons, director of inbound marketing at Flimp Communications, an HR, benefits and employee communications firm.
"Virtual benefits fairs also have the advantages of accessibility and availability," Simmons noted. They can also reach employees across multiple locations, including hybrid workers, remote workers, and even prospective employees. "Employees can access benefits resources on their own schedule and wherever they may be," he said, including on mobile devices.
Virtual fairs don't need to close after open enrollment, he said, but can instead become a virtual benefits showcase—"a year-round employee resource, centralizing all the information employees need to understand their benefits, discover new options, and learn about the enrollment process."
For some organizations, in-person benefits fairs—or combining "live" and online communications—still make sense. "In-person benefits fairs are hard to miss and, thus, are a good way to ensure everyone in the workplace gets exposed to benefits information (provided they all work in the same location)," Simons explained. In addition, "benefits fairs pair well with other in-person benefits-related events, such as wellness screenings."
Home Mailings Still Relevant
"Mail-to-home print communications are still alive and well and continue to play a crucial role in any successful benefits communications campaign," especially when reaching a dispersed workforce, advised Brandon Moore, a senior vice president at Segal Benz. "Postcards and mailers can reach dependents at home and help deliver your message when employees don't have regular access to employer communications as part of their workday," he noted.
Mailed communication materials, Moore said, "are most successful when they're part of a multimedia campaign with most of the content ultimately available via a public-facing, mobile-accessible website."
High-Tech, High-Touch Approach
Matthew Owenby, chief HR officer at supplemental health insurer Aflac in Columbus, Ga., said open enrollment this year will operate in a predominantly virtual manner at the firm.
Active and frequent communications to leaders and employees, along with virtual benefits expos, will make up the firm's approach, he said.
But, he added, "even with a virtual approach to messaging and education, we leverage an extremely high touch with our employees." For instance, Owenby noted, "HR team members actively follow up to ensure that all of our employees are aware of the timeline and understand the array of our offerings."
Combining a high-tech, high-touch approach ensures all employees are reached and an array of communication preferences are met, communications experts agree.
Brokers Adapting to the Hybrid Workforce
The rise of hybrid onsite/offsite work schedules has "driven the benefits administration industry to innovate in order to better support remote benefits elections and general support of the remote workforce," said David Reid, CEO and co-founder of Ease, a benefits enrollment software firm based in San Francisco.
As businesses adopt flexible work policies, the vast majority of employers (94 percent) believe consultation, innovation and ongoing management from their broker is needed year-round, not just during open enrollment, according to an Ease survey conducted in June and July among more than 1,750 respondents throughout the U.S., including employers, insurance carriers and brokers selling group health plans.
With the ability to provide 24/7 customer service in the remote workforce, "in the last year 38 percent of agencies were able to offer more support in the form of onboarding new hires online, conducting benefits elections remotely and providing compliance support," as noted in Ease's 2022 Open Enrollment Readiness Report.
Employers said the top three areas they wanted insurance brokers to support are:
- Better cost-estimating tools for employees (cited by 32 percent of employer respondents).
- Personalized employee engagement materials (30 percent).
- Easy enrollment technology (22 percent).
The findings "highlight the importance of customer service in an increasingly digital world," Reid said.
Lin Grensing-Pophal, SHRM-SCP, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience.
Related SHRM Articles:
Open Enrollment for 2023 Reflects a Changing Benefits Landscape, SHRM Online, August 2022
Health Insurance 'Knowledge Gap' Is Wide as Open Enrollment Approaches, SHRM Online, August 2022
Fine-Tune Benefits Before Open Enrollment, SHRM Online, July 2022
Open Enrollment Planning for Post-Pandemic Workplaces Gets Under Way, SHRM Online, July 2022