Online benefit-enrollment platforms have grown in popularity in recent years, allowing employees to compare and select offerings that best meet their needs. But during fall open enrollment season, this technology is usually combined with live HR presentations and worksite benefit fairs where representatives of companies that provide health, retirement and supplemental benefits—from identity protection services to pet insurance—set up booths, hand out materials and are available to answer questions.
For the fall 2020 open enrollment period, during which employees will select their benefits for 2021, more employers are expected to go virtual, taking benefit fairs online.
Virtual fairs give more people access to helpful information, especially with much of the staff likely to still be working from home—and for those at the worksite practicing social distancing, said Megan Taggart, senior manager for client and participant engagement at ConnectYourCare, a Baltimore-based provider of consumer-directed health benefits.
While "the personal touch offered by an in-person event is nice," there were downsides even before the COVID-19 pandemic, she observed. For busy employees, "it could be challenging and distracting to attend an information session during the workday," and employees who were absent the day of a benefits fair would miss out on the resources the event offered.
In contrast, a virtual fair can be offered on demand and is fully available to those working offsite or outside of a 9-to-5 schedule.
Reimagining the Fair
"Moving online is your opportunity to reimagine the benefits fair, do something different or try something new," noted Jon Stuckey, vice president of creative technology and innovation at Segal Benz, a benefits communication firm based in San Francisco.
Most of these platforms "attempt to take a physical-world metaphor—physically creating a lobby or exhibit halls—to simulate what a conference or benefits fair would look like in real life," he explained.
"In times of social distancing and reduced business travel, a self-paced, interactive Virtual Benefits Fair experience centralizes your company messaging and important resources on any device, at any time," according to a one-page overview by HR consultancy Mercer, which also posted this short video showing how the product its offering works.
Taking It Online
"An online fair allows employees to check out webinars, download resources and speak privately with benefit account experts according to the employees' schedule," Taggart said. "It gives more people access to key benefit enrollment details that can encourage more employees to take advantage of the savings and support that employer-sponsored benefits provide."
Virtual events can actually make for a more personalized learning experience, she believes. "Employees can attend the presentations and webinars that pertain to their needs and download specific resources about the benefits that matter most to them. Rather than read a pamphlet about a benefit program, they can perform research with more-robust online educational materials such as videos, calculators, FAQs, downloadable documents and forms, links to helpful resources, and chat features."
Access to online content also provides an opportunity to review benefits material "alongside other family members who may be part of decision-making process," Taggart noted.
Another advantage of making benefit fairs virtual: "Employees can schedule time to speak with experts about benefits that pertain to their personal situation, knowing that this conversation can happen confidentially," Taggart said.
Stuckey pointed out that virtual fairs "allow you to have greater consistency in messaging while also extending your reach to all your audience—including remote workers, spouses and family members."
But there are drawbacks. "Logistically, it becomes really challenging to physically distribute tchotchkes that most people love," he remarked. And, as with any virtual conference, chance conversations in which employees share information with each other or informally approach vendors are less likely.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Leveraging the Value of Employee Self-Service Portals]
Choosing a Platform
A wide range of companies now provide virtual benefit fairs, Stuckey said. When selecting a vendor, keep in mind that "pricing ranges dramatically based on the platform and its functionality, the duration of the event, etc."
These solutions also vary in how much customization they provide but typically, at a minimum, allow employers to add their logo and images and to choose colors that reflect their brand, he noted.
Virtual Fair Tips
"Virtual benefits fairs, by themselves, don't create the same sense of urgency that in-person events do," Stuckey said. Ways to generate interest include "offering live webinars giving people a chance to ask questions as well as conducting a limited-time survey or raffle to drive engagement and participation."
"Create an extensive agenda of available sessions for your open enrollment with a mixture of general overviews and specific vendor or benefits program sessions that employees can pick and choose to attend," Kristen Van Bomel, client success manager at Austin, Texas-based Tango Health, a benefits enrollment software and communications firm, wrote in a blog post co-authored with colleagues at the firm. "Some webinar technology allows for separate discussion rooms, so you could have vendor breakout sessions for employees to learn more-detailed questions or 'visit' the different benefits vendors."
Taggart advised companies to feature their leadership in webinars and presentations "to engage employees and allow them to feel more connected—even at a distance. This also shows that company leadership genuinely cares about engaging with their employees and supports their well-being."
Related SHRM Resources:
Express Request - Virtual Benefit Fairs
Open Enrollment Guide & Resources
Vendor Directory - Benefits Enrollment and Admin
Related SHRM Articles:
Viewpoint: Tips for Conducting Open Enrollment During a Pandemic, SHRM Online, July 2020
Prepare for Open Enrollment Challenges During a Difficult Year, SHRM Online, July 2020
Does AI Have a Place in Open Enrollment?, SHRM Online, September 2019
Data-Driven Benefit-Selection Tools Are Just Getting Started, SHRM Online, September 2019