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Get the Benefits Message Out

Web-based tools are improving employee benefits communication.

October CoverBenefits packages provide a great way of attracting and retaining staff. But they only work if employees know and take advantage of what the company offers. The question is: What is the best way to inform them?

"Since we have such a young employee population, they don’t understand benefits and how the benefit plans work in conjunction with each other," explains Faye Saenz, director of benefits for GameStop Corp. of Grapevine, Texas, a large video game retailer with more than 6,100 stores in 17 countries.

Mailing the usual open enrollment booklets wasn’t the right approach to sign up the company’s 40,000 employees, many game enthusiasts in their 20s who weren’t interested in reading through printed material.

"As the demographic of the users of the benefits changes, the way we communicate to them needs to shift," says Greg Morano, CEO of Univers Workplace Solutions in Hammonton, N.J.

This spring, GameStop launched mandatory enrollment for its full-time employees that includes rebranding communications ranging from e-mails and automated telephone messages to online videos and printed materials. Of 12,900 eligible employees, HR professionals contacted all but 20 currently enrolled employees. More than 12,000 called in to benefits counselors, and health plan enrollment increased by 38 percent. This fall, the HR department will follow up with a text message campaign that explains benefits to part-time associates.

"Consider how communication is being sent and received right now," Saenz advises. "Just because that was the way it was done for the last five years doesn’t mean that is how it should be."

In fact, there’s never been a better time to change the delivery method of benefits information. During this year’s open enrollment, many employers will capitalize on communication tools to update employees about benefits offerings, explain the company’s benefits philosophy and highlight the value of benefits as part of employees’ total compensation.

Making It Personal

While most companies still use printed brochures and one-on-one meetings to present benefits information, an increasing number are adopting a range of technology options.

More technology provides greater transparency and access, says Bruce Finley, Mercer’s global leader for workforce communication in New York City.

He cites two drivers:

  • Employees use the Internet to conduct transactions and expect that same level of ease interacting with employers.
  • Printing and sending out brochures is expensive, especially when many go unread.

To improve the employee experience and cut costs, more HR departments rely on one or more technology platforms to get their benefits messages out. These include automated phone calls, blast e-mails, text messaging, interactive web tools and videos. These tools allow messages to be tailored to individuals. And, employees get the information when they need it.

"There is an increasing ability to personalize communication, and it is going to continue to evolve," says Finley. "With web applications, we are seeing a whole revolution of interactive material so people can get up-to-date information at the time they have questions."

Game-Changing Communication

GameStop Corp., a video game retailer based in Grapevine, Texas, had been relying on printed material to communicate its benefits, but HR leaders found that this wasn’t the right way to reach its young workforce.

"We would partner with insurance companies in compiling and mailing out the packets," says Faye Saenz, GameStop’s director of benefits. "But many associates would say they don’t want to read through a book to get the information."

This year, GameStop worked with benefits communication and enrollment services provider Univers Workplace Solutions and Blue Chip Advisors to completely redesign its approach—and achieve better results. It started with components redesigned to match the company’s black-and-red color scheme and graphics that appeal to gamers. Mandatory enrollment enabled employee information in the human resource information system (HRIS) to be updated.

"We did a full frontal assault—posters, postcards, e-mail blasts, PDF fliers," says Saenz. "Univers also had an outbound dialer system to send automated messages to the stores and employees we had phone numbers for."

When the call came in, employees had the option of just pressing "1" to be connected to the Univers call center to update their information and go through benefits options. There was an interactive screen set up so employees and benefits counselors could view information at the same time. As the employee made choices, the screen would immediately update a visual display of his or her total compensation.

More than 12,000 of 12,900 full-time employees participated, HRIS data was cleaned up, enrollment in the health plan grew by 38 percent and $5 million in erroneous health benefits was eliminated.

But that was just the beginning. Open enrollment for 24,000 part-time staff members opened in September. For them, brochures have been eliminated, replaced with the text message: "Hey Guys, Check out the new benefit available to Game Advisors" and a link to a web site. Employees without cell phones received a postcard with the message. When employees responded, the site showed them a short video designed like a video game to introduce them to the benefits.

"The narration talks about how in the real world you can’t just pick up energy packs lying around on the ground to heal yourself," says Saenz. "You need health insurance to get the treatment you need whenever you are sick or injured."

From there, employees were directed to a benefits counselor.

At least for now, these technologies are not replacing printed materials or face-to-face meetings. But they are used alongside traditional communication methods to streamline and enhance users’ experiences.

Deciding on Delivery

Companies have an array of options for transmitting information to employees online, and many options don’t have to be expensive or complicated to set up—most of the work will be done by benefits providers.

The simplest method is to post PDFs of the information that employees can download, read or print when they want. That is the approach taken by Missouri’s Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, with 99 parishes. The diocese prints a benefits booklet every year for its 1,300 eligible employees. But the diocese web site also has PDF documents detailing terms of the individual retirement, pension, dental, life insurance and disability plans, as well as forms employees can print. While it is not linked on the diocese’s site, the dental plan provider, Assurant Employee Benefits in Kansas City, provides online information and lets users access the terms of their plans and review benefits balances and the status of outstanding claims.

"The online information gives them the general idea of what is going on with the benefits they have chosen," says Rosalee Wietharn, the diocese’s benefits coordinator. "This cuts down on the number of calls to me."

Mining Rich Media

Audio, video, podcasts and other forms of rich media give employees the information they need in an easy-to-understand format.

"Some benefits topics are difficult to understand, so we are able to build learning modules that are delivered in Flash," says Finley. The Flash platform adds video and interactive features to web pages. "These can explain complicated areas like account-based health plans or what the difference is between a health reimbursement account and a health savings account, and walk through examples of each."

Paradise Valley Unified School District serves 34,000 students in the Phoenix area. It uses both PDFs and videos on its site. The employee benefits page has links to benefits providers’ web sites and downloadable brochures. The wellness program is explained in an iTunes video. The highlight, though, is a 30-minute video created using TechSmith Corp.’s Camtasia Studio screen-recording software. Its 31 sections cover topics such as dental plan premiums and short-term disability, and viewers can click on the section they want.

Becoming Fully Interactive

Just posting the data, however, doesn’t mean employees will access it. Companies still need to ensure that the information reaches the intended audience.

"In the old days, you couldn’t personalize or segment groups, so you would have to write an announcement in a generic way," says Finley. "Whether it was in print or e-mail, you would have to begin with the whole story and walk people through all of the plan features and options."

Benefits Communication Affects Employee Satisfaction

Last year, Univers Workplace Solutions conducted its second annual benefits communication study of 420 human resource professionals representing 8.5 million benefits-eligible employees.

The survey measured employees’ knowledge of their companies’ benefits and whether employees were satisfied with the enrollment process. The study found "a direct correlation between employee satisfaction with the enrollment process and employees’ understanding of the benefits." Seventy-three percent of respondents said employees were satisfied with the benefits enrollment process; 20 percent said employees were neutral and 7 percent dissatisfied. But there was a disparity between companies with knowledgeable employees and those without. For companies whose employees were knowledgeable about benefits, there was an 82 percent satisfaction rate and only a 3 percent dissatisfaction rate, compared with a 43 percent satisfaction rate and 21 percent dissatisfaction rate when employees were not knowledgeable.

Knowledge about benefits improves employee recruitment and retention. Of respondents at companies with knowledgeable employees, 66 percent said that their current benefits positively affected recruitment and retention. For those whose employees were not knowledgeable, only 48 percent said the benefits had a positive effect on those areas and 35 percent said there was a negative effect. Forty-five percent of respondents at companies with knowledgeable employees reported employee turnover of less than 20 percent, while only 27 percent of companies whose employees were not knowledgeable had less than 20 percent turnover.

"The more knowledgeable employees are, the more satisfied they are with benefits and the better the retention is," says Greg Morano, CEO of Univers Workplace Solutions in Hammonton, N.J. "This knowledge only comes about through enhanced communication."

Interactive systems will typically pull salary, benefits, dependent and other data from the human resource information system and provide employees with information tailored to their exact situation and needs. Boeing, for example, uses tools from Aon Corp. called the Pay and Benefits Profile. Employees can access their profiles from work or home and run different scenarios to see the effect of their benefits choices on total compensation.

Many benefits providers have online systems that allow employees to view the status of their health or investment plans and ask questions.

"We have a lot of capabilities now to provide shorter but more interactive communication," says Finley. "We are just scratching the surface of Flash-based learning tools that are fully personalized."

Hiking Participation

Surveys show that better benefits communication increases employee participation, satisfaction and retention. Because benefits staff members have far more options than ever to reach employees and help them make the most of what the company offers, these rewards are attainable.

Says Bret Boeger, a partner with Blue Chip Advisors, a Leawood, Kan., benefit plan advisor: "You have to look at the company, its demographics, its culture, and then work out what is the best delivery system to provide benefit communication and enrollment."

Web Extras

SHRM article: Open Enrollment: Communications Take Center Stage (SHRM Online Benefits Discipline)


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