Transparency, Decision Support Are Next Wave in Benefits Self-Service

As open enrollment season approaches, time for a systems check

By Joanne Sammer Aug 3, 2016
Reuse Permissions

Younger employees—and many older ones, too—want the convenience of handling benefits-related transactions online and expect to be able to use their phones and tablets. In response, employee self-service portals are becoming a routine and expected part of basic benefits administration at many companies.

The question is, how much farther can employers take the self-service concept when it comes to employee benefits?

For some employers, the answer is likely to come from employees themselves. "Our employee population essentially demanded self-service," said Chaz Hinkle, chief people officer at Welltok, a 400-employee health optimization company in Denver. "People now expect to use technology, online or mobile, rather than talking to someone in person or doing anything manually."

Welltok's entire benefits enrollment and administrative processes are online to allow employee self-service. In 2015, the company rolled out an enhanced mobile application for its workers and saw a significant increase in self-service through that channel.

Beyond that, the company introduced a digital concierge service that relies on speech recognition and cognitive computing to have "conversations" with employees about health coverage and other issues, such as whether the employee's health plan covers a specific service or treatment.

Finding the Right Tools

As benefits self-service platforms become more sophisticated regarding decision-making support, employers should focus on finding and working with vendors that can take them in this new direction.

Mark Rieder, senior vice president of HR technology and benefit services at NFP, an insurance broker and consulting firm based in New York City, suggested that employers prepare before talking to vendors and know in advance what they want from any self-service platform. "Know your needs and the needs of various employee populations eligible for different plans," he said.

He also urged employers to look beyond the product demonstrations that vendors provide: "Every system looks great in a demo. You need to uncover what the actual functionality does."

For example, will the actual system require modifications and workarounds to get it running alongside your overall HR systems?

With so many new players entering the self-service technology market, employers should be looking for a partner that is financially sound and capable of meeting their needs for the next three to five years. "They need to be around for the long haul," said Rieder.

 Look for a self-service partner capable of meeting your needs for the next three to five years.

If employers can find the right mix of tools to support employee decision-making and action, the results could be significant. Rather than employees focusing on benefits only once a year during "set it and forget it" enrollment periods, dynamic self-service technology should drive employees back again and again as they use those benefits.

But "the majority of employees are still not very sophisticated in their general knowledge about benefits," Hinkle said. "So the money invested in helping employees to understand their benefits and the best way to use them offers an incredible amount of value."

The Next Level

With regard to 401(k) and other defined contribution retirement plans, self-service is now routinely used by plan participants who want to change their investment selections or salary-deferral rates and is increasingly being used to access online advice. Another growing focus of self-service platforms is allowing employees to manage their leave-taking requests and provide leave-status updates.

But it's on the health care front—specifically, related to tools that can help employees become better health care consumers and purchasers—where self-service may ultimately have the greatest impact.

"This next level of self-service can help employees to shop for health care," Rieder said. "Driving behavior is the ultimate goal."

This has become especially important now that more employers offer higher deductible health plans. By integrating decision-making support tools from vendors or insurance carriers into their benefit portals, employees can manage their health care spending more effectively.

"These can be transparency tools that show the cost of health care for specific procedures," said Brad Mandacina, director of HR technology and outsourcing for Lockton Companies in Kansas City, Mo. Also important are prescription drug tools, which "show how employees can use the drug formulary, including what drugs are available and what their costs are," allowing employees to find lower cost generic drugs as alternatives to more expensive brand-name medications.

Employers are hoping that expanded self-service capabilities will also help employees make better health plan choices during open enrollment periods. "We are still in an environment where the majority of employees are overinsured based on the health plans available," Hinkle said.

He suggested that a self-service capability that guides employees through the coverage-selection process could help them to make better coverage choices based on what works best for their personal situation, rather than just renewing last year's plan or choosing a plan that most closely resembles it.

By asking questions focused on ascertaining the employee's current situation, self-service technology could, for example, steer a healthy employee who does not expect to use many health care services in a given year to a health plan with a higher deductible than that employee may have previously considered.

This process can feature calculators to show the financial implications of various decisions in real time as employees choose which health plan to purchase or whether and how much to fund a health savings account.

Paper or Digital? An Employee Benefit Enrollment Disconnect

Employers are not in touch with how their employees want to enroll in their benefits.

A recent report by LIMRA, a researcher provider for the insurance and financial services industries, found that only 38 percent of surveyed employers think that their employees want to use a computer to enroll, while more than a quarter believe that their employees still want to enroll through paper forms. But a 2015 LIMRA study found instead that 68 percent of employees want to enroll in their benefits online or electronically and only 16 percent want paper enrollment forms.

“This disconnect hurts employees’ perceptions of their employers,” according to the firm’s analysis. “Surveyed employees who preferred online enrollment felt that companies still using paper enrollment were stuck in the past, out of touch with today’s technology, or thought that it would simply be better done electronically.”

Joanne Sammer is a New Jersey-based business and financial writer.

Related SHRM Articles

At Open Enrollment, HR Departments of One Step Up, SHRM Online Benefits, September 2016

Open Enrollment Tips for the Coming Season, SHRM Online Benefits, September 2016

Open Enrollment: Help Employees Envision Their Future, SHRM Online Benefits, September 2016

Open Enrollment Tools Evolve, HR Magazine, July 2011

SHRM Resource Page:

Guide to Benefits Open Enrollment Season, SHRM Online Benefits, September 2016

Reuse Permissions


The application deadline is November 11

Apply Today

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 3,200 companies

Search & Connect