Reimagining Open Enrollment: A Six-Step Plan

Transform this chore into an engagement opportunity

By Linda Itskovitz September 16, 2015

When HR professionals hear the words “open enrollment,” many shudder and some may even break out in hives. Why? According to the results of a survey from communications support firm GuideSpark, 82 percent of HR leaders think open enrollment (OE) is a particularly stressful time for HR. And for good reason—it takes a ton of effort, is time-consuming for HR teams with limited resources and often presents challenges in terms of measuring successful outcomes.

Yet there is no avoiding the need for the dreaded OE season. In today’s global economy, employee benefits are playing an ever-increasing part in attracting, engaging and retaining top talent. In the same survey from GuideSpark, 86 percent of employees said benefits play a significant role in their decision to stay with an employer.

With this in mind, OE—and its complementary communications—have never been more critical to an organization’s success.

The key to optimizing OE is for companies to look beyond it as simply a method for signing up employees for the next year’s benefits. Instead of viewing OE as just a transaction between employer and employee, transform this chore into an engagement opportunity that can drive more-meaningful connections between a company and its workforce.

Here are six best practices for companies to follow in creating an effective OE marketing and communication plan:

1. Use a variety of communication channels.

Organizations should talk to employees about their communication preferences. How do they like to receive benefits information? Companies need to be prepared to share materials in different ways; some people favor traditional methods, like face-to-face meetings and paper-based resources, while others expect Web-based and digital content.

When revamping its OE, Fortune 500 company Erie Insurance adopted a multichannel communications strategy that included tactics such as HR roadshows, webinars, in-person meetings, voicemail notifications, lunchtime promotions, e-mails, brochures and postcards with QR codes that linked to videos. As a result, the company experienced 100 percent employee participation during OE and even reduced support calls to the HR department.

By employing a mix of communication channels, companies can reach the same employee in multiple ways and at multiple times, thus reinforcing key messages. When the benefits communications plan is customized to meet everyone’s unique needs, engagement goes up.

2. Tell employees what changes are happening.

Companies must be transparent and upfront about any changes that are occurring for the new plan year. If new benefits are being introduced, new processes need to be followed, or new tools and resources are available, employees need to know early enough to adjust to the changes and take advantage of any benefits options. They also should be told why the change is being made.

A company making changes to its health care premiums might send an e-mail early in the OE process to outline the major changes. The e-mail should clearly explain how the increased costs will affect both the employees as well as the company. The company could then follow up with communications including videos, newsletters, digital display reminders, postcards and in-person training, highlighting the value of the benefits being provided and softening the message about the increased costs.

3. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Employee benefits can be confusing. Companies that experience the most success in engaging employees in the OE process are the ones that maintain a singular focus on keeping communications simple and to the point. All communication materials and messages, from handouts to video content to social media to presentations, need to clearly tell employees what they are supposed to do.

Benefits communications need to lead employees through the appropriate steps, not lose them along the way. Organizations must avoid HR jargon in their materials and try not to cram in too much content.

Feeding information in bite-sized chunks can keep employees from feeling overwhelmed and disengaged with the process. In addition, embedding or including links to tools and resources that employees can use is particularly helpful.

4. Go green by going digital.

As more organizations focus on developing business processes that are better for the environment, going paperless during the traditionally paper-heavy OE period not only can save trees but also can save money for the company. Organizations looking to go green and cut costs should consider moving OE communications to a digital communications platform.

For Baker Hughes, a leader in the oil and gas industry, focusing on a multipronged, digital-driven communications strategy enabled the company to reduce its OE costs by 77 percent. Ruth Britto, benefits manager at Baker Hughes, noted, “I can’t emphasize enough the importance of measuring ROI [return on investment] and taking bold steps to adopt new technology such as multimedia communications, which helped us to achieve great business results during open enrollment.”

The benefits of going digital extend beyond cost savings measures. In today’s always-on society, people expect to be able to consume information whenever and wherever it’s most convenient. When employees can access benefits information at any time of the day, they can learn about their options and take action at their own pace. Plus, 24/7 availability means that materials can more easily be shared with other family decision-makers.

5. Get creative.

Sometimes, OE really can be fun—for both employees and HR. Taking a creative approach can help establish an emotional connection with employees that can be more effective in engaging them in benefits education and enrollment. Companies can offer incentives to participate in OE activities and even package OE events and messages into a catchy campaign that will pique employee interest.

For example, one company wrapped its benefits campaign into a “Rock Enroll” theme that was incorporated into all messaging, graphics, videos and posters. This included using “reminder cards” that played off the theme by including pop rock candy. Employees were thoroughly engaged in the enrollment process, leading to a 100 percent participation rate.

6. Don’t forget the Millennials.

The fastest-growing group in the labor market—the Millennial generation—is expected to make up almost 50 percent of the workforce by 2020. Millennials could easily shape companies’ benefits communications more than any other generation.

Vast amounts of paperwork, lengthy paragraphs of text and dry content won’t cut it with this tech-savvy group. In fact, almost 44 percent of Millennials want to receive critical benefits-related information on their mobile devices, according to GuideSpark’s 2014 Employee Benefits Communications Report, and they want to be fed information in bite-sized pieces. When it comes to learning, Millennials are accustomed to the efficiency of Web-based tools, videos and various forms of online collaboration.

With this in mind, companies need to ensure that they are approaching communications differently for the Millennials in their workforce. For instance, relatively young and healthy Millennials may not have much knowledge of or experience with health insurance, nor are they likely to be interested in life insurance or retirement planning. Organizations need to recognize Millennials’ particular communication and life-stage needs in order to educate them on the advantages of participating in a benefits program.

Bring Open Enrollment Up-to-Date

Surveys reveal that employees want their employers to communicate benefits in a way that is easier to understand. What’s more, most employees want to leverage their benefits to provide the greatest value but would like to spend as little time as possible learning about them—conflicting desires that pose a challenge to benefits managers but that also represent an opportunity to improve engagement with employees on matters that are central to their health and well-being.

The OE process can offer so much more to employers than just a way to get employees signed up for benefits. The companies that recognize this and take steps to update their OE strategy to make it a rewarding experience for all involved will have the greatest chance for success.​

Linda Itskovitz is vice president of marketing at GuideSpark, a national employee benefits communications firm based in Menlo Park, Calif. She holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

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