How to Humanize Benefits Communications with Technology

Portals and apps are trending, but employees still prefer talking with HR

By Dave Zielinski October 2, 2017
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​HR leaders can rely on a bevy of digital technologies to improve benefits communication. Whether they use apps, videos, portals, microsites or automated e-mails, benefits administrators can reach employees with key messages across multiple channels during open enrollment and throughout the year.

But many employees seek more of a human touch in how they learn about and make decisions about their benefit choices.

To achieve the optimal balance between high-touch and high-tech, experts recommend employing a variety of technologies to deliver customized messages to employees, while reserving in-person communications for special situations.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Organizational Communication]

Using Multiple Channels

"Most people aren't interested in simply reading a bunch of words about benefits," said Laura Yehuda, director of communication and change management for Willis Towers Watson in Philadelphia. "Many spend more time planning vacations that will last a week than selecting benefits that will last the entire year. So you have to catch their attention, fast, and sustain it so they not only know how to choose their benefits during enrollment but also use them throughout the year."

The most effective benefit communication campaigns are multimedia, Yehuda said. "That's because everyone understands and digests information differently," she said. A 22-year-old new hire who doesn't know what a deductible is needs basic education that large group sessions can provide, she explained, while the 40-year-old working mother may not want to spend time in meetings when she and her spouse can view her benefits on a microsite at home and make benefits decisions together. Communication methods might include print materials and the digital communication tools listed above as well as gaming and automated marketing e-mails, for instance.

Others agree on the power of such a multichannel approach.

"Sending the majority of your benefits communication out in e-mail attachments, for example, is asking for problems," said Craig Johnson, a partner specializing in benefits communications at HR consulting firm Mercer. "The open rate for those attachments is typically less than 50 percent."

The most effective communication campaigns are year-round, not limited to open enrollment periods. Cindi Van Meir, director of product marketing for vendor Benefitfocus, said that 40 percent of employees who log onto the Benefitfocus platform do so outside of open enrollment to seek information about changing their benefits due to life changes such as a marriage, a divorce or having a child.

"Communication delivered in a personalized way year-round is essential to helping employees understand and get the most from available benefits," Van Meir said.

The Value of Benefit Information Hubs

Creating a user-friendly benefits hub that easily connects employees to tools and educational resources available on vendor-partners' websites is essential to a good communications strategy, experts say.

"There are many medical plan vendors with rich content and better educational tools than ever on their websites, but employees often don't know they exist," said Johnson. "Most large organizations have anywhere from 40 to 60 vendor partners with their own quality websites, but employees can't or won't remember all of those URLs. Having one 'front door' where people can easily connect to all of those resources, often without realizing they've left their own employer's site, contributes to better and more informed benefits decisions."

Using "push" notification techniques also is an effective way to get messages to employees who might not contact HR on their own, Johnson said.

"You might send a push text to the mobile devices of call center workers highlighting a new partner that provides day care, for example, and include a link to that vendor," Johnson said. "Or you could send texts to alert people to an upcoming onsite wellness fair. You want to be proactive in helping employees become aware of all of their benefits options."


When to Use the Human Touch

When is face-to-face communication a better choice than using technology?

Yehuda said the former is ideal "when you need to educate people about a new program, you anticipate they'll have questions or input, and you can have experts provide live information for others to hear.

"But always remember that approach may not reach everyone, and you should evaluate who your audiences are and the way they want communication delivered," Yehuda said.

Smart use of technology can free up HR to spend more time in personal consultation with employees addressing issues that matter most to them, experts say. Short, compelling videos and other benefits overviews that give employees core information and provide options for deeper dives into other sources often have the highest user adoption rates.

"It's not about technology replacing the personal touch, it's about technology enabling the personal touch," said Chris Thurin, a managing principal at OneDigital, a benefits advisory firm in Atlanta. "The [in-person] time HR spends educating employees on benefits issues can be more meaningful and impactful when employees already arrive with a base level of knowledge through well-designed, technology-delivered options. It allows for more substantive conversations where HR can act as an advisor, rather than just regurgitating basic information."

If HR professionals aren't available to lead in-person meetings, managers can often be trained to do so, aided by videos and other supporting materials from HR. Yehuda knows of one multistate health care system with hundreds of U.S. locations that created a library of on-demand, life event-based fact sheets that managers could order and share with employees based on their specific needs.

Health Care Communications-v1.jpg

Source: Health Advocate Solutions' survey report, Striking a Healthy Balance: What Employees Really Want Out Of Workplace Benefits Communication. The 2016 study surveyed more than 500 full-time U.S. employees and 150 HR leaders.


Making Content Appealing

One of the best ways to ensure employees get more value from benefits communication is to customize messages based on the diverse needs of your workforce. HR can break employees into groups by role, function, work location, career stage, life stage or business unit, said Yehuda, and then match messages and media to each audience. This works well when communicating medical benefits, for example. Newer workers may have basic questions like "What are the benefits?" Older workers may not, Yehuda said.

Because the content creators can range from benefits experts to compliance reviewers to legal teams, "you can end up with a lot of boring words that employees will ignore," Yehuda said.

Benefitfocus prefers short videos that are human-focused and rely on plain English rather than industry jargon to explain topics, said Van Meir. "A one- to two-minute overview video introducing a new benefit that explains what it is, why it has value and the criteria employees should use in considering it often is well-received," she said.

But one company's compelling communications style may not work at another organization. "Sometimes humorous visuals and words resonate and sometimes they offend," Yehuda said. "Some companies love brief explainer videos and others think they are tedious. Some want to feature a world-renowned celebrity spokesperson and others think it's a waste of money. Do what works best for your people, and be sure to ask for their input along the way."

One of Thurin's clients found that employees in their 20s and early 30s weren't really using a new telemedicine option. After the client created a funny and irreverent video about the program, the video quickly went viral and younger workers started using the telemedicine option more often.

"The video fit the culture of the company, and employees liked it so much they sent it to friends and family," Thurin said. "Yet the same video used in another company culture and with another demographic might not have resonated as well."

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer in Minneapolis.

Related SHRM Articles:

2018 Open Enrollment: Using Social Media and Decision-Support Tools, SHRM Online Benefits, September 2017

2018 Open Enrollment: Targeted Communications Address Differing Needs, SHRM Online Benefits, September 2017


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