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How to Raise Engagement with Benefits During Open Enrollment

Online platforms with decision-making tools spur better-informed choices

A young woman working on her laptop at home.

The process of signing up for benefits options during open enrollment has largely been automated, with online enrollment platforms replacing paper forms. Now, more employers are seeking to improve the online enrollment experience by adding decision-support tools and guides to make the process more user-friendly.

"The pandemic was the final chapter for paper-based enrollments," said Ralph Labarta, Tampa, Fla.-based chief technology officer with Engage PEO, a professional employer organization providing HR services nationwide. The lockdowns physically separated enrollees from the resources they typically used during the enrollment process, he noted. In their place, better online tools have emerged to help employees compare and filter benefits selections.

While electronic enrollment is now a mature technology, Labarta added, "enhanced decision-making tools that help enrollees select products and coverage levels are becoming increasingly important."

A Boon for Small Businesses

Wesley Mace, Baltimore-based chief operating officer at Kelly Benefits, a provider of benefits administration and payroll services, said small businesses, in particular, have benefited from the growth of digital enrollment tools, which have "markedly increased employee engagement" in the enrollment process.

"Smaller organizations found [digital enrollment] tools not only helped in distributing information to remote employees but also increased productivity for those who had previously been tasked with administering manual enrollments," agreed Bobbi Kloss. She is the director of human capital management services for the Cleveland-based Benefit Advisors Network (BAN), a national network of independent employee benefits brokerage and consulting companies.

Jason McMahon, a Queensland, Australia-based digital strategist with Bambrick, a direct response digital advertising agency, noted that digital open enrollment platforms can track employee involvement with the enrollment process, "showing what may have interested them, or resonated with them—and what didn't."

These analytics give employers "detailed information on employee touchpoints, which is just impossible to find in a printed guide," McMahon said.

Cutting Through the Complexity

Benefits are complex and employees have long been overwhelmed by the amounts of information they need to make informed decisions, said Chad Wilkins, executive vice president of Webster Bank in Sheboygan, Wis., and head of the company's HSA Bank division. One way to help people get the most out of their health care dollars, he said, is to provide access to an online calculator that lets employees compare various health plans, taking into consideration premium levels and past or anticipated health care expenses. Digital calculators can also factor in employee contributions to a health savings account (HSA) and show the implications of using pretax HSA dollars versus after-tax dollars to pay out-of-pocket medical costs, he noted.

"We find that when [employees] use decision-support tools and a health care plan calculator, 20 to 30 percent of people will make a different decision on their health plan, and possibly save thousands of dollars based on those decisions," Wilkins said.

"If the digital enrollment process is easier, then the process can support a broader inventory of offered benefits," Labarta said.

Fostering Engagement

Another reason to go—and stay—digital: Employees are overwhelmingly familiar with the "Amazon experience," said Casey Hauch, managing director of communication and change management a consultancy WTW. "Amazon knows what I like, and what I need to order and what my interests are," she noted, and organizations have that same ability to use data about the plans employees are enrolled in, their coverage tiers, who they're covering, etc., to communicate personally via an online communication portal.

This allows employees, Hauch added, "to deliver up content that is relevant to them, increasing the odds that they will be interested and engaged—and that they'll make the optimal benefit choices for their needs."

Diversity and Environmental Considerations

Labarta has also seen an increase in requests for enrollment platforms and decision-support tools that support multiple languages. "The broader and more inclusive these tools can be, the better," he said.

Digital tools also have a positive impact from an environmental standpoint, "cutting down on the need for printing benefit enrollment forms and materials that may simply end up in wastebaskets," Hauch noted.

Taking a Hybrid Approach

"There's an acceleration happening in terms of leveraging digital tools to reach people wherever they are," Hauch said.

But digital platforms have value even in physical settings, where they can connect with people who have busy and varied schedules, she noted.

That doesn't mean that print can be eradicated altogether, Hauch added—manufacturing employees, for instance, don't always have ready access to computers. But she's seeing a trend toward cutting back. For instance, instead of a 42-page guide, a company might print a postcard with a QR code to send to employees' homes.

Even in a digital world, Labarta cautioned, don't completely let go of person-to-person support. "Voice, chat and e-mail support combined with scheduled call-back options must be in place to meet the varied enrollee demand preferences at critical points in the enrollment process," he advised.

Some enhanced decision-making tools also include phone-based benefits coaches who can be contacted at the last stages of the enrollment process to help enrollees finalize their selections, he explained, combining the benefits of high-tech with high-touch personalization.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SHRM-SCP, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience.


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