During this often-frenzied benefits open enrollment season, clients are being offered this little bit of soothing advice: Think of this occasion as merely a “milestone” in the effort to stay in contact with employees about their offerings.

That’s how Rhonda Newman, a senior leader of Mercer’s communication consulting practice, puts it. She and other communication experts emphasize the year-round nature of keeping workers up to speed on the more than 30% of their compensation known as employee benefits.

So what are the employers on the cutting edge, with the assistance of their advisers, doing to ensure that employees fully leverage their benefits offering?

While sophisticated information technology plays a major role, it’s important to first think of the communication goal, rather than the tools to achieve it. First, as noted, benefit communication should be a year-round effort, and it should be proactive and engaging. For example, left to their own devices, many employees let inertia drive their decisions, defaulting into the same health plan election they already have in place.

“It’s always a good idea to encourage employees to [actively] re-enroll,” says Benz Communications CEO Jennifer Benz. At a minimum, re-enrollment jogs employees to update basic information such as their beneficiaries and number of dependents. But on a broader level, re-enrollment encourages employees to consider, if only fleetingly, whether they are choosing the health plan that best meets their needs.

Take a stand
Employers typically present employee options with a neutral tone, but that isn’t always a good idea, cautions Benz. In some cases, the company might want to steer employees to a particular benefit, like a new health plan, she says.

For many years, most employers have been aggressive in their efforts to persuade employees to boost their 401(k) deferral rates. And through their choice of a QDIA, they have, in effect, nudged employees into particular investment options. Benz believes employers will increasingly do the equivalent in the health plan area. The idea is to design and communicate health plans “so that it’s hard for employees to make a bad choice,” she says.

All of this demands a comprehensive communication strategy. The way to create one is to respond to the unspoken employee request, “Meet me where I am,” according to Mercer’s Newman.

The concept is figurative and literal. The literal dimension is to enable employees to access benefits information and direction wherever they happen to be physically, when they have benefits on the brain. That means mobile platforms, which are becoming increasingly popular.

So many employees instinctively reach for their smartphones for answers to all kinds of questions. If clients’ employees want to get an answer to an employee benefit question when they’re waiting at a pizza parlor for a carry-out order to be produced, why not make it available to them then and there?

Mobile benefits apps “can engage employees that they haven’t been before,” says Alex Ward, vice president with Hodges Mace, a benefits enrollment and communication services provider.

He emphasizes that the universe of avid smartphone users cross demographic boundaries. “It’s not just young people; 83% of the population owns a smartphone,” he says.

Ward warns against bombarding smartphone users with benefit information, however. For example, traditional SMS text messages are widely considered too intrusive for benefits communication. But smartphone app icons can, by leveraging the allure of “red dots” (those ubiquitous indicators that a message or update is waiting for you when you launch the app), draw employees in to absorb important messages about their benefits.

Pick a profile
The figurative dimension of “meet me where I am” is about “where I am in my life.” Benefits communication campaigns around appropriate 401(k) deferral and investment category options have long used personae and model employee profiles to lead employees to relevant content.

The employee picks out a profile from the supplied roster that looks most like him as a starting point for assessing his benefit options and thinking about what to do. Newman believes this approach can and will increasingly be used more broadly to help employees with all of their benefit choices.

One of her clients, a Fortune 100 employer with 25,000 employees, has gone down this path, using six different employee models. The goal of creating these personae is both to personalize benefit decision-making, and keep things as simple as possible (hence not creating dozens of personae).

This communication tactic works well to help clients’ employees think more holistically about their benefit choices, according to Newman. “Employees often haven’t thought about how decisions they make about their health benefits spill over into retirement savings and other areas.”

For example, an employee persona might be lead to consider the relationship between her health plan selection and her retirement savings needs. Suppose, for example, a symbolic employee is serious about maintaining good heath, and this is reflected in her health benefit selections (including voluntary benefits). The employee communication text might make a statement along the lines of, “Susan needs to be thinking about whether her commitment to staying very healthy will lead to a longer life in retirement, which might require her to increase her 401(k) contributions.”

More fundamental messages about other benefits could be put in front of employee personae based on their age: “As a 40-year-old with children, ‘Joe’ should be thinking about disability income and life insurance.”

Whatever the communication theme your clients use at enrollment and throughout the rest of the year, the key to getting through to employees, consultants say, is brevity. While this is hardly novel advice, benefit professionals steeped in the jargon of the field often fail to imagine reading information about benefits options through their employees’ eyes.

“Make sure it’s simple and clear, especially about what people need to do, what’s changing, and what it is going to cost,” says Benz. “And give them a lot of different ways to understand it,” including access to more detailed information.

System integration
Customized and timely messages are possible with the integration of benefits communication and HRIS databases. For example, employees who have enrolled in a high-deductible health plan with a health savings account option, who after specified period of time have not begun making payroll-deducted contributions to their HSA, can get a message advising them of the missed opportunity.

Even at a time when electronic communications tools are growing increasingly sophisticated, employee meetings, staffed information tables, and webcasts are being put to greater use, especially around enrollment time, according to Newman.

When employees are receiving so many messages in varied ways, corporate branding takes on greater importance in the eternal challenge of combatting information overload. “HR is getting focused on what materials look like,” Newman says. Not only is visual thematic consistency important, but also design elements, including infographics that enable employees to digest important information easily. “Say less, show more,” Newman says.

On the eve the new plan year, remind employees of any financial or procedural changes in they will face. “Walk people through what’s going to happen, the steps they will need to take, to avoid a big hubbub,” she adds.

And, if there is a hubbub, when it dies down, a critical step for planning for next year’s enrollment cycle is to take stock of how things went this year. Critical to that process, particularly when new benefit communication and enrollment tools and tactics are being introduced, is to set quantifiable goals, such as the percentage of employees enrolled by the deadline, the number of employees who switched from one particular benefit to another, and so on.

With respect to electronic systems, metrics can include the number and frequency of user system access, and the volume of downloads, notes Hodges Mace’s Ward. “You need to determine whether new methods had an impact on achieving your goals,” he says.

With any luck and careful planning, when the dust settles, the conclusion won’t be, “It’s back to the drawing board,” but instead, “That was a piece of cake!”

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