The perfect voluntary benefits package is tricky to produce – employees want choices while employers must balance regulatory and budgetary challenges. But for one employer, successful results stem from two simple things: The right combination of basic ingredients and a good recipe.

“Like many employers, we had been shifting gradually from copays to coinsurance and high deductibles, and because our employees are spread across the country, it’s a challenge to get them engaged in our initiatives,” says Tadako Gallione, benefits manager with VWR Corporation, a distributor of research laboratory products.

In 2013, with a plan to introduce 14 new voluntary benefits, Gallione began her implementation strategy with just three: accidental, critical illness and indemnity.

Also see:Voluntary benefit offerings continue to grow, expand.”

The secret plan to implementing a voluntary benefits program, Gallione says, lies in a simple three-stage process: developing a new product strategy, a solid communications plan with a short and catchy tagline and easy enrollment.

When the accidental, critical illness and indemnity products were introduced, the last copay health plan was at the stage of being dropped. “It wasn’t a significant change, but people don’t handle changes very well, especially when it comes to medical plans,” she says.

To help take off some of the heat, Gallione used the opportunity to bridge some of the gaps the new health plans were lacking with the voluntary benefits. She also bundled the voluntary benefits under a common name to give them some differentiation.

“I chose products that filled the gaps and I chose carriers that are going to stick around for a long time and are well rated,” she says. “I thought that was important. I like consistency. So I chose plan designs similar to core benefits.”

Also see:Voluntary benefits: What employers are looking for.”

As for the second step, creating a communications plan required a bit of brain squeezing, due to a limited communication budget and a short time frame, she says.

“Two things I did in stage in the second stage: First I removed hurdles. Secondly, I connect [employees] to something familiar,” she says. For example, the company made use of online videos, in-person seminars and old-fashioned home mailers.

Lastly she says, make voluntary benefit enrollment easy. Particularly, she advises one-stop shopping. Tie them all together and “don’t make [employees] go to other websites,” she says.

All in all, she notes, voluntary benefits should never be about “a product,” but instead should remain focused on the “total benefit package.”      

Also see: Putting disability insurance in context

An evolving workforce and innovative new products are making voluntary benefit offerings a challenge for employees to comprehend and for employers to easily provide.

“Employees want choice and flexibility, but what do employers want? They want simplicity,” says Jeff Caldwell, marketing director with Transamerica. “We’re in a balancing act.”

Research from LIMRA’s quarterly U.S. worksite sales survey notes close to half (47%) of employers have not offered a new voluntary benefit since 2010.

“When you look at where the employer is sitting, with such a diverse workforce, a key answer is the word flexibility,” says Carol Sladek, a partner and work-life consulting lead at Aon Hewitt.

Broadening the huge array of benefits offered can be quite the challenge, she adds. “Employers struggle because it changes every day and it’s a huge dart board,” she says, pointing to generational challenges that play some part in how and what voluntary benefits are offered. “I think the millennials are a big piece of the puzzle because they’re coming in with different needs and wants than we saw before, with a focus more on the life side more so than their baby boomer parents did.”

Also see: Sun Life strives for ‘holy grail’ of voluntary benefits with Assurant acquisition

What’s challenging, she notes, is there is no one set of solutions. “It’s looking at your population and what you need to provide that drives business results, like recruiting and retaining the right talent,” she says.

And a lot of employers don’t have the resources at their disposal, Caldwell says. “As HR departments become more stretched, they’re looking to the providers for more help.”

Education important

A well strategized education plan is also just as important as the flexibility. With so many benefits available, from the historical voluntary benefits like short- and long-term disability to new voluntary benefits like pet insurance and identity theft insurance, the market is expanding.

Millennials in particular are used to picking and choosing what they want and they’re the generation that has learned to research products and services online, Sladek says. Millennials are used to having a tailored approach and prefer to choose the benefits that best suit their specific needs. “But If you go back 15 or 20 years, the flex benefits were focused on the same thing,” she says. “I think the idea is to combine those two worlds with the new generation and that same idea years ago of giving the same choice.”

Also see: How to combat the misconceptions of life insurance

And there really needs to be this idea of flexibility in the voluntary benefits offered. Right now, voluntary benefits are really playing out in the healthcare industry with a wide range of options employers can use and tailor to their employees’ needs.

Ancillary programs that might round out those edges include continued education and financial planning benefits. “It’s [being] creative about how you pull them together,” says Sladek.

“For someone in an office, anything you can do to make life easier … they’re little things, but make a big difference in people’s lives,” she adds.

Also see: How to drive better engagement in benefits program among millennials

“As long as they can easily understand and quickly enroll,” says Gallione. “Creativity and technology can help us achieve the goal, as well as preparing them physically and emotionally to choose. Make sure we have the right benefits to help them understand.”

With flexible products and detailed education, Gallione has noticed a strong interest in voluntary benefits from employees, with low to no drop rates in the past three years.

“How you offer voluntary benefits is almost just as important as what is offered,” adds Transamerica’s Caldwell. “What the future holds is really in the data.”

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