ThinkHR Chief Knowledge Officer Laura Kerekes writes a monthly “Innovative Workplace” column for Rough Notes, a publication that has been serving the insurance industry since 1878. While geared toward brokers, much of the information in her columns is applicable to human resources professionals. 

Annual benefits enrollment — admittedly from my perspective as a human resources practitioner, this process comes with a mixture of dread and anticipation every year. Dread for the expected price increases and anticipation for newer, less expensive and better plans that may be easier to administer and more valued by employees. I suspect that these feelings are probably true for you as a broker too. Add a new complicating layer — uncertainty — to this year’s annual benefits enrollment discussions with your clients. Amid this uncertainty, there is one thing we know for sure. This year’s client conversations will be different than the ones you had last year or the few years before that.

With the Trump administration and Congress proposing significant changes in healthcare and tax reform and new twists being reported in the news every day, employers and employees have questions about what these proposals might mean for their insurance plans. New appointees to the federal regulatory agencies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Commission, the National Labor Relations Board and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, to name a few, also have the potential to impact your client’s safety and employment law risks.

Your client’s human resources, finance and benefits managers are looking to you for answers. In SourceMedia’s March 2017 Open Enrollment Readiness Benchmark report, one of the top concerns reported was “Not knowing where the ACA is going.” And because the political discussions regarding benefits, the national budget, and tax reform are continuing, you don’t have those answers. The expectation is that you can gaze into your crystal ball and not only predict the future but also design the perfect insurance portfolio to manage your clients’ risks while providing an attractive benefits package for their employees.

Get ahead of the game and start the discussions with your clients earlier this year so that you can clear out the misconceptions and set expectations regarding plan renewals. Even if you don’t sell health insurance, it is still top of mind for your clients.  That means you will most likely need to be prepared to address various scenarios with your clients regarding how their insurance products may be impacted by changes in benefits and tax laws or regulations.

Be Prepared to Overcommunicate This Year

As you head into this year’s annual open enrollment season, it is more important than ever to strategically advise your clients about their employee communications strategies. Be sure that your clients are prepared to separate the facts from the speculation regarding the likelihood of health care reform and other regulatory changes that impact their benefits packages so that they will be more confident when talking with their employees about this years’ benefits offering.

Properly designed, positioned, and communicated, the employee benefits package is one of the best tools in your clients’ arsenals to attract the right talent, enhance employee engagement, and retain their most valuable employees. Today’s employees expect more. In fact, according to a recent survey sponsored by Anthem Life Insurance Company, more than one in three millennial job applicants have turned down job offers with poor health insurance that didn’t meet their needs. Although millennials are now the largest group in the workforce today, they are not alone in their expectations. The same survey found that 27 percent of those from other age brackets responded that they also declined job offers due to an employer’s lackluster benefits offer.

Other surveys are finding the same results relating not only with attracting new employees but also in retaining them. Employees today expect their employers to be creative, consider employee needs, make the benefits easy to use, and offer them choices to help manage their lifestyles. Besides health insurance, benefits protecting their incomes, such as disability insurance, financial planning and retirement benefits are important. In addition, consider that employees are tech savvy and expect to have online tools and calculators, along with complete communications, to assist them in making decisions regarding their insurance options.

As your clients’ trusted advisor, the more communications and support tools you can provide to help them better communicate with their employees, the better.

Steps for Success

To prepare for this year’s enrollments, work with your clients early to design the best insurance products and communications program. Advise them throughout these steps for success to make the most of marketing their benefits programs to their employees by:

  1. Reviewing workforce demographics and benefits usage to get a better understanding of employees’ stages in the lifecycle. Knowing your audience and targeting benefits communications to meet those lifecycle needs makes the benefits more personal and relevant. Employees with young families, older workers preparing for retirement, empty nesters, and young singles all have distinctly different benefits needs and interests.
  2. Packaging benefits by target group and promoting messaging that speaks to that group’s needs while consistently reinforcing the overall benefits strategy and employer branding in the messaging. Different communications delivery systems may also be important to different employee groups.
  3. Starting the messaging with “why” the benefits are structured as they are and “what” the company’s overall benefits strategy is designed to accomplish for employees. Most employees are smart, so advise your clients not to sugarcoat any bad news about changes in the benefits program. The best employees will see through the slick messaging and resent those attempts to hide changes that may be perceived as negative. This is a good time to highlight the important value of their benefits programs, promote wellness, encourage retirement savings, and incent cost-effective usage of benefits programs.
  4. Being ready to address the questions triggered by the federal and state proposals to change tax and benefits rules. Clear the misconceptions and incomplete information, focus on how the benefits package has been designed to comply with the current laws in place, and project confidence that you are monitoring the changes in the Washington and state legislatures and will ensure that the company benefit plans remain in compliance with changing laws and rules.
  5. Keeping the messaging straightforward. Provide clear information, checklists, and decision support tools that are easy to follow. While the details behind a certain benefit may be fascinating to benefits specialists, it may cause some employees to set that carefully-crafted document aside. By all means, have the details available but keep the key messages and “what you need to do for enrollment” information central to the enrollment materials.
  6. Bringing company managers and supervisors into the discussions prior to launch. Give them a heads up regarding the upcoming benefits changes and enlist their help in the process.
  7. Explaining benefits options in as many ways as the budget will allow. Multimedia messaging that provides different methods for employees and/or their families to watch videos or webinars, read detailed benefits materials, review infographics, use “hands-on” decision tools, view desktop dashboards or popup “did you know” benefits messages, read questions and answers or consider examples helps employees recognize the value of the benefit and make better benefits decisions. Determine the campaign for repeating key messages and the frequency of those communications.
  8. Tackling the “how” of the benefits communications program, including:
    1. Communications delivery methods. Electronic communications? Mobile apps? Webinars? In-person company meetings? Text messages? Packages mailed to home addresses to involve the family? Use of social media? Intranet messaging? Frequent emails or instant messaging? Live hotline for questions and concerns? Combination of all of the methods?
    2. Enrollment methods. Online? Manual? Mobile? Make it as administratively simple as possible for both employees and the benefits administration staff. Use electronic tools if the budget allows.
    3. Timing. Establish a timeline working backwards from the date that the information must be completed with the carriers and other benefits providers. Then work forward to deliver the communications program.
    4. Frequency. Employees need time to consider their options and allow the information to soak in. Consider sending employee prompts and reminders you and the timing so that the enrollment process is completed in a timely manner.

Lastly, remind your clients that their benefits programs will only realize the investment potential if the benefits are perceived as meeting the expectations and needs of their employees and beneficiaries. The annual open enrollment communications opportunity is precious — your clients can influence how employees see benefits or cost changes, alleviate any fears about federal and state benefits or tax law changes that are still being considered by lawmakers and regulators, motivate employees to change their health or savings habits, and let employees know that management is listening, considering their feedback valuable, and responding to their needs.

This is your year to ease your clients’ uncertainties during the annual enrollment process. Seize the opportunity!