BenefitsPro: 4 steps to meeting employee expectations during open enrollment season

If employers provide the information and education employees need, HR can meet both employer and employee expectations.

HR teams often find open enrollment season just as stressful as employees do. Most balance employer expectations on employee enrollment and specific plan uptake while minimizing employee concerns and questions. They also balance employee expectations of providing meaningful and affordable choices and enrollment support. The solution to both can be a well-planned enrollment campaign combining comprehensive benefits communication and enrollment support.

While that might seem like a tall order, it can be as simple as following these four steps.

  1. Invest in employee health care literacy. Research shows employees continue to struggle with health care (and health insurance) literacy. When employees don’t understand key terms, concepts and processes related to their benefits, they often make choices, which may negatively impact their coverage, their wallets, and ultimately, their health.

A recent Optavise study finds that 22% of workers say they want to know how to choose a health plan but don’t have the tools to do so effectively. That same study finds that about one-third (34%) of respondents have taught themselves health insurance terms and processes by going online or reading other materials, rather than turning to benefits experts.

To help address this problem, HR teams should focus on educating employees on the basics of choosing and using their coverage. Open enrollment is the ideal place to start since the focus is on benefits already. However, addressing health literacy should be a year-round effort. Plan communications efforts should happen throughout the year to reinforce the messages from open enrollment and to keep benefits information and resources top of mind. By increasing health care literacy rates, employees can feel empowered to make the best decisions for themselves this open enrollment season and year-round.

  1. Create an active enrollment process. Employees’ lives and health care needs are constantly changing. It’s important for employers to emphasize that the health care conversation does not stop when open enrollment ends. And employees need to understand that what worked last year might not make sense for them this year. Many companies allow their employees to passively rollover health plans year after year. However, this inaction is a disservice to employees. While “active” enrollment — requiring employees to affirmatively elect coverage (at the risk of losing coverage or defaulting to minimal coverage if they don’t) may seem strict, it can be a valuable tool in driving employees to learn about current employer offerings.

This is even more important when new options or plans are being introduced. It’s vital that employees understand what’s available, the potential benefits and costs, and how the offerings might meet their needs. Adding modeling tools, one-on-one meetings and individualized enrollment support will give employees a better understanding of which plans work best for them and where voluntary and supplemental plans and programs might fill perceived gaps.

  1. Prioritize personal communications. Everyone has unique needs and preferences when it comes to receiving information. Make sure benefits information is conveyed using a variety of media, including print, online and in person, and that content is accessible 24/7 and from any location or device.

Interactive enrollment guides, summary plan descriptions (SPDs) and other communications can engage employees and their family members while also making it easy for them to find the information they need.

In addition, these materials can generate a wealth of data that can be used to create more tailored and effective employee benefits communications going forward. Built-in analytics enable employers to explore which sections and terms employees most frequently view, search, and click on for more information. With these insights, HR teams can determine which benefits confuse most employees and where they need to enhance their communications. Some tools also track and report document usage, enabling HR to measure the value of the investment and the success of the benefits strategy.

Regardless of demographic, nearly every employee group prefers to receive information from another person. While the days of group meetings or sit-downs with HR are gone, employers can arrange for brokers and benefits educators to hold one-on-one conversations with employees to answer questions, compare different plan options, explain voluntary benefits, and empower employees to make the most of their benefits year-round.

  1. Leverage your team. If you’re fortunate enough to have internal resources to draw on, such as benefits experts or communicators, be sure to use their expertise. In today’s environment, however, HR teams often run lean, which means relying on external partners. As noted earlier, brokers, consultants, vendors and benefit educators can help by providing materials, hosting online or in-person meetings, or providing one-on-one enrollment support and modeling tools.

Open enrollment offers employers a prime opportunity to promote not only benefits offerings but also give employees confidence in choosing the health plan and other protections that best fit their individual situation. To best engage employees, HR teams need to educate their workforces on how to select plans that meet their care needs without overspending. This is especially true in today’s increasingly hybrid workforce, which spans multiple generations, each with unique needs.

Oftentimes, employee expectations can be difficult to understand (and even harder to meet). However, if employers provide the information and education employees need by working with benefits brokers and benefits educators by strategically communicating before and during the open enrollment process, HR can meet both employer and employee expectations.

Kim Buckey, VP of client services at Optavise