When Technology Meets Benefits
Three benefits pros share how they’ve used technology to improve their organizations’ benefits operations in this Q&A.
Whether employees love or detest the technology around them, there’s no getting around its continued influence on workplace policies. Considering that employee benefits at many organizations remains a paper-based, pencil-pushing operation, enormous opportunities for technological advancement — not to mention saving a few rain forests — are emerging for CEOs and benefits managers alike.
For last year’s virtual roundtable, Workforce interviewed CEOs at the tech companies creating HR technology, but this year we’re doing something different. This year we contacted three HR leaders at different companies and asked how technological advancements have been impacting the benefits function and what to look forward to in upcoming years. Parental leave came up more than once as an attractive perk that offers unique tech challenges. And whether these people work at companies that are large and complex or small and nimble, they’ve adapted practices to modernize their benefits strategy.
Rachel Frazier is the senior global benefits manager at Mountain View, California-based open-source software company Mozilla. The company has 1,200 employees in 15 countries, primarily the United States, Canada and Taiwan. Frazier has 15 years of experience in HR, benefits and organizational planning at organizations including the University of San Francisco and computer game company Zynga.
Kristy Loomis is the vice president of human resources at Southfield, Michigan-based Great Expressions Dental Centers, which employs about 2,800 people. Great Expressions, where Loomis has worked for five years, provides dental care for more than 200 practices in nine states. Previously, Loomis worked at medical supply company Aspen Surgical.
Tina Kao Mylon is senior vice president of talent and diversity at France-based Schneider Electric, which employs 144,000 people in over 100 countries, including 33,000 in North America. The energy company executive, based at Schneider Electric’s Massachusetts campus, which is the company’s North American headquarters, has previously worked at Aon Hewitt and BASF Corp.
Workforce: How is technology changing the role of HR, particularly with its benefits-related duties?
Frazier: Technology is fantastic and it helps me do my job as a global benefits manager, but I sometimes worry about our employees having analysis paralysis. There’s so much information available, and they can’t get through it all. I don’t want us to lose track of that human touch; that human part of human resources.
I’d like to talk about our parental leave program and technology. There’s a lot that goes into creating a parental leave program. We did something quite unique in this space, particularly in Silicon Valley companies of our size. We have a policy in 15 countries that is essentially the same. Getting that information out was no small task. We started out big and then we went small.
What I mean by that is, we sent out an email to all employees saying, hey, we have a new program, and also had an extensive FAQ on our intranet. These are all rather traditional ways of communicating with people.
Then I sent targeted, individual emails to those people who had a leave of absence, who welcomed a child in 2016 and anyone we knew was going to have a child in 2017. We reached out via email to say, this is going to apply to you. Let’s set up time to go over the program.
Also, twice a year Mozilla gets all of its employees together to meet. We are all physically in the same space somewhere in the world, and I had open office hours. Kind of the old-fashioned thing, right? We also used video conference technology. I met with every employee taking a leave of absence. By using multiple channels — meeting in person and talking over video and emails and having the FAQ on the internet — is how we rolled the program out. That’s how we continue to communicate with our folks.
I think it’s really made a difference because no matter how much information there is, people still have questions. New parents wonder, how does this actually work? Even if we can say, here’s the website, go read that, we still need to have that human touch.
Loomis: Making data-driven decisions, that’s what technology helps us do. Most functions have had that and embraced it, and HR was always behind. But I would say we’re definitely there, caught up with the rest of the functions if not starting to get ahead in different companies.
Technology is changing everything we do. I do training and career development as a big benefit. It may be outside of the traditional with medical benefits, compensation and total rewards, but I think training is a huge benefit that companies provide for their team members.
That’s where I see the newest things coming from: training. There’s companies that are using on-demand training and taking it a step further [with] virtual reality glasses you can just put on at your work site to get training in the moment. It gives team members what they need when they need it.
Mylon: For us at Schneider Electric, the role of technology is huge and every day it continues to grow in terms of our relationship with our employees, whether it’s through our benefits or other HR policies. It also allows us to get feedback so we can react in real time to certain HR policies, benefits, etc. That’s been very helpful for us.
Recently we communicated on the North America family leave policy, and that was based on tons of data through real time and some through the old-fashioned surveys. One of the pain points from an engagement and retention perspective from [employee feedback] was about leave and taking time off for their family.
The other interesting kernel that we learned from the data is that it wasn’t just women having a child taking maternity leave. It was a lot of folks who were struggling with taking time to take care of an elderly or sick family member. It started out being a parental leave policy, but we extended it to family leave.
We’re a 144,000-employee company, so part of our commitment is to help each of them manage their unique life and their unique work. If the policy is inclusive enough, people can take time off and get paid for it whether that’s caring for a child or caring for an elderly family member.
WF: How has your company effectively used technology in major HR functions such as benefits education, communication, enrollment and administration?
Frazier: What (technology) really does help us with is the administrative burden. It makes our jobs much easier, and it’s the way we can run very lean teams. Leave of absence is a lot of tracking. And enrollment — as recently as 10 years ago, some companies are still using paper enrollment forms. We’ve got to get away from that. Online enrollment is really important.
Loomis: That’s our HR story over the past five years. When I joined the team, we were very antiquated and manual. The few technology platforms and payroll systems we had were not right. We were trying to bundle them. There’s a lot of platforms out there that want it all on one place.
What I found when I looked at those platforms is they had a core product they released, whether that’s payroll or benefits. They came out with one thing first and then to be that all-in-one [company], they started adding on other tabs and modules. You could tell they were afterthoughts.
We came in and looked at it differently. We said, why not have the best in class in each key system, even if it is different providers and vendors? That’s the direction we went in, we broke down that massive enterprise and said, we’re going to go out and purchase the best. [We wanted to] make sure the employees had an easy user interface so that they have a good experience overall instead of something clunky. It really modernized the department.
Mylon: We have a global backbone, a common enterprise system, and then a lot of the benefits administration technology at the local level.
An interesting area where there are global as well as local efforts is the benefits communication and education area. Here we are increasingly moving toward mobile apps. This is similar to other companies. But it’s tricky for us because we have a very large (employee) population.
There have been some great pilots around the world of apps to educate around our benefits cycles and campaigns. We have global campaigns that are consistently in the same time frame of when people enroll for benefits, and a number of the countries have taken the creative intuition to use the global timeline but also use more customized employee apps that feed information and allow employees to ask questions and engage [in the process].
WF: Big data has been around for a number of years, but what are companies able to do with it now that they weren’t in the past, and what might be possible in the future?
Frazier: We can get all excited about big data, but one of the things that’s really important is to be careful. Particularly at Mozilla, we are very concerned about people’s privacy. I think perhaps people who work at large companies aren’t aware of exactly how much data is available. They might be surprised.
That being said, I really do think that having that information allows us to make sure we’re building our benefits plan where it will have the greatest impact for our employees. So let’s use our data, but not in a way that will make people uncomfortable. If I can look at what’s happening in any given country to say, nobody likes this benefit, [then we can] quit paying for that and put [our money] in something else. That’s great.
Loomis: You’re seeing this in benefits and health care a lot. Employees are getting their Fitbits and Apple watches and are more aware of their health. If employees are taking more care of themselves, it should be reducing costs. Instead we keep seeing it go up and up.
I think we’re going to be seeing new things where people start pushing back. Employers will find creative solutions to go beyond what’s been out there today, like by working with hospitals or dental groups like ourselves directly to come up with solutions that make sense for their employees.
The data will help us have those conversations, where before we needed the big insurance companies to do that for us. As we get savvier as companies, we’ll have our own data and be able to go direct and do what’s right for our employees.
For a lot of large companies, it takes a lot to make these changes. There are so many employees, it takes a lot to make a big change, and it takes quite a lot of planning. I think it’ll be a few years before you see large corporations [do this]. But the more midsized companies, like our size, have the data and the staff to be savvy. And we’re still nimble enough that it isn’t a huge shift with our employee population.
Mylon: For us, where I get excited is thinking about how we use big data not only from the corporate perspective, to churn out insights and inform decisions, but how we again engage our broader employee community to participate in that experimentation. Our ambition is huge, how we use big data more to not only drive decisions but also to engage our employees to experiment along with us for a bottom-up generation of input and insight.
We have a lot of experiments we’re doing with that data. It may not be so novel for a small company, but we’re a giant ship. Trying to get things going and trying to change the culture to be more willing to do small experiments, prototype quickly and then build out the perfect plan for the whole global workforce — that’s something that’s a big culture shift. But we’ve been able to do that because the data and the insights are quite compelling for people.
We’re complex, and out of that complexity, driving change is hard, but I think also the power of all the technologies and the power of our employees and customers to generate ideas is also quite big.
WF: What has been the most noteworthy development in the benefits technology space in the past year? What do you expect to see more of in the near future?
Frazier: One thing I see coming more and more, and this is specific to the U.S., is helping employees gain access to their care and understanding their care. What I mean is, and this is so basic, helping them use the apps that are already available. For example, I get multiple requests every month saying, how do I print out my insurance card? I go back and say this is how you print it, but did you know that our insurance company has an app? You can just access your ID card in the app. Even folks who are super-knowledgeable about benefits didn’t even realize they had that option.
Educating employees to better utilize that access to information can really help. That’s what will be noteworthy. We have the technology, we just need human beings to catch up with it.
Loomis: I think it’s what’s already been out there. We already have our benefits portals for employees to choose their plans and for employers do different things. The better the portal is, and the more user friendly and flexible it can be for the employer, the more it allows them to be more creative with what they offer employees.
I think we’re seeing benefits companies that offer this technology understand that they have to make it very easy and streamlined not only for employers to set up their plan but also for employees to navigate and understand what their options are.
Mylon: Like every other company, we’ve made a bet toward mobile and apps within mobile. Here it’s not so much a new development, but the pace at which mobile and apps continue to accelerate.
Also, how do you create from a big corporate culture like Schneider a culture that’s more nimble and much more employee-focused? At the end of the day, we’re trying to drive a lot of our strategies for employees to take charge of their own benefits, well-being and career development. And we can’t just do it by telling them they need to do it. As a company, we have the responsibility to provide the assets and the tools and inspiration to make sure they can do it in a good way.
Andie Burjek is a Workforce associate editor. Comment below, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.