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Employers Ending the Paper Chase by Communicating Benefits Online

The days of distributing paper insurance contracts and summary plan descriptions are dying out as virtual fairs and quirky videos inform employees and their families about their benefits options.

May 17, 2011
Related Topics: Internet, Benefit Design and Communication, Compensation

Last fall, an employee of Affiliated Computer Services Inc. attended a benefits fair at 2 a.m.

Though he was the sole attendee, he had access to crucial benefits information, viewed presentations by his human resources representatives and could have chatted about benefits with co-workers—had any been up that late. He was attending ACS’ first virtual benefits fair, which ran 24/7 for three weeks and facilitated the enrollment of 40,000 of its employees.

“Our employees accessed benefits information, got answers to their questions and completed their enrollments online,” says Rohail Khan, managing director for total benefits outsourcing for the Norwalk, Connecticut-based information technology and business process outsourcing company. “ACS could monitor where employees searched within the virtual site for information and how long they stayed.”

Traditional benefits fairs are costly and only attracted about 11 percent of the ACS employee population in the past, Khan says.

“Our testing showed a virtual fair costs less, provides a better vehicle for employees to engage with the information, allows spouses and family members to participate and ultimately leads to more informed enrollment decisions,” he says. “We know that the future of enrollment is to engage employees and affect behavioral outcomes, and this application provided an enrollment experience that was easy to access and relevant.”

Khan says the fair was a beta test for new technology that ACS, which is owned by Xerox Corp., is offering to its clients. The new communications strategy proved extremely effective for ACS with 100 percent participation, since employees had to enroll online.

ACS is not alone in moving benefits communications to the Web. As employers begin preparations for the traditional fall benefits enrollment season, employers are increasing their use of multiple technologies to boost employee understanding of benefits options, according to consulting firm Towers Watson & Co.’s Annual Benefit Enrollment 2011 survey of 209 U.S. employers with an average of 14,232 employees.

Eighty-four percent of the companies said they used email to communicate benefits information in 2010, up from 76 percent in 2009, while 33 percent said they offered podcasts, Web-based videos or online chats.

ACS worked with Intercall, a Chicago-based conferencing service provider, to design and host the virtual fair.

“In a virtual environment, you can have company spokespeople walking around the space or manning information booths to add personality and credibility,” says Joerg Rathenberg, vice president of products at Intercall. Rathenberg says that ACS attendees were able to move in and out of the fair to the enrollment site or a call center. “The idea is to have all resources in one place, available at any time.”

The concept of engagement vs. education began evolving a decade ago with communications around consumer-driven health care plans as employees sought more information to choose their medical plan option, says Elizabeth Bierbower, chief operating officer for Humana Specialty Benefits in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Humana recently developed a series of health care videos titled Stay Smart, Stay Healthy featuring a hand that writes and pastes information on topics such as COBRA, Medicare and health savings accounts on a white board. Interactive tools allow users to tailor benefit information to their individual needs and even ask questions.

“People are visual and tech-savvy today,” Bierbower says. “Most employees use the Internet, and our mission is to educate and engage consumers about their health care and voluntary benefits by helping them relate those products to their own needs.”

Online tools and interactive calculators are helpful, but it’s important to test them on a few nonbenefits staff members to ensure all employees understand them, advises Colleen Grady, an employee benefits consultant with Longfellow Benefits, a Boston-based benefits brokerage and advisory firm.

“People are busy and may just read the first line,” Grady says. “Employees don’t find this information as interesting as do benefits professionals.”

According to MetLife’s ninth annual Study of Employee Benefits Trends released in March, 55 percent of employees polled do not believe their benefits materials are clear and comprehensive, while 25 percent are satisfied with their benefits communications. Employee suggestions for improvement include making benefits information available online, tailoring information to life events and issuing more frequent communications.

“If an employer has an employee population with a high percentage of diabetes, they may want to focus on that issue several times a year,” says John Moses, a principal in Aon Hewitt’s Bridgewater, New Jersey office. “The chance that people will hear the message, process the information and take action is greater with repetition.”

Moses says Aon Hewitt is taking a marketing approach to benefits communications.

“Our focus is on the short-term want, not the long-term need, and the employee is the hero of the story,” he says. “Logic doesn’t always sell. Telling employees to reduce their body mass index to 25 is not motivating. Telling them they will look and feel better if they lose weight is more likely to result in the desired action.”

Moses says their idea is to create the optimal mix of communications to drive employee behaviors, whether it’s exercising, saving money or eating a healthier diet.

“You do that by making it easy for employees to do the right thing, with simple, easy-to-understand information that focuses on the benefit to them.”

Workforce Management Online, May 2011 -- Register Now!

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