The 2021 open enrollment season has brought a unique set of challenges.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a national health crisis, triggered a global economic downturn and created an environment in which thousands of benefits teams need to manage open enrollment almost entirely remotely.
The situation has uprooted long-standing programs many organizations rely on. In-person sessions with a benefits advisor may not be possible and detailed paper brochures on benefits will need to be adapted. Most importantly, benefits decisions are more complicated this year. Many organizations have updated their offerings, while people’s individual needs and priorities have shifted. Increased focus on education and engagement is more important than ever.
Organizations recognize the need for a new approach. According to a June survey from Mercer, roughly 58 percent of businesses surveyed said they were planning on adopting at least some changes to their open enrollment process this year.
To adapt and execute successfully, your organization will need to be creative and flexible. To help, we’ve put together five top tips on how you can facilitate an effective remote open enrollment for 2021.
Let’s dive in.
1. Communicate benefits changes with real-world connections
The significant nature of the pandemic’s effects on public health and the economy has caused some organizations to change their benefits packages. According to the Mercer survey, nearly 20 percent of respondents said they would update their benefits programs to better meet employee needs, while another 48 percent said they would continue monitoring the situation before making a decision.
If your organization is planning changes, proper communication is vital. Draw real-world connections between the changes you’re making to your benefits package and your people’s needs. For example, if you’re offering expanded telemedicine services, you can discuss the importance of seeking care while limiting contact with others during the pandemic.
Even changes to benefits not associated with open enrollment should be communicated and grounded in common experience. For example, more than half of organizations surveyed in the Mercer study said they would be adopting flexible work hours. This particularly appeals to individuals with children and other at-home needs, so be sure to draw that connection.
During this time, your organization should also plan to communicate benefits changes instituted by the federal government. Legislation and regulation have been created to help adapt benefits to the pandemic, which may affect some of your offerings. For example, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act added menstrual care products as a qualified expense, expanding the list of items eligible for payment or reimbursement by health savings accounts (HSAs), flexible spending accounts (FSAs) and health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs). The CARES Act also made buying over-the-counter medicine easier by eliminating the Affordable Care Act requirement that a prescription accompany these purchases. These changes may affect how employees view these benefits and persuade them to make different choices.
For a full overview of the federal actions affecting 2021 open enrollment, check out Open Enrollment 2021: Five Insights to Navigate Regulatory Change from HealthEquity.
2. Adapt your materials for a remote environment
Your people’s time and attention are limited in a work-from-home environment. Not only is remote communication inherently tougher to orchestrate, but individuals are working longer days and spending more time in meetings, too. According to a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the average workday lengthened by 48.5 minutes following lockdowns and the number of meetings has increased by 13 percent.
To truly communicate open enrollment information, organizations will need to cut through the noise. This likely requires a combination of proven methods and creative adaptation:
- Start with tried-and-true communication channels. Email and group messaging platforms communicate broadly to your organization and can be used to distribute materials or alert employees about upcoming events like informational webinars or virtual benefits fairs.
- Digitize your materials. Adapting paper benefits brochures to the remote environment may require you to work with your benefits providers to digitize materials. You can distribute digital brochures through email or online document-sharing platforms. If you prefer to keep paper brochures, send them to employees at their homes.
- Host informational webinars. Webinars are a good option for communicating important enrollment information. It’s best to plan these events well in advance, speak thoroughly but briefly and reserve the majority of time for question-and-answer sessions. Because of employees’ busy schedules, you may find success in offering multiple webinar times. You can also pre-record your presentation and then sign on to facilitate the question-and-answer session to save time.
- Provide multiple avenues for support. Many HealthEquity clients have found success with dedicated phone numbers or chat portals where employees can connect with their benefits team to ask specific questions and get more information on the enrollment process.
Above all, ensure employees have the time available to make decisions they feel confident about. This is not the year to settle for a one-day lunchtime event. More than ever, benefits decisions are critical to the health and happiness of employees and their families – and they need time, resources and support to evaluate and enroll in the programs that will help them achieve the greatest satisfaction.
3. select and vet the technology you'll use
With so many open enrollment activities moving online, the technology platforms you select are critical. Many organizations will wish to use webinar technology, and nearly a quarter of organizations surveyed by Mercer are planning a virtual benefits fair for open enrollment.
To ensure these activities are successful, benefits teams will need to work with partners to select and test tech platforms that bet fit their needs.
You may want webinar platforms with live chat capability, as well as recording features so you can share the presentation with individuals who can’t attend live. You should also do test-runs of important presentations with all involved personnel to make sure you understand the program and that it’s running smoothly.
Virtual benefits fairs will likely prove more difficult to orchestrate. Traditionally, these events are held in-person and feature representatives from various benefits companies who are available to answer questions and distribute materials. With online fairs, organizations will need to coordinate with their benefits providers to provide a virtual service where employees can take time from home to visit digital booths, ask questions and get needed information to support the decision-making process. Benefits providers may also need to supply digital materials, such as banners, custom webinars and brochures.
Because of the complexity of these events, your organization will likely need to work with numerous technological platforms and ensure all participants are comfortable with the capabilities. These platforms vary widely in functionality and pricing, as well as customization options. Making the event available on-demand is a valuable step that will require further coordination.
Be sure to speak with your benefits partners to understand their offerings, including decision-making tools, and how they fit with your overall open enrollment strategy before making final decisions.
4. engage with the whole family
One welcome change that comes with remote open enrollment is the opportunity to engage not just your people, but also their families.
Roughly 60 percent of Americans are married or living with a partner, and these individuals play a critical role in family benefits decisions. Yet many traditional open enrollment events and in-person benefits fairs fail to engage anyone other than the employee. With these events now taking place at home, your organization has a chance to expand its reach and include spouses, partners and family members in the conversation as well.
You can start by building targeted messages based on the family status of your people. Emails, brochures and web pages could reflect the unique circumstances and needs of individuals, partnered couples and families with children or other relatives in-house. This gives your organization the opportunity to simplify language and help your people and their families better understand how their benefits options apply to their family circumstances.
If your organization is hosting a virtual benefits fair, you can ensure families are able to participate by using inclusive language in invitations and expanding fair hours (or making the event available on-demand) so your people are able to work around their family members’ schedules.
Engaging with the whole family may even improve benefits outcomes. With more family members educated and involved with the decision-making process, it’s more likely final enrollment decisions will be beneficial ones.
5. Evaluate your performance for the future
If this year has demonstrated anything, it’s that the future is uncertain and “new normals” are being created all the time. While this open enrollment season may feel like a one-time event, your organization and your people may find it prefers virtual engagement.
To prepare for next year and beyond, document your processes and evaluate them for improvement. Take note of what worked and what didn’t, and be sure to engage your people in the process.
After open enrollment is completed, you may find it valuable to conduct an in-depth survey of employees and their families regarding their thoughts on remote open enrollment. Ask them to rate the efficacy of your activities and share what they’d like to see in the future. Be willing to engage with your people one-on-one as well, for more in-depth feedback.
With this information, you can craft an even better open enrollment next year, whether that’s an in-person experience, another remote one or a hybrid of the two.
choose a partner that's prepared to help
At HealthEquity, we’ve worked tirelessly to ensure our clients have a successful open enrollment experience this year. We’re adopting many new technologies and updating our offerings to fit our clients’ virtual benefits fairs and other new initiatives.
We've also developed an Open Enrollment Toolkit you can use to plan and execute an effective open enrollment program. Access planning strategies, on-demand webinars and a free library of resources covering common benefits.
Connect with HealthEquity to experience our end-to-end Total Solution for benefits in 2020 and beyond.
Have you had success with a particular open enrollment strategy at your organization? Let us know in the comments below!
HealthEquity does not provide legal, tax or financial advice. Always consult a professional when making life-changing decisions.
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