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7 open enrollment tips for 2020

How can HR and benefit leaders succeed in educating employees during a pandemic? Here are some ideas.
By: | October 19, 2020 • 4 min read
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Open enrollment is always an important time for benefit and HR leaders. But during the pandemic, the annual event is even more vital than ever because of the important role benefits play during such a tumultuous time.

“This is an especially important year, not because of COVID-19 itself, but rather due to the economic situation the pandemic has caused,” says Kevin Robertson, SVP and chief revenue officer at HSA Bank. “[But] with challenge comes opportunity, and this year could represent a turning point in open enrollment effectiveness—both because employers are forced to rethink the delivery of their open enrollment efforts and because employee engagement level will be heightened.”

Related: Open enrollment: How can HR succeed in a pandemic?

That means it’s imperative for employers to capitalize on the increased opportunity and to prioritize open enrollment and step up their efforts to best inform employees and help them make the right decisions. So what exactly can employers do? Here are some strategies.

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Go virtual. With COVID-19 prompting the majority of the workforce to go remote, enrollment will have to primarily follow suit and go virtual. “Many organizations have canceled in-person meetings and benefit fairs or made them virtual,” says Julie Stich, vice president of content of the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. Some are replacing printed posters and signs with emails and sending information to participants’ homes, while others are developing videos or more interactive websites to educate workers about choices and the open enrollment process.

Meanwhile, employers should also consider different generational needs and understandings before deciding how to approach virtual communication and engagement, Robertson adds. “For example, Gen Z or millennials may find a video or graphic particularly engaging, while a Gen X or baby boomer may prefer small group webinar discussions or even a one-on-one Zoom meeting,” he says.

Step up communication. Employees tend to select the same benefits year after year. This year, though, with markedly different working and living situations, that will likely change, says Leston Welsh, head of business segments at Prudential Group Insurance. That means “employees will need better information and more time to analyze how a different set of benefits may be better suited for their new normal,” he says. “A different hierarchy of benefits may be driven not only by a heightened awareness of what benefits are offered, but also by an understanding of how today’s environment impacts what is offered and how these solutions address new and different needs. Communications should address all three.”

Tout important benefits—even ones employees don’t need to select. COVID-19 is putting into focus a variety of important employee needs. While benefits like comprehensive healthcare coverage, critical illness, life insurance and disability insurance are, of course, important to mention during enrollment because employees need to select coverage, employers should also communicate other offerings that are in the spotlight during the pandemic. Those include offerings like mental health coverage, caregiving support and financial wellness programs—all benefits that a growing number of employers are turning to. While employees don’t have to enroll in many of those offerings, enrollment is a good time for employees to be reminded of them.

Involve employees’ families. Employers should make a concerted effort to encourage employees to involve other decision makers at home about benefit choices—especially because more employees’ dependents may be covered. “This open enrollment, more so than ever, will be where we see the family unit come up because of the large amounts of layoffs and unemployment,” says Misty Guinn, director of benefits and wellness at Benefitfocus. “Maybe they weren’t covering their spouse or children, [and] they might make that change.”

Use simple language and imagery that speaks to employees. “It’s really important for employers to remember the impact the pandemic has had on people—higher stress, health worries, economic worry,” Robertson says. “With this in mind, it’s important that information is being shared in a way that’s easy to digest and understand, especially within the context of people’s high-stress and busy lives.” Employers should be deliberate about trying to “walk in their employees’ shoes” when they craft their delivery by understanding their unique needs, worries and priorities.

Get creative. Benefitfocus’ Guinn recorded more than a dozen podcasts about different benefits the company offers to employees to educate them on offerings. Those include core benefits like medical, dental and vision, as well as perks such as pet insurance, financial wellness and company-sponsored benefits that employees don’t need to enroll in, like caregiving resources through provider Cariloop. For the podcasts, she interviewed vendors associated with each product to give employees an idea of how they work and how they can improve their lives. Guinn keeps the podcasts short, between 10-15 minutes, because “I want to encourage people to [listen while they] take their dog on a walk or while they’re folding laundry or cooking dinner; get up away from a screen.”

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Don’t ignore home mailings. Going back to basics with communication is a strategy to consider. Employers including Booz Allen Hamilton are investing in home mailings that include information on different health plans, costs, available resources, incentives and more. “There’s not as much junk mail in your mailbox these days,” says Betty Thompson, Booz Allen Hamilton’s executive vice president and chief people officer. “All the junk mail is in your virtual mailbox. So we think [this approach] gets a little more tangible. You can touch it; you can look at pictures; you can come back and look … I can’t tell you how many emails I open that I forget to go back to.”

Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver. She can be reached at kmayer@lrp.com.

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