Open enrollment: How can HR succeed in a pandemic?

Snail mail, podcasts and virtual sessions all part of benefit selection and education during the pandemic.
By: | October 6, 2020 • 7 min read
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Open enrollment is already a complicated, high-stress time for HR and benefits leaders. Employees, confused and frustrated by their choices, historically spend little time choosing benefits. Most don’t research their options even though they aren’t literate on benefits, leaving employers struggling to make a significant impact.

But add to that a largely remote workforce and a global pandemic that’s making not just health offerings, but an array of benefits, critical, and those challenges are even greater—making this year’s open enrollment more high-stakes than ever.

Misty Guinn

“We’re used to walking a tightrope of mitigating increasing healthcare costs and still serving the total wellbeing of our employees,” says Misty Guinn, director of benefits and wellness at Benefitfocus. “But right now it’s an earthquake of, ‘We’re not just balancing; we’re trying to create that sense of trust.’ It’s employers that [employees are] expecting to take care of them and give them the right guidance on how to survive. We have that responsibility on our shoulders.”

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With that in mind, how can leaders better educate and encourage employees about benefits—particularly given that workers traditionally don’t care about them all that much? And how do they do that virtually?

New Approaches to Enrollment

Some HR and benefits leaders are getting creative with solutions and creating a plan for an enrollment period unlike any other.

“Because we are in this new virtual world, we can’t rely on the banners that used to be outside our building or the fliers that were in the elevators or the drive-bys in the HR department—just the questions and the watercooler conversations,” Guinn says. “We have to create those in this new world.”

About one in five (21%) organizations has made changes to its open enrollment procedures because of the pandemic, and nearly all the changes involve shifting from in-person to virtual, according to research from the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans.

Many organizations have canceled in-person meetings and benefit fairs or made them virtual, says Julie Stich, the group’s vice president of content. Some are replacing printed posters and signs with emails and sending information to participants’ homes. Others are developing videos or more interactive websites to educate workers about choices and the open enrollment process.

For her part, 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 the vendors associated with each product to give employees an idea of how they work and how they can improve their lives.

“It’s a banner time to remind people of all the great things they have to take advantage of,” she says. “I think associates like hearing it that way. In the benefits world, we tend to use so much jargon.”

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.”

Benefitfocus also is hosting virtual office hours this year, in a Zoom room, where employees can stop by to ask benefit and HR reps about offerings and open enrollment. And its digital benefits platform is available any time online.

Betty Thompson

Booz Allen Hamilton, which has roughly 27,000 employees nationwide, already has a heavy focus on virtual ways of engaging workers during enrollment, including webinars, conference calls and emails, and the company will continue to invest in those resources this year, as most of its employees are now working remotely, says Betty Thompson, the company’s executive vice president and chief people officer.

One thing the consulting firm is doing differently this year is getting more employees involved in open enrollment. They’re ramping up training on benefits for all managers, for instance, “so that everyone is more knowledgeable,” Thompson says. “Instead of having the 10 people on the benefits team have to carry all the messaging, we are including a broader base.” That’s especially vital for managers, she says, because the firm’s data has found that employees are more likely to listen to their supervisors.

More employers this year, including Booz Allen Hamilton, also 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,” Thompson says. “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.”

Home mailings also are important this year to make sure the information gets in front of spouses and partners. “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. Maybe they weren’t covering their spouse or children, [and] they might make that change,” Guinn says.

“It’s a family decision. It’s not just the employee that needs to be knowledgeable or thinking about these things,” says Thompson.

‘Employees are Listening’

This year’s open enrollment is all about messaging and making sure employees are keenly aware of benefits that can help them through one of the most stressful and tumultuous times in history. That’s a far cry from recent years when benefits were primarily seen as a key differentiator in a hot job market.

“It’s no longer just a war on talent; it’s really about being able to just survive,” Guinn says.

To that end, employers are touting the benefits they feel are more vital to their workforce—even if they aren’t benefits that employees need to enroll in during open enrollment (an employee assistance program or caregiving resources, for example).

Booz Allen Hamilton, in particular, is touting its mental health programs, which include an employee assistance program, parental mental health support and digital meditation. That’s an especially important focus as mental health conditions rise at an alarming rate due to the pandemic. “It’s on everyone’s radar,” Thompson says. “We are going to communicate and focus on mental health because they’ll be paying attention. We don’t want to add to the noise; we want to focus it on mental health.”

Related: Depression risk is soaring for workers. How can HR help?

Benefitfocus’ Guinn says she expects more use of certain voluntary and supplemental benefits that may help protect employees’ finances, which can be more fragile during a pandemic. Benefits such as pet insurance and identity theft insurance will be important focus points during the company’s enrollment.

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.”

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Some good news: Prudential research finds that the pandemic is driving a significantly higher number of workers to report an increase in the value they place on the employer benefits, including a double-digit increase in how likely they are to remain at a job based on non-health benefits such as retirement savings, disability insurance, life insurance and other tools to help alleviate financial stress.

“The dangers of an ‘It won’t happen to me’ mentality are now very clear, and employees are placing greater value on benefits because they are more aware of how these benefits can help them during a life event, including paying for high, out-of-pocket medical costs and hospital visits,” Welsh says.

The fact that employees are listening is an opportunity HR and benefits leaders don’t want to waste.

“We always say in benefits it’s not a one-size-fits-all. But now that saying has [never] held more truth,” Guinn says. “People are going to remember this time more than ever. And going into open enrollment, they are going to remember how we responded.”

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.