Trying to successfully communicate with employees has always been one of the biggest challenges for the executives in charge of HR and benefit plans. Getting workers to pay attention to open enrollment messages, in particular, has been a huge obstacle. That’s due to an overload of information, endless emails and the fact that the subject matter is often difficult to understand.
In fact, a just-released survey of more than 400 employers by SourceMedia Research (which, like EBN, is part of SourceMedia), found the 70% of respondents were struggling to prepare their communications strategies for the open enrollment periods that begin at the end of the year.
And this job isn’t going to get any easier.
More employees are working from home or remotely, sometimes making it difficult for HR to connect with them. And the influx of cellphone- and social media-addicted millennials — there are 75 million in the workforce today and the number is growing rapidly — means many traditional email and print communication methods are quickly becoming obsolete.
However, employers such as Aon, BlackRock, Formstack and Fujifilm are deploying innovative strategies, often based on the latest technology trends, such as gamification, to break down these employee communication barriers. What follows is a look at the novel approaches these organizations are using to connect with their staffs.
Communication by segmentation
In a technology-driven world, employees can easily dismiss HR communications, especially if the information is simply posted on a website or sent out in an email blast. And if the dispatch doesn’t clearly signal that the information directly relates to them, chances are most employees will simply ignore the missive.
But segmentation — targeting employees based on specific demographics — creates specific communications that are personal, even vital, to each staff member, experts say.
Segmentation strategies helped asset manager BlackRock communicate with employees who weren’t maximizing the company’s 401(k) match. A segment of the population was not contributing as much as they could to their 401(k) retirement plans, so BlackRock partnered with its record keeper, Merrill Lynch, to send out targeted communications.
Using Merrill Lynch’s records, BlackRock identified employees who were not projected to get the full company match in 2016, according to the company.
BlackRock sent out emails with the subject line “Get the full match” that contained a single sign-on link, which directed participants to a webpage to make contribution changes with just a couple of clicks. It also created a pop-up message to remind targeted employees every time they logged in that they weren’t maximizing the company match.
After three months, 26% of the targeted group increased their 401(k) savings rate, with a quarter of those participants increasing their deferral rates to 8% or more, which would allow them to get a full match from the company, BlackRock says. The company matches 50% of contributions up to 8% of eligible pay, with an annual cap of $5,000.
“We were pleasantly surprised that our response rate and that many recipients took action, going into their 401(k) accounts and changing their own contribution to maximize the BlackRock match,” says Jennifer Lee, global head of benefits at BlackRock.
Aon — the insurance giant with about 50,000 global employees — also relies on segmentation, which helps it determine the ideal format for benefit communication.
“In this high-tech world, you might think paper was going to be dead,” says Kate Sanderson, Aon’s global head of total rewards and HR shared services. “But we’ve actually continued with some of the high-impact mailers to people’s homes because we realized that the population that we’re trying to target is not just the colleagues but also a spouse or a partner.”
Although Sanderson communicates with Aon’s employees through multiple channels, including mailers, webinars and text messaging, workers are given the choice to opt in to certain channels through indicating their preferences in their online profile.
“Some respond to a quick text reminder, others want a webinar with the chance to ask questions, and others want that same information on demand as they are completing a benefit-related task,” Sanderson says.
Likewise, she says, employees choose if they want to attend in-person or web-based info sessions.
Employees who opt into text messaging are likely to receive one or two communications a month compared to less frequent email and physical communications throughout the year. Sanderson says communication ramps up around Q4’s open enrollment time when it will be most effective.
“Our multi-channel approach has improved communication because we are meeting our colleagues and their families where they are and taking into account that individuals want to receive information in different ways,” she says. “Our approach appears to be working, as post-enrollment surveys indicate a high level of satisfaction with the tools, resources and information provided.”
Employees are more likely to participate in benefits communication when they can choose which communication methods work best for them, experts say.
Different tools at data management company Formstack have helped both the HR department and other employees communicate more efficiently.
One tool is an internal wiki based on the Confluence collaborative content software package from Atlassian. The remote, 82-person staff at Formstack is able to log in to Confluence to submit reimbursement and time cards, request snacks and equipment and submit feedback, says HR Director Miranda Nicholson.
While the wiki helps Formstack employees in countries like Mexico, the Netherlands and Argentina work on projects together, the system also lets Formstack’s HR team easily communicate and engage employees, says Nicholson.
“A lot of times my team will pull some feedback from the organization: How did this initiative go? How was this communication received? Is there anything we can do to improve?” she says. “That’s really important for us, especially with communication, really fine-tuning it because it does change over time. We need to address the needs of new individuals that come on board and not always think, ‘It used to work, so it’s going to always work.’”
Nicholson says that before she began involving employees in the process, her communication efforts usually went unnoticed. Messages reminding employees to enroll or waive their benefits during open enrollment often went unread.
“When you need to send 15 emails to get that accomplished, you realize something needs to change,” she says.
It also is important to make sure employees are receiving communications at times that are opportune for them, she says.
Since Nicholson took over benefit communications at Formstack in October, she has leveraged technology to help reach employees across the globe. Personally, Nicholson uses Boomerang, a scheduling app, to send out emails to employees on three continents at the same time, say 10 a.m., regardless of time zone. The strategy is to standardize when every employee, regardless of location, receives the benefit communication during working hours.
“That includes understanding who else in that organization might need to communicate things and trying to time that in a way that you’re not doubling up or your information’s not getting lost,” says Nicholson.
When it comes to communicating benefits, experts stress the importance of understanding employees’ varied backgrounds and perspectives.
For Carolyn Gordon, director of benefits at Japanese imaging company Fujifilm, the new workforce of millennial employees required a different communication strategy.
“We do see with the millennials that we have to have more conversations with them because they’re not as familiar with the workforce and the way some of these programs work and what they do,” she says. “We get that you probably won’t be here forever, but these are good lessons for you, to carry with you, about saving for when you are older or building up your HSA.”
Beyond generational gaps, experts say benefits should be communicated not only by various methods but also in different formats.
Videos and slideshows are popular methods for communicating, and sometimes nothing beats a physical explanation of benefits copy.
At Blackrock, Lee communicates with 13,000 employees in 30 countries over the course of the year through webinars, email communications, the company’s Intranet, and in-person orientations and meetings.
When open enrollment occurs in the fourth quarter, BlackRock hosts webinars to guide employees through the process and answer any questions they might have, Lee says.
She also found that dropping a physical copy of the company’s annual benefits overview on every desk helped employees understand their plans better. A digital copy of the pamphlet is also available on BlackRock’s Intranet for instant access, along with tips and “Did you know?” articles.
“We received rave reviews on the booklet, and many employees praised it for clearly drawing their attention to benefits they weren’t previously aware of,” Lee says.
Meanwhile, the firm will visually display benefits communication by adding banners across the bottom of more than 200 TVs in common spaces and desktop screen savers featuring calls-to-action around things such as open enrollment, she says.
Gaming gets serious
Most leading HR professionals who follow best practices found that technology aids their employees when it comes to benefits enrollment.
Embedding plan information within various communications helps employees navigate their benefits better, experts say. For example, employees need to navigate open enrollment with a working knowledge of acronyms like HSAs and HDHPs and what they mean.
So Nicholson worked with Formstack’s insurance management team to create a one-page explainer of benefit terms and their definitions and broke down plan costs, which was distributed to employees prior to an information session.
Nicholson uploaded the explainer to Confluence for employees to access when it came time to waiving or enrolling in their benefits as well. Additionally, when Aon employees are selecting their benefits, they can hover their mouse over certain terms, such as a PPO or deductible, for an explainer of what those terms mean.
“You could just go, with no reading in advance, through decision support and communication and information that’s integrated and embedded in our annual enrollment process,” says Sanderson. “You would still be able to make informed decisions and choices in a short window of time but you wouldn’t need to collect information first.”
The platform itself can make all the difference to both employees and employers.
One of the biggest technology trends these days is gamification. Not too long ago, Fujifilm brought in HR technology company Airbo’s employee communication platform to better engage its employees. Today, about 80% of employees use the technology each quarter, according to the company.
The system was initially rolled out to a plant location outside of Boston, and Fujifilm reported that right off the bat nearly 70% of employees participated, even those who are less tech-savvy or spoke little-to-no English, according to the company.
Gordon improved health assessment rates by leveraging a tiles game in Airbo, created in collaboration with HR consulting firm Willis Towers Watson.
Through a series of pictures with questions, Gordon can program the tiles to inform employees about any topic, such as preventative care or nutrition.
By asking a series of questions — When was your last visit? Do you know you have $100 in incentives to put toward health costs? — Fujifilm’s 5,000 employees can “play” the game to win a prize at the end of the quarter.
“Middle-aged women in their late forties, early fifties actually play the game more than some of the younger people,” says Gordon. “We’re still trying to figure out the segmenting and what works.”
And the gaming strategy seems to be a real winner.
For example, during Fujifilm’s most recent open enrollment, where the company transitioned its PPO to a high deductible health plan, 99.6% of 5,000 employees selected or waived benefits by the end of the two-week deadline through Airbo, says Gordon.
“We try to use Airbo to link back to whatever kind of communication we’re doing so people can engage that way as well,” Gordon says. “It’s been a great tool because it also embeds all the other broader communications or things that we’re trying to do.”
Using online gaming strategies, Gordon says she was able to improve companywide health assessment completion rates from 17% to 54%, which helped the company save more than $5 million of its $565 million medical budget.
Since Fujifilm changed the way it communicates with employees about their benefits, 91% of workers who responded to a survey said they have a greater appreciation for their benefits, according to the company.
“It’s not just about open enrollment,” Gordon says. “It’s about all the things that lead up to it.”