By: Samantha Grunfeld, Director of Strategy and Engagement, GuideSpark
Many of you are furiously finalizing open enrollment plans toward the end of 2020, a year unlike any other, when all businesses have been grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic. But what does the pandemic mean for HR departments? It means, at the very least, you’ll need to rethink your communications strategy, and the types of messages sent out to your workforce to ensure that employees are both reached and engaged. What may have worked in years past – posters, benefits fairs, and brochures – simply in our changed world. Now is the time to embrace the situation we’re in, and leverage the power of digital communications to create a better employee experience during open enrollment.
Communication is critical during these uncertain times, and now more than ever, employees need to have a clear understanding of the benefits that are available to them. Many are asking for more information as they juggle new challenges, like working from home with the added responsibility of homeschooling children or managing their now-remote school work. You can use this moment in time, along with its enhanced focus on benefits, to educate your eager audience about their options.
It’s (relatively) easy to take a brochure and turn it digital, or take a health fair and make it virtual; but how can we efficiently engage employees if we can’t be in the same room to ask questions or hold conversations? Use these five best practices to craft an effective, strategic communications plan for this upcoming open enrollment.
1. Reach employees where they are
Convenience matters! Make it easy for employees, wherever they’re located, to find OE announcements, materials, and resources. Widely dispersed employees demand multiple distribution channels. For instance, frontline workers who are constantly in motion likely have a cellphone available, and can be reached via SMS text messages. Other employees who are working from laptops, whether at home or in the workplace, might prefer a Slack or MS Teams channel for OE announcements and directions, in addition to more traditional email messaging. Is it time to bring back print communications you might have shied away from in recent years? Reconsider using physical brochures and print mailings to employees – with so many now working from home, this is still a viable mode of communication. And, of course, bring events online! This will allow employees to see each other and interact with HR and their peers – adding a personal touch to a virtual forum.
2. Tailor information to employees’ needs
If there’s one thing we know, it’s that one-size-fits-all messaging does not work! Your employees are not all the same; they have unique needs and preferences based on demographics, such as age, job role, education, and office/home office locations. They are at different life stages, some maybe just graduated from college, others are starting a family, while some may be considering retirement. Providing one general message likely won’t resonate with all of your diverse employees, or generate interest in specific, targeted programs; which means your workforce could end up missing important announcements and information about the benefits most relevant for them.
Break your workforce down into applicable audience groups, and create the right messaging for each group. For instance, when publishing information about life insurance programs, think of the differing needs for this benefit across your workforce, depending on the stage of each individual. Another example: when driving high deductible health plan (HDHP) enrollment, employees previously enrolled in those programs understand them well. But, employees who are new to HDHPs will need more step-by-step instruction and explanation about the pros and cons of enrolling in one.
Research indicates that advertising verbiage tailored for specific groups of consumers is more likely to be read and acted upon than standard messaging used across the board, and the same is true for workplace communications. Audience segmentation is critical, bringing the right information, at the right time, to the right group of individuals.
Along these same lines, style and tone matter when crafting specific messages for different employee groups, as does the sender or the source. An email using an executive’s name might garner a higher open rate than one from a department’s alias. Likewise, using terminology that is relatable to the employee group can make a big difference. If we look at our previous example about HDHP enrollment and reaching an audience that has never signed up for an HDHP before, tailor the language of the message to use terms and expressions that will be more applicable and easily accessible for that group.
3. Communicate frequently
Employees are super busy. New metrics from a recent Microsoft study show that working hours for many have actually increased, including a spike in weekend work as norms are shifting around how we work in this new world. Consider that many of your employees are working from a home office, potentially with children in the background. Many might be competing for office space with a spouse or roommates! These days, there are more distractions for employees than ever before, and you don’t want important information about OE to get lost in the shuffle.
While we all should be thoughtful when it comes to the immense amount of communications employees are receiving these days, we also know that traditional one-and-done emails are not going to cut through the noise to reach your audience. Many are feeling overloaded with information and are experiencing exhaustion or confusion when they seek out answers. To bolster any standalone OE communications, try incorporating OE messages into existing touchpoints, like weekly newsletters, to reach employees through a channel that they routinely view or visit. Although specific OE outreach and messaging will still be necessary, utilizing other well-known channels to support your efforts will give you a better chance of getting employees the important benefits information they need.
Communication orchestration has never been more important than it is right now – just ask your communications team! Strategizing around the various messages that may be delivered to employees during the same OE period – and shifting the timing for competing messages where possible – can allow critical OE messages to garner the focused employee attention they deserve.
4. Promote key programs that are especially relevant
Be clear and upfront about the challenges COVID-19 presents for your company and its employees. Make sure that critical information, such as testing in the area, return to work guidelines, and procedures for employees in the field, are well documented and distributed to the workforce as part of your benefits communications. OE is a great time for companies to show how much they care for and support their employees with perks and programs such as mental health resources, wellness programs, or employee assistance programs. Reminding employees of all that’s available to them through the company will help to reinforce the trust between your organization and your workforce, especially during this difficult time.
5. Measure and iterate
It’s not enough to build and distribute your OE messages – you also need to ensure your communications are getting through! Delivery does not mean that actual communication has taken place. To ensure your messages are resonating, you’ll need to utilize measurement and data. Use poll questions and rating scales to gauge how well employees are digesting benefits information. Recommend additional information based on the responses you receive. Track employee engagement with your messages by monitoring email opens, video plays, content downloads, and webpage visits, among others. And of course, track enrollment numbers across all your benefits programs as an important barometer of success.
If you find that your employees lack important understanding of where to find materials, or of certain program information, that can be a strong indicator that messaging needs to change or additional reinforcement is needed. Make rolling changes to your communication plan based on what you’re seeing. Set clear milestones for your communication efforts and review on a periodic basis, such as once every couple days during the OE period. At each checkpoint, ask yourself: Are you on track to reach enrollment goals? Are there patterns to the questions you are receiving? How can you adjust subsequent messages to address these issues and show employees that you are listening?
And remember: don’t lose momentum after OE has ended! Throughout the year, continue to emphasize different benefits programs and work to turn your employees into smart benefits consumers year-round. Plot quarterly communications that remind employees of important plans, opt-in/opt-out opportunities, and other ways to use their benefits.
As you strategize your game plan for this open enrollment, be sensitive to the fact that employees may be suffering from message fatigue due to the sheer numbers of emails, texts, and chat requests they receive every day. But remember, this potential fatigue does not mean that you should stop communicating; you’ll just need to be smart and efficient when it comes to the methods you use. Spend time crafting a strong communication strategy for OE this year, with plans to use audience segmentation and tailored messaging to reach and engage with different groups of employees. As always, it’s important to get information about benefits changes out to the workforce, but also to be thoughtful about your tactics and to remind people, during these uncertain times, about available resources for mitigating stress and balancing a changed work/life balance. By rethinking the OE experience in our new, digital environment, you can drive both successful enrollment numbers and the sense of support and transparency we all need right now.