This article was originally published in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of Workforce Magazine.
On any given day an employee will be bombarded by hundreds of communications. There are emails, voicemails and old-school snail mail.
Slack messages pop in from customers, clients and co-workers. There are companywide communications about everything from new employees to doughnuts in the break room. At the same time there are texts from the parents about whether the dog will like its new plaid pajamas and friends asking about dinner plans via Snapchat and Facebook.
Not only are employees still expected to do their jobs through this glut of information, they’re also expected to make decisions on employer-sponsored benefits. These potentially life-altering choices on health care and retirement, employee assistance and wellness programs and even pet insurance can be complex and leave many employees confused, anxious and lacking in information.
Increasingly, HR is discovering how much communication is too much, which can leave practitioners in a dilemma when they are restrained to just a few messages to convey important information. Although difficult, it is possible to tame this delicate balance of giving employees the necessary information without overwhelming them. At a certain point, even the most vital information can become white noise, just another of 300 or so messages per day, and go undetected and ignored.
Reaching employees and engaging them in today’s always-on world is one of the key challenges that organizations have, according to Keith Kitani, CEO of GuideSpark, a software company specializing in employee communication. Part of the problem is that employees are accustomed to consuming information in a certain way in their personal lives, through short, digestible and sometimes video-based messages. Corporate communication hasn’t risen to this new bar. “Companies are competing with employees’ personal lives now,” said Kitani.
Also, many employers will send communications such as emails or newsletters with too much information, and not all of it may be relevant to an employee at a given point in time, he added. “In a noisy world, you have to think about relevance,” he said. “As more organizations think about communicating, the more they can figure out how to deliver shorter, targeted messages with relevant information.”
This may not be the company’s initial instinct, he said. Many times, companies will have an important message to send employees and they’ll tack on other less important messages. An employee may file away a piece of irrelevant information for later and never get back to it.
At a certain point, even the most vital information can become noise.
“The world is so noisy now,” said Kitani. “The reason you file away is you’re getting hit with so many pieces of information, and you pick the one that’s the most relevant and consume that one, and forget the one you weren’t ready to consume.” Being able to focus on one clear, concise focused message would serve companies better, he added.
Understanding the Value Behind Your Benefits
One area in the workplace in which communication is especially important is benefits, whether that communication is about open enrollment in the fall or a different topic during the rest of the year.
Two out of three employees said that making sense of benefits is complicated, and 75 percent said that there is some part of their benefits coverage they don’t understand, according to a recent Aflac survey of 5,000 employees.
In the health care space, “a lot of employees miss key information that comes out in advance of open enrollment, and they suffer for it in the next plan year,” said Kevin McNamara, senior enrollment strategist at The Standard, a Portland, Oregon-based insurance company. Only 8 percent of employees update their workplace benefits during open enrollment, according to the Aflac survey. The same survey found that 80 percent of people spent less than an hour researching and reviewing their benefits options.
Considering the complexity of benefits, one strategy of employee communication employers can use is being clear on the philosophy behind the benefits program from the very beginning, said Michele McDermott, senior vice president of human resources at Assurance, an insurance company based in Schaumburg, Illinois. “We share with employees the ‘why’ behind our programs, which then makes understanding the ‘what’ so much easier,” McDermott said.
For example, the company only offers a high-deductible plan with a health savings account. “We only offer the HSA because we believe in consumerism. That’s our philosophy,” she said. When the company shares that ‘why,’ it helps the employees to buy into that ‘why’ and to understand important questions like ‘What is an HSA?’ ‘What do I need to know?’ and ‘How do I use it?’ ” she added.
Explaining the “why” helps when communicating company information in the broader sense as well, according to Kitani. With any business message, if you don’t tell them that “why,” employees often won’t consume the information. He suggests following the “inspire, inform, reinforce” strategy. Start by telling the employees why it’s important to them, then tell the information.
Unfortunately, companies forget to reinforce, he added, and that can ruin a great communications strategy.
Considering the demographics of the workforce also helps guide a strategy in the right direction, according to Mark Johnson, founder and CEO of benefits management company Creative Benefit Solutions. Demographics are one prong of his four-prong strategy.
The other three prongs include creating a yearlong strategy that educates employees on the benefits offered, making the most of technology, and using social media efficiently. Together, these can help employees get the information they need to understand and find value in the plan.
Using social media is especially valuable at the start of the strategy before employees have questions, said Johnson. This can be done through usual channels like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, but businesses should also consider having an internal benefits blog in which employees could have the chance to comment and ask questions, he said. The company’s consultants and benefits team could be involved so that people get the correct information.
Johnson suggests taking a quarterly approach to benefits communication and breaking that information into bitesized chunks. A company might take one of these pieces to focus on a highly utilized benefit, such as health care or retirement, and focus on educating employees how to use that benefit as a consumer.
It might use another time to focus on an underutilized benefit. For example, it might have a workforce with many millennials who do not participate in a flexible spending account. “Target those specific nonparticipating members to try to see the value in that benefit,” Johnson said.
Alternatively, a company may have employees who sign up for extra benefits they don’t need, he added. They may end up choosing a benefit plan with a higher premium solely based off the perception that it’s the best plan for them and end up spending a lot of money on something they’re not using.
Striking that balance between cost and quality of benefits can be tricky, said Johnson. Even if employees understand the content, knowing the value is another vital piece that is sometimes not considered.
Miscommunication with employees has been around as long as there has been management. Heidi Guetzkow, national program manager, health risk solutions at Lockton Benefit Group, gave her point of view on the most common communication blunders that employers should avoid.
Don’t assume that employees are getting whatever communication you’re sending out. And do believe them when they say they don’t have the information.
Guetzkow mentioned an employer group that surveyed its employees and found that they said they did not understand the information, felt unsure how to navigate their benefits and made many comments that clearly indicated there was a communication issue. The employer responded by insisting it communicated just fine with everybody.
Meanwhile, there are ways for a company to improve an internal communication strategy. “I’ve seen employer groups create focus groups. That’s a wise choice,” said Guetzkow.
She also suggested branding your internal HR benefits communication. adding that when employees see something with a certain brand, they’ll pay more attention to it because they know it’s directly related to their benefits.
An Increasingly Complex Future
Communication is getting more complex as the types of communication increase. Looking toward the future, Kitani suggests that employers begin to think of communication as part of the employee experience, as it’s the way that employees interact with the company and the programs it offers.
“Everything has been fairly decentralized and inconsistent. A company may use different vendors like Fidelity and Aetna, and it may use different departments,” Kitani said. “One of the things [employers] should think about is how does this [communication] deliver a culturally consistent employee experience?”
Assurance already does this. The company coordinates any communication going to employees through one central internal communication person or function, said McDermott. By coordinating in this way, one party has control over the types of messages and the number of messages that go out, and employees have a center point they can rely on.
Even with this control, employees at the company still sometimes find they’re receiving too much information to take in, she added. For example, many employees are confused about events like technology changes and benefits communication. The company will consider the amount of communication going out, and if it gets to the point where it’s too much, then they’ll focus on communicating for a more current project rather than adding something else unnecessarily, said McDermott.
Don’t be afraid to delay a project, she added. Sometimes it’s necessary so not to overwhelm employees with information overload.
Having more demographics in the workforce than in times past also poses a challenge in terms of the modes of communication a company chooses, and this mix of demographics in most places isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Some people prefer information communicated to them via mail, others through text messages, and others through one of the many alternative options including email and social media, according to Heidi Guetzkow, national program manager, health risk solutions at Lockton Benefit Group.
“More than ever before, companies have to spend more time thinking about those complexities and planning for it and coming up with a solid strategy in order to best reach their employee population,” said Guetzkow. Recent changes in the health care landscape have also muddied the waters for how employers strategize their communication plan moving forward. With the introduction of the Affordable Care Act, the increasing trend of high-deductible plans and growing use of supplemental insurance, some employees don’t understand their new options, according to The Standard’s McNamara. These employees are starting at zero, he added.
“The challenge is employees who have worked 10 or 20 years at a job may really understand dental, life and disability insurance, but some of these plans they’ve never heard of before,” said McNamara, because the need wasn’t as present in the past. Employers could consider decision support tools that help employees navigate their new realm of options, including supplemental plans like critical illness and accident insurance, he added.
He cited new innovations in the decision-support tool area. The Standard, for example, did a study with employees to understand their decision-making process and how they like to learn, then developed a tool; one option of many.
“Through our analysis we build personas based on these segments of employees and their behaviors of buying benefits,” said McNamara. By asking six simple questions, the decision-support tool labels the employee with a persona and presents the same content but presented in different ways to reach different types of people. The goal is to engage employees in the first few lines and make them feel like the message is speaking to them personally.
“Maybe now instead of fading out after the first paragraph or page, they’re actually engaged, making it to the end and getting the key information they need to know,” said McNamara.