Benefit programs can be confusing for many employees, but they are a key factor in recruiting and retaining employees. Research shows only 19.3 percent of employees report a "somewhat high" or "very high" understanding of their benefits, while other research indicates employee attitudes toward benefits programs correlates with commitment and engagement.
Developing an effective benefits communications strategy can create a competitive advantage for attracting and retaining employees, but it's easier said than done. It's often challenging getting employees to read internal communications about benefits programs and filling out the correct forms.
Although benefits communications is difficult, developing the right programs is worth it. According to SHRM's 2018 Employee Benefits Survey, "How benefits are communicated to talent may be the difference in whether a program is successful in impacting recruitment and retention, has no effect, or is even detrimental." In a candidate-driven job market, companies need to strategically design and effectively promote their competitive benefits packages.
Why employee engagement matters during open enrollment
If you help write benefits copy for your company, you're probably familiar with open enrollment, a window of time when employees can add, drop or make changes to their coverage. For calendar-year plans that start on January 1, open enrollment usually begins in November.
When you reflect on previous open enrollment communications strategies, do you know which strategies worked and which ones didn't? If you didn't record what worked and what didn't, it can be difficult to make the improvements necessary to increase employee engagement and participation. Worse yet, given that many benefits programs remain the same year to year, you may arbitrarily deploy the same strategies and send the same messages each year, even if they're not particularly successful.
Since benefits work to retain top talent, gathering open enrollment engagement data is critical. This engagement data can help your team better meet employee needs. For example, when your HR and communications departments work together to segment employee audiences and explain healthcare options and retirement programs in an easy-to-understand way, more employees identify the plan that meets their needs.
Since 78 percent of employees say employer-provided health insurance impacts their choice to stay at their current job, helping employees understand their health plan options can positively impact retention. In addition to influencing retention, when you engage employees with more effective benefits communications, you accomplish some important objectives:
- Minimize the number of employees who miss open enrollment
- Simplify the benefits selection process and help prevent employees from feeling overwhelmed
- Move beyond enrollment logistics to strengthen comprehension and influence attitudes
- Prevent top talent from being lured away by competitors with flashy benefits – benefits that you might actually offer to some degree but fail to communicate
To increase employee participation, enrollment and engagement, you have to communicate. You can use communication measurement data to inform what you need to communicate and how often. Here are four key ways to measure employee engagement during open enrollment:
1. Create messages for targeted audiences and set objectives. Some employees are brand new to your benefits and enrollment process, while others may have been active participants for years. These groups need different forms and styles of communication. Often, employees participate in some benefits and not others. Knowing these groups – and acquiring segmented lists from your HR system – you can design targeted communications, provide the right level of education, and increase participation.
2. Track communications activity. Email opens, page-views, read-times and click-through rates are important benchmarks during open enrollment. Email is an integral part of any benefits communications program, because you can directly target your lists and follow-up based on recipient behavior. By tracking open, read, and click rates, you can gain insight on preferred content, cadence and quantity, and understand which messages drive actions.
3. Survey during and after the open enrollment process. As part of your campaign, ask employees, "Was this helpful to you?" In addition to email metrics, a simple survey can be a good way to determine which communications were effective and which ones fell flat. You may ask employees to rank the resources and presentations they received on a scale of 1 to 5, least helpful to most helpful.
4. Conduct post-enrollment analysis. As in the beginning, the HR and communications teams should collaborate to pull lists and measure participation. Combining communication timelines with enrollment completion dates (or form abandonments) will highlight which communications programs are most effective. Counts of participation, before and after, will tell you if you hit your outcome targets.
When possible, use actual employee stories and their own words to explain how your benefits work and why employees participate at the level they do. Given enrollment deadlines, many communications are reminders to take action, but also take time to explain things in a different way. Some people may understand the details and simply put off taking action; others may need more information before they make a decision.
And rather than sending out the typical email deadline reminder, you might ask a series of three questions to assess employee understanding of a benefit program. Use those results to provide links for more information or encourage them to complete a process. By measuring which content was viewed as most helpful and which wasn't, you can adjust your content for next year.
Measure engagement: Your data-informed strategy depends on it
Employers spend significant time and money to make sure employees have the best benefits, because they want their employees to be happy and healthy. During open enrollment season – and throughout the year – it's crucial to communicate with employees and measure engagement. By measuring employee engagement, you can understand what drives participation and make better data-informed decisions about benefits communications.