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4 Steps to Hit the Mark for Open Enrollment

Is the benefits information you have to tell employees important before and during Open Enrollment? You bet! Easily understood? Not always. 

According to the latest MetLife employee benefits trends, close to 90% of employers believe their benefits are clear and easy to understand. Yet only 65% of employees (only 56% Gen Z) agree. 

Uncomplicating the complicated is not an easy task, but it’s well worth the effort. Employees who better understand their benefits are ones who better appreciate the benefits they have. 

Let’s look at 4 steps to help supercharge your Open Enrollment communications strategy.

Step 1: Know Your Audience

For HR, this means not just thinking about employees. Think like employees. Heck, you are an employee.

When Open Enrollment season hits, chances are you’ll be making some decisions about your benefits. Just like all the other employees. What (and who) are you thinking about when you’re comparing options? Your family? Your health? The costs? The coverage? Yep…just like all the other employees.

If you can hold on to that “employee to employee” connection when you’re communicating to them about benefits, you’re more likely to create understandable, compelling communications. Make your messages relatable and relevant, with a hint of emotion.

Relatable – We’re all people. We can empathize with each other. Remember this when you communicate to employees. Make an emotional connection. That’s how you get employees to engage.

What does that mean? For example, many employees have families they love, and so do you. And you all want the best benefits you can get for them. Relay that feeling.

Relevant – Present information from the employees’ points of view, not the company’s. Avoid touting your company’s awesomeness (“We’ve added a great new dental plan”). Talk more about why it matters to them (“You have more dentists to choose from in the new plan”). Instead of saying, “We have a new enrollment system,” say, “You can enroll faster and easier with our new enrollment system.”

Keep the message conversational, too. If you were talking to a colleague, how would you get your message across? Probably not in a verbose, run-on sentence with oodles of detail. 

Step 2: Plan Bite-Size Information

If you’re sending a firehose flow of information two weeks prior to Open Enrollment, employees will not absorb everything you’re telling them. Try starting communications about six to eight weeks prior to your OE start date, especially if you’re making major changes

Strive for a slow drip campaign that feeds bite-size bits of information. A sample campaign for a late October enrollment may look like this…

Late August

  • Teaser/kick-off announcements
  • Watch for what’s to come messaging
  • Training webinar for leaders and HR partners

September

  • Weekly or bi-weekly communications with chunks of information
  • Home mailer with highlights and a few important details
  • Portal/website or interactive guide with a deeper dive into info, tools, and resources

Mid-October

  • Meetings, webinars, and benefits sessions
  • Displays for enrollment to-do’s and timing
  • Weekly reminders to enroll (first day, one week left, last day)

To get the word out, a wide variety of channels is best. But when it comes to education, a Colonial Life Employee Enrollment Survey (via Unum) shows how employees rank their three top choices: benefits portal or website, in-person counseling session, or printed materials.

Step 3: Stay on Point!

When you start crafting your Open Enrollment communications this year, remember that employees:

  • Check their phones 150 times a day
  • Check email 30 times an hour
  • And are still trying to do their jobs

Competition for their attention is fierce. How do you break through the distractions, buzzing and beeping all around them? 

Diligently.

You must spend time considering the message you’re putting out there. Is it going to drive the results you’re hoping for? The key is to build messaging super-focused on achieving that objective. Avoid filling headspace or airwaves with any other content — stick to information employees need to know to make the decision at hand.

Also, our brains don’t want to work hard at processing information. Keep content easy-to-read and scannable. 

  • Short sentences (14 words or less)
  • Short paragraphs (3 sentences or less) 
  • Eighth-grade reading level
  • “Chunked-out” content with subheads (bite-size)
  • Lots of “you” and “your” and less “we”
  • Human language — no acronyms and other benefit geek speak

Don’t be afraid to use phrases and incomplete sentences. No, really. (See what we did there?) It goes against everything you learned in grammar class but write like you talk. Employees will trust it more, as they read it like a conversation.

One last trick — after you’ve created your first draft, cut the amount of text in half. Get rid of any sentences that are repetitive or words that don’t help employees understand your message.

It may be interesting, amusing, or truly relevant, but if it’s not essential, it’s just brain clutter.

Step 4: Don’t Bury the Bad News

They may not like bad news — but they’ll like it even less when they find it hidden among other news. Employees are adults. They can adapt to change if you’re upfront, honest, and help them through it.

Rip off the band-aid. Give them the “why” of the situation through consistent and continuous communications.

  • Tell the same story, the same way, and tell it often
  • Provide a specific date when they’ll know more
  • Be honest and open (or transparent if you speak HR)

Are rates increasing? Probably because the company’s costs keep increasing. Explain that to employees. “U.S. health care costs are expected to rise 10-15 percent this year, but we’re keeping your increase lower, at only 6 percent.”

It’s Time to Change Things Up

HR professionals tend to be criticized for overexplaining and using confusing terms that make benefits hard to understand. We know why that happens, and we get it. 

Put in the work now so you can achieve effective, results-generating communications. Communications that have higher employee engagement. But put yourself in employee shoes when you communicate. Wait…you’re wearing employee shoes.

The Real Reason Your Benefits Communications Have It Backward

Successful benefits communications is an issue almost every company struggles with. We see it every day in our work, and we read about it often in publications and on sites just like this.

Most companies focus the bulk of their benefits communications on facts: The cost of your plan. How voluntary products mesh with medical coverage. The likelihood of experiencing a covered condition. Most benefit communications are littered with these numbers and details, all in an effort to help employees make informed decisions when it comes to their voluntary benefits. Then, once we state this information, we try to make it personal and add an emotional appeal.

Except most of these companies have it completely backward.

At Trustmark we recently shared research that found employees prefer the opposite of how many of us have approached benefit communications. It turns out that employees are responding and acting based more on emotional cues than factual ones.

Are you surprised? I was, until I started delving further into the research.

Our research found that 40 percent of employees said the primary reason they enrolled in benefits was “It’s important to have peace of mind.” Another 25 percent said “It’s the responsible thing to do.” Employees are making benefits choices with their hearts, not their minds. It’s a shift that benefits and HR professionals need to start taking into consideration as they develop communications plans for the upcoming enrollment season.

Our research also found that only 13 percent of employees cite the details of their insurance plan as their primary reason for enrollment. And just 18 percent of those polled said that liking the details of the plan was even a factor in their decision.

What’s happening here seems fairly obvious: Employees are making benefits-purchasing decisions based on emotions. Sure, facts still matter when it comes to communicating with employees about benefits, but they just aren’t the key reasons anyone is enrolling anymore.

In fact, the deeper you get into the specifics related to health care, the less it appears to resonate.

Only 7 percent of employees said the “medical gap” was the reason they enrolled in voluntary benefits. This has been a message the insurance industry has focused on for years. But now, it seems, that message is not resonating with employees. And it’s most likely another reason most benefits communications are failing to truly reach employees.

The bigger picture is this: Employees are making benefits-purchase decisions the same way they make other purchase decisions — with emotion. Consider the way you think about consumer brands:

  • Do you feel like you need the newest smartphone to keep up with friends and family?
  • Do you regularly buy a specific brand of peanut butter because your family always had it when you were growing up?
  • Do you get your coffee each morning at the same coffee shop because you like being greeted by the same barista and people in line each day?

It’s all about emotions.

So how do you take this information and start shifting your approach? First, resist the strong urge to rely on facts, figures and details. I know it will be hard, but consider not leading with them. Instead try driving home a sense of responsibility and play to that “peace of mind” 40 percent of employees mentioned in our survey.

Start your communications to employees by making it personal — provide an illustrative example to demonstrate your point. Consider different experiences and observations you can draw upon.

Let me give you a personal example. A member of my team recently experienced shortness of breath during exercise. After undergoing multiple tests, this relatively young man discovered he needed immediate triple-bypass surgery to treat an 80 percent blockage to his “widowmaker” artery. As he went through the treatment and recovery, this team member got a real-life introduction to the financial challenges that arise from a serious medical condition. What if you were to lead with THAT story in your next benefits communication to employees? Wouldn’t that be a great way to remind employees that something like this could happen to anyone? That it’s important that we are all adequately protected?

If you feel as though you might be approaching benefits communications backward — leading with facts and figures, and then filling in emotional color after the fact — you’re not alone. But it’s never too late to adjust your approach. Creating an emotional connection with employees can help you play on the feeling of concern employees have for themselves, their finances and their families, versus talking about the rational calculation of the benefit features or how the benefits fill in a gap with the employees’ existing medical coverage.