Helping staff make proper benefits choices

As range of options grows, so too should amount of communication

Helping employees make choices that are right for them and their families, while ensuring they “see the value” of a company’s flexible benefits plan, is a challenge for every organization that introduces flexible benefits.

As flex plans evolve to reflect the needs of an increasingly diverse workforce, there will be more benefit choices, more flexibility offered within each type of benefit and more integration with other HR programs, such as retirement savings.

While taking flex plans to a level where they can better meet employee needs is a good thing, it means communication also becomes more crucial.

Employers have consistently named communication as one of the top two challenges in implementing a flex plan, with 20 per cent citing it as a primary challenge, according to Hewitt Associates’ triennial survey on flexible benefits.

To overcome this challenge, some employers are focusing on decision support. One organization introduced an online tool that enables employees to view possible benefit selections appropriate for them.

The employee inputs some basic information — age, gender, family status and anticipated health-care needs. He is then shown examples of “employees” with similar characteristics and the benefit options they selected. The choices vary depending on particular objectives or circumstances.

While the employer doesn’t tell employees what to choose, it takes them through the rationale of each of the sample employees’ choices, to help them make their own selections.

To increase employee appreciation of the benefits plan, some employers are taking the customized approach a step further.

Where employee feedback indicates a particular group has lower satisfaction with, or understanding of, the benefits offered, some organizations consider a separate communication plan targeted at the group, using alternate messages or media.

One Canadian organization with a large number of employees in their 20s found few understood or appreciated their flexible benefit program, so many were making choices that seemed inappropriate.

The company launched a separate print and online campaign to provide the information these employees needed in ways that would be meaningful to them.

The tone was youthful and fun, and included an enrolment guide with specific answers to the “How does it work?” and “What do I need to do?” questions.

The campaign resonated so well that the organization now includes the printed brochure in its recruitment materials.

There are various communication methods available to employers, such as newsletters, meetings with employees and online guides or “road maps.” Incentives, such as online contests, can encourage long-standing employees to take part in benefits enrolment instead of just accepting the default options.

To ensure all employees, regardless of their life stage or how long they’ve been with the company, make the best choices, the most successful employers recognize communication doesn’t end with the launch of the plan and new techniques may be required to keep the program relevant.

Jason Billard and Marie Donnelly are both communication consultants with Hewitt Associates. Jason is based in Vancouver. He can be reached at [email protected] Marie is located in Toronto. She can be reached at [email protected]

A flexible approach
Communication goals

The secret to helping employees make the right choices when joining and re-enrolling in flex plans is a clear communication strategy and plan. To create that strategy, employers have to decide what it is they want employees to know, understand, believe and, finally, do.

Great communication can help offset a weak plan design while a great plan design can be severely undermined by a poor communication effort. When it comes to flexible benefits, employers want employees to:

•understand the plan;

•believe the plan is a valuable part of their overall rewards package;

•have the confidence to take action; and

•make the most appropriate choices.

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