Three benefits trends seem to have come to the forefront during the past year -- the importance of innovation and thought leadership, the turn toward customization of benefits, and the growing discussion of adapting benefits to a culturally, racially and globally diverse workforce.
I recently realized that I've been writing this Human Resource Executive Online® benefits column for one year, making this post lucky No. 13. With a year behind me, I took time to reflect on what I've learned and where, I think, the future of employee benefits is headed.
Twelve articles brought a dozen different lessons, but three themes stayed with me.
1. The innovators and early adopters in the employee-benefits industry are using social media to test and promote their theories. In my first column, I interviewed Dr. Natalie Hodge -- who I met via Twitter after she reposted one of my tweets -- about how she was adapting concierge medicine as a healthcare option for employer-sponsored medical coverage.
2. The trend of personalization and customization is here to stay because we expect it and demand it.
Amazon sends e-mail messages suggesting books, music and products we may like given our buying history and highlights items that people who are just like us are purchasing. Kimpton Hotels arranges our rooms upon arrival, based on preferences we list in our profiles.
And Tracie Foster reconfigured Anthem Life/WellPoint's health and disability benefit plans so employee interactions with the carrier are simplified and customized.
3. Whether your company is U.S.-based or a global entity, it is time to universally adapt benefits and the workplace to reflect our diverse workforce.
Nick Malhomme, Dave Levine, Eduardo Lambardi and others from PPC Worldwide introduced me to the benefits globalization concept through discussions about international employee-assistance programs.
We can apply their concept of, "think globally, act locally -- but in a culturally appropriate way," to all workforce-related situations, including benefits.
It was that theme -- recognizing diversity and changing the way employers offer benefits to reflect the needs of micro-cultures -- that resurrected in my last post about diversity and benefits.
The thought that remains with me these last few weeks is this: Have we come far enough in our acceptance of diverse individuals that we realize equity does not always reside in treating all employees in exactly the same way? Can we, in fact, offer employees a range of benefit options that reflect their unique needs?
The answer, I believe, is, "Yes, we can."
We must consider the potential legal challenges that Christina Broxterman pointed out in the last column, but these considerations are not insurmountable. There are technology-based tools available already, which provide employees with assistance in selecting benefits.
Rob Kopf is a technology consultant at Hewitt Associates based in Philadelphia, and the product manager for DecisionDirect, a web-based benefits-enrollment support tool that provides specific, personalized benefits suggestions aligned with an employee's preferences.
Kopf says Hewitt noticed three years ago that readership of benefits-enrollment guides was limited. "Employees wanted to be told what to do and were not going to invest the time to make benefits decisions," he says.
"Hewitt designed DecisionDirect to help [stop] people from making very bad decisions," Kopf says.
The tool makes its suggestions based upon an employee's answers to three question categories: anticipated usage of health services, payment preferences and willingness to work within a network of providers. The questions do not address age or coverage tier (family or single).
The suggestions are designed to help young, inexperienced employees navigate away from their tendency to enroll in the same choices as their parents and toward ones that work for them. As a result, these workers enroll more often in HSAs -- instead of their parents' HMOs -- which drives down costs for the employees and the employer.
DecisionDirect is not limited to medical-plan suggestions. Kopf says the tool is also effective with dental, vision, FSA and 401(k) benefits choices.
Employees like the tool. "About a third of people will come back to play through various scenarios," Kopf says, "And about 60 percent of [employees] will take the suggested plan."
Another benefits-decision platform, Benefitfocus, has been available and evolving for more than 10 years. It uses a single web-based platform to help individual consumers, as well as employers, brokers and insurance carriers shop, enroll, manage and exchange benefit information.
Shawn Jenkins is the Charleston, S.C.-based CEO of Benefitfocus -- which embraces new tools and technology -- and his frame of reference is on the "next paradigm for how the world will work."
Jenkins says the benefits platform can help employees select benefits with no background information at all or "with lots of data from the health plans, company information on other benefits, salary, tax information on HSAs or FSAs, laws and regulations, and health data."
And the platform lets employees revisit insurance choices to see how different options would have played out for them.
The platform also lets employees link to public or employer-provided social-networking sites to connect with people who have similar lifestyles and circumstances to see the choices they are making, Jenkins says.
Benefitfocus furthers the personalized employee experience by embedding web-based healthcare videos that feature people with similar backgrounds and ethnicities so employees are "receiving information from people they respect."
So, 13 columns now put to bed, and three benefits trends for you to watch: customization, diversity and, yes, even social networking. It should be interesting to see what occurs during the upcoming year.
Carol Harnett is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett.