Communication is Key

In a world of benefits challenges, getting the word out about what you offer is the most important step you can take toward ensuring a successful benefits program.

Monday, February 13, 2017
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Editor's Note: Jennifer Benz will be leading a general session on Thursday, April 20, at the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference (April 19 through 21) in Las Vegas titled Realizing an ROI in Benefits Communication.

Companies of all sizes struggle with sticky business challenges. And as the engine that drives people, HR bears its fair share of the burden, contending with a changing workforce, mediocre engagement, rapidly evolving technology and regulatory challenges -- to name a few.

All this trickles down to benefits departments that are tasked with being more nimble than ever to keep up with the needs of an evolving workforce, and respond to ever-increasing demands from both the business and a shifting regulatory environment.

While communication isn't the only answer to these challenges, it alone can solve many problems, while helping you meet important goals. In this article, we'll dig into some of the big challenges facing benefits leaders and how more frequent and more sophisticated employee communication can help solve them.

Your benefits strategy is intended to help you meet compliance requirements, manage costs and -- most importantly -- take care of your employees so they can take care of your customers. Because benefits are such a sizable investment, your strategy requires careful planning and a long-term perspective. But the benefits landscape keeps shifting, making it difficult to see far enough into the future to be certain about what to do next. The fiduciary rule, overtime, minimum-wage regulations and the uncertainty over the future of the Affordable Care Act are making strategic long-term planning more difficult than ever.

In an environment of uncertainty, some companies tend to communicate less, waiting until complete information is available. Or, simply, resources are taken up with compliance, leaving little opportunity for strategic communications. The risk here is that employees feel disconnected and communication channels fall behind expectations.

Meanwhile, smartphones, tablets, social media and hyper-personalized online consumer experiences have raised the bar for how people expect to collaborate, communicate, and consume and share information in all aspects of their lives -- including at work.

Younger workers in particular have little patience for outdated technology. While some forward-thinking companies borrow inspiration from technology to apply to internal communication, many still are relying on outdated communication tactics that employees find easy to ignore. Outdated technology slows down work and makes it easy for employees to tune out.

With people starting to work in their teenage years and continuing well into their 70s, we also have broader age ranges in the workforce than ever before. In 2015, millennials became the largest demographic sector in the U.S. workforce. And their numbers will climb as boomers retire and are replaced by new graduates and others launching their careers. At the same time, the shape of the workforce is changing -- now including everyone from full-time employees to contingency and "gig" workers.

All generations and employee types have specific wants, needs and expectations from their work and employer. And businesses want, need and expect a lot in return from their workforce.

Disengaged employees aren't interested in helping themselves or your company succeed. And they're more likely to miss work and jump ship for new opportunities. Gallup estimates actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity each year. According to Gallup's latest poll, employee engagement is stagnant. Only 32 percent of U.S. workers were engaged in their jobs in 2015, compared to 31.5 percent the previous year. The needle is expected to move only a point or two in 2016.

According to research by Aon Hewitt, the best driver of engagement is enhanced communication. Solid workplace messaging helps employees feel like they know what's going on in the business, have a voice and are empowered to make decisions. Without it, they'll leave. Or worse, they'll be disengaged and cost the business a ton of money.

Successful companies recognize effective communication is essential to meeting workforce and benefits challenges, such as driving participation in health, wellness and financial programs, and increasing employee satisfaction, productivity and the bottom line. These organizations make significant investments in communication.

Bottom-Line Benefits

No matter what the benefit challenge or goal, communication has the power to connect with employees in a meaningful way, improving both your benefits program and workforce engagement.

Most importantly, it drives benefits adoption and connects benefits to the employee experience.

Working with dozens of clients during the past decade amplifies the value of communication for new-plan adoption and engagement. The most effective communication campaigns are those that are crafted to meet defined goals, in which audiences are segmented, and those that clearly articulate the benefit to each audience. For example, when one of our clients launched a new high-deductible health plan, we created a targeted communication approach that explained the features and benefits of an HDHP in terms that resonated with each audience. The result: 62 percent of employees chose the new HSA plan, translating into $5 million in savings. That's some serious return on investment. With another client, we designed a targeted approach to encourage participation in financial-wellness training, and saw 80 percent of employees attend. And yet another client achieved an astounding 95 percent participation in a results-based wellness program -- all fueled by a strategic communication approach. Suffice it to say, these benefits goals translate into meaningful business goals.

When we surveyed several thousand employees for Quantum Workplace in 2014, employee satisfaction with health benefits was a major driver in employee engagement and retention. Seventy percent of respondents valued their health benefits, and 89 percent said health benefits play a part in staying at their current employer.

Metlife data also shows that 70 percent of respondents value their health benefits and that effective communication makes benefits satisfaction and employee loyalty soar. When communication is effective, 76 percent of employees report being satisfied with benefits and 74 percent say they're loyal to their employer. On the other hand, when communication is ineffective (e.g., action steps buried in confusing jargon), satisfaction and loyalty plummets to only 6 percent of employees being satisfied with benefits and 34 percent feeling loyal to their employer.

Effective communication also pays dividends through higher productivity and engagement. Data from Employees Speak Out: Benz/Quantum 2014 Health and Engagement Survey shows that employees who believe that their employer cares about their health and well-being are:

* 38 percent more engaged,

* 17 percent more likely to still be working at their current employer in one year, and

* 28 percent more likely to recommend their workplace.

In addition, the AFLAC WorkForces report states that:

* 23 percent of workers say benefits options may be key to convincing them to stay with their current employer and

* 64 percent say an overall benefits package is extremely or very important to employee loyalty.

Path to Engagement

While engaging employees may feel overwhelming -- and takes a concerted effort -- we know what works. And it's surprisingly simple.

Create a single online resource for benefits information.

You probably work with dozens of vendors, all with their own websites -- which means your employees need to remember to use dozens of different URLs, user names and passwords. That simply doesn't happen and is one of the leading causes of low utilization.

Employees need to know where to go when they need information and help -- a single resource where they can find what they need, when they need it. And you need to reinforce the tremendous value of your benefits package (and take credit for it).

A benefits website -- built for mobile and on the Internet -- gives employees and family members access to valuable content and to your vendors' secure websites to make it easy to take action and complete transactions. This way, employees can get the information they need and do what they need to do just by accessing one website. According to our 2014 Inside Benefits Communication Survey, 90 percent of employers put benefits information online, with 50 percent making it available outside the firewall.

A benefits website also gives recruits insights into your organization and helps onboard new hires by bringing information, instructions and forms together into one place. The best results come when websites are available outside the firewall, without a password for access. This lowers the barriers to accessing information and puts vital information into the reach of family members -- from a mobile device, tablet or desktop.

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Engage with employees and their families year-round.

Despite the desire to get employees engaged in benefits year-round, many companies still only talk to employees once a year -- when it's time to enroll. Our Inside Benefits Communication Survey gathered data from more than 300 companies and found that 78 percent cite getting employees engaged year-round as their top challenge. Yet, very few companies communicate throughout the year.

We've seen the most success when businesses provide more frequent information . . . especially now, when people need to take a more active role in their health and finances. Specifically, what works best are tips, reminders and updates sprinkled throughout the year in bite-size chunks. Our survey shows that 93 percent of companies that communicated year-round met all or most of their goals.

There's no one-size-fits-all. This is where strategy is key, in terms of finding the right mix of media for your company and the best methods for communicating. And don't forget to analyze the results to focus on what's most successful.

We recommend focusing year-round efforts on making it easy to take action. Here's the checklist we use when mapping out a communication strategy:

* Focus content on using benefits effectively;

* Have a call to action;

* Make it relevant to age, family situation and life stage;

* Do the math -- don't make employees figure it out; and

* Take it step-by-step.

Measure and improve, one step at a time.

The most successful companies we work with start small, by setting tangible goals, measuring success over time and building as they go. The three most important areas to measure are:

* How effectively your communication is reaching its intended audience. Start by looking at web traffic, email click-through and open rates, and meeting attendance;

* Program participation/use -- get a clear picture of communication effectiveness and gaps by looking at health and wellness plan enrollment/participation as well as preventive care, financial-wellness-program and EAP utilization; and

* Health and financial outcomes -- specifically biometric and claims data as well as retirement-plan and HSA balances -- to see where employees are doing well and where they're still getting stuck.

The investment in improving communications is often incidental compared to the investment in the benefits themselves. Mid-size and large companies can make a huge impact by investing far less than 1 percent of the total cost of benefits. Yet, too often, we see communications budgeting as an afterthought, rather than aligned with creating strategic business results. Instead of asking, "What will the basic communication cost?" we should be asking, "What will the results be worth to our organization?" Consider questions such as, "What would it be worth if you could . . . ":

* Attract and retain millennials -- and other talent you need?

* Migrate people from high-cost health plans with no complaints?

* Facilitate meaningful improvements in employee health -- reducing claims and absenteeism, and improving productivity? and

* Improve engagement?

Employees are the source of all innovation and growth. They deserve communication that helps them better understand benefits so that they can get the most out of your key programs, driving better health and financial security for everyone. And, businesses need and deserve the results that fully engaged employees can create.

Jennifer Benz is CEO of San Francisco-based Benz Communications and a frequent speaker on topics such as healthcare reform, social media and effective communication techniques. Rita Harris is a senior consultant with Benz Communications whose focus is the link between health and finances.



See: A Virtuous Cycle


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