It’s that time of year again that warrants reflection on the year that has passed, and a look forward to the one just beginning. This reflection often leads us to evaluate the trends that emerged in the past year, and make our predictions for what the coming year will bring.

Except for the most fleeting of pop-culture/consumer phenomenon, the truth about trends is that they typically develop over time, rather than overnight. In many industries, the benefits and HR space included, it can be difficult to predict what is in store for the new year. We can, however, use the trends of yester-year to paint a clearer picture of what is to come. 

What we saw in 2017

For benefits and HR, 2017 was a year of accelerated adoption of technology as a means for professionals to perform their jobs more effectively and efficiently. This has been a direct response to increasing demands for wider access to benefits-related information and for improved engagement through standard processes in the space. How is technology enabling all of this?

One of the most critical technological assets is cloud-based or software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms. There is nothing new about SaaS or the cloud — remember, trends take shape over time — but more applications are being deployed on them. This makes it possible for organizations to take advantage of new applications without having to invest in the hardware needed to build them, and eliminates the need to dedicate scarce IT resources to manage and support them. It also tends to be more affordable for organizations that may not have given much consideration to niche applications for a specific department or function in the past.

Another technology enabler is the prevalence of sophisticated mobile devices — smartphones, tablets, laptops — that make it easy to access applications from the cloud. Again, there is nothing especially new or trendy about such devices, other than that, each year, they become more advanced, more affordable, more powerful and more ubiquitous.

What we’re expecting for 2018

Most of what we’re expecting to unfold in 2018 is a continuation of what emerged in 2017.

Prediction #1:  Technology will continue to replace paperwork. Remember when the paperless office was first predicted during the 1970s? To date, the paperless office still hasn’t fully developed. In fact, in some cases, the Internet has resulted in more paper consumption. However, a reduction in manual paperwork, which can be tedious and error prone, is continuing to take place. More often, benefits enrollment, PTO requests and other general HR- and benefits-related tasks are being completed digitally and in many cases, directly by employees themselves.

Prediction #2: Companies will integrate HR department processes to mobile devices.  Today’s employees — especially millennials, who now comprise the largest and growing cohort of the workforce — expect the ability to access their work, including benefits information, 24/7, even from remote, mobile devices. Enabling employees to view this information and make requests via mobile devices allows for increased accessibility, efficiency and improved ‘experiences.’ Building a reputation as a company known for keeping up with technology can be a major differentiator when competing for top talent.

Prediction #3: An increasing focus on employee engagement and education. Employees like to be well-informed about workplace offerings and benefits packages, and a long-standing lack of technology in the HR and benefits space has kept this from happening. Technology platforms that consolidate and store detailed benefits information make it easier for employees to conduct research, educate themselves and ensure they are clear on the services and benefits being provided to them. Mobile access, as noted above, makes this all the more inviting. As it relates to current health care and financial education, employees have expressed preferences for information that is available in small, easily consumable “chunks,” and apps that use an array of different means — video, interactive games — tend to be most effective in relaying that information.

Prediction #4: Analytics and performance management tools will come to the fore. With the growing adoption of applications specifically designed to address challenges related to their job function, benefits and HR managers have reported increased productivity. The next step in this integration is the implementation of feedback tools and analytics to track the progress and success of specific initiatives. As the HR landscape continues to expand and become more complex, systems that include real-time analytics have become useful to identify areas in need of improvement, as well as those that are core strengths. Deploying analytics and performance management tools is beneficial on both the management side and the employee side. HR and benefits management teams can more quickly and easily determine which initiatives are most valuable to employees, and senior management is able to view where and how their investments are paying off.

Prediction #5: We will continue to see more unique voluntary benefits. So far, the trends we’ve discussed have been largely technology-related. This one is less so.  What’s clear is that a good way to attract and retain top talent is to offer an interesting and varied benefits menu. Employees have come to expect the basics, like health care and PTO, leading many organizations to define a richer set of basics that include life and disability insurance, contributions to retirement accounts, and family medical leave options.  Opportunities to work remotely are also becoming more popular, as are special accounts that allow employees to allocate pre-tax income to use for medical and childcare expenses. As the list of core benefits expands, organizations that provide additional benefits will stand out to potential candidates. Many of those benefits may be health care related, such as fitness programs and or insurance options that cover telehealth. A benefit of increasing importance is providing employees with time off to volunteer. Student loan payback assistance is another in-demand benefit. Others, such as pet insurance, are a bit quirkier. In 2018, unique benefits packages will continue to take shape. Having a clear understanding of which ones make the most impact will determine their ultimate longevity and appeal to your employees.

Prediction #6: Technology will support brokers, not replace them. The big question for brokers, of course, is where and how they fit into a picture in which technology allows HR and benefits management to operate more independently, and puts a great deal of information and control in the hands of employees. The answer is two-fold. For brokers, the same technology that is simplifying life for HR and benefits professionals will also simplify existence for brokers. They will have greater access to information and can thus provide better service to their clients. The sheer volume of information available, the explosion in the number of benefits possibilities, and the overall complexity of the benefits landscape make the broker’s job more valuable than ever.

For the benefits and HR industry, more reliance on technology, equals more reliance on brokers to help employers make their way in an ever more complex world.