Business meeting set on tablet computer With more members of the benefits team working remotely, tools such as video chat, screen sharing, and communicating on a neutral phone line become imperative.

This open enrollment season will be unlike any other, coupling an unstable economy with a national health crisis and an unprecedented reliance on digital technology. The new environment poses both opportunities and obstacles for brokers and their employer clients.

“One of the big challenges is that a lot of benefits decisions might be made late this year, since organizations aren’t sure what’s going to happen with the economy,” says Jennifer Benz, senior vice president at HR communications company Segal Benz. “We’re working with a lot of clients to anticipate and plan for the possibility that decisions are going to be made later, and discussing how they can plan to have as much of their communication ready to go as possible.

“It’s a very stressful environment right now,” she adds. “It’s going to be very important that we utilize some new strategies to get people’s attention, but also acknowledge the stress people are under.”

Related: COVID-19 is taking a toll on mental health among Americans

So how are brokers introducing the implementation of new strategies without imposing too much stress? We reached out to several industry leaders to see what they’re doing to prepare. Here are some changes and trends to expect this year.

Say goodbye to outdated methods

Much as the resistance to remote working and telehealth was quickly overcome when everyone was thrown into the deep end by the pandemic, we can expect to see a similar end to the vestiges of the in-person enrollment process. “At first, clients were upset, even sad, we could not get the full group together for an open enrollment meeting. But after we started talking about our plan to push short, crisp messages through ‘ink’ and video, they really seemed to get behind this idea,” says Jennifer Bundy-Cobb, director of employee benefits at Wilson Albers, an Alera Group Company, based in Anchorage, Alaska. “These are changes that will far outlast the pandemic.”

Also gone? Folders and booklets filled with page after page of benefits information. “While some brokers are looking to take the benefit booklet that they would typically print and digitize it, other brokers are looking at the current state of communication as a perfect way to get away from benefit booklets altogether,” says Chad Schneider, vice president of strategic alliances at Jellyvision. “You might save printing costs, but you still have the effort of putting the booklet together.”

“Paper enrollment has really decreased,” Benz adds. “There are plenty of organizations that still do some version, but my suspicion is that this is the opportunity for them to really move online.”

Even among digital communication strategies, old methods are being tossed out. “No one ever wanted to sit through a two-hour benefit presentation,” Bundy-Cobb says. “And now with video, they will leave or mute the call. My preference is to limit the live sessions to very short presentations and then go to Q&A. I think it is a mistake to take the 60-minute open enrollment meetings and record it just as you would have in the past.”

So what’s replacing these old tools? For starters, expect to hear a lot about “virtual benefit fairs” this year. “Each year, I’ve done an open-enrollment benefits fair,” says Misty Guinn, director of health and wellness at BenefitFocus. “They can come in a couple of weeks before open enrollment kicks off and meet with all of our vendors. This year, I’m planning for a 100% virtual benefit fair, spread out over maybe a week. Then we’ll record them and you can watch them in five minutes and get the gist.”

Guinn is also working on an internal podcast—something employees can queue up while they’re walking their dog or cleaning the house. “My goal this year, knowing that many people are sitting in their home offices, is to make them small and bite-sized using testimonials and quick videos,” she adds.

For most brokers, shedding these outdated processes is just the final step in a transition that has been underway for years. “Last open enrollment, I relied heavily on tools like Zoom, Soapbox and other video conferencing tools,” says Tom DiLiegro, owner of Benefits Advisors of Charleston. “Even before COVID, employers have been receptive and open, and thankful to not have that big, heavy open enrollment that takes people out of work. It’s becoming more prevalent, but we’ve already been implementing things that play nice with remote workforces.”

While a strong toolbox of digital resources will help brokers and employers put together a robust communication strategy, it’s not an absolute necessity. “We’re doing a lot of iPhone videos,” Guinn says. “Today, that’s what people really want—to hear from you in a way that doesn’t seem rehearsed.”

“There is no one right solution, but we are talking to clients about what may work for them,” Bundy-Cobb adds. “It could be email pushes, text, or mail. We are also holding virtual town hall meetings and publishing FAQs.”

Rethink internal processes

These new strategies involve an investment not just in consumer-facing technologies, but in internal business solutions, as well. “Even working with my personal broker team and carriers, it’s required a different format,” Guinn says. “We used to come together and brainstorm and have that rapport, but that’s not something that can necessarily be done over a conference call. The relationship between brokers and employers and even software providers is no longer just ‘sit and get’ information.”

With more members of the benefits team working remotely, tools such as video chat, screen sharing, and communicating on a neutral phone line become imperative, says Rachel Pennington, vice president of enhanced benefits at Ohio-based DCW Group. “We use RingCentral—that’s our phone service—which allows incoming or outbound phone calls to ring directly to our cell so we don’t have to be tied to a desk, which became really important when we stopped going into the office.”

Another key player in digital open enrollments this year will be the benefits administration provider. “The key to differentiation will be the package of digital solutions to create an employee experience that is effective and helps employers clearly communicate changes and benefits to the employee population,” Schneider says. “There are a number of national firms who now have a communication division putting together robust packages for their local offices to deploy.”

The takeaway for brokers: If you haven’t already, now is the time to prioritize investments in technology, whether it be as simple as paying for Zoom subscriptions or a larger step like rethinking ben tech partnerships. “In this day and age, there is no reason why you should still be doing things on paper,” Pennington says. “The more automated and tech-driven you are, the bigger advantage your clients are going to have. It’s an upfront investment, but it’s been worth it for us and our clients.”

Schneider offers this important piece of advice, as well: Don’t get discouraged. “I would expect lots of things to break, as it is the first time most brokers are rolling out multiple digital solutions all at the same time,” he says. “Expect glitches and have a lot of patience. Be sure to actively keep an eye on what is working, what did not work and how you can improve for next year.”

Greater emphasis on employee outreach

With so much being done via computer these days—meetings, ordering groceries, even happy hours—it’s easy to forget that not everyone is spending as much time in front of a screen. For “deskless workers,” including blue-collar, service and retail employees, those in the transportation industry, and so many others, checking email and watching online tutorials isn’t necessarily a priority. For them, a quick text message or push notification directing them to online resources might be the way to go.

“We might have a little bit of a resurgence of snail mail,” Guinn says. “Reaching back out and creating some of those educational pieces to send to people’s homes.”

Another population many employers will have to ensure doesn’t slip through the cracks this year is furloughed workers. “They might not have access to company email, so print might be the only way to reach them,” Benz says. “There are a variety of channels that are going to work. We’re a big proponent of having information out on the internet in a place that’s very accessible, not just via an intranet.”

“Whether open enrollments are passive or active this year, it is always a best practice to make sure that there is confirmation of benefits communication to the employees,” Schneider adds. “There are a number of ways to accomplish that, whether it be having employees sign something saying they have reviewed benefits, or leveraging a ben admin system which can track such things. Regardless of which strategy a broker deploys, it will be crucial to make sure that there is a record that all employees received the information.”

Prepare for—and take advantage of—employee anxiety

One common theme heading into this year’s enrollment session is that people are anxious.“All of this has hit everybody’s spidey senses,” DiLiegro says. “Everybody’s going to be more in tune and asking questions that they never would have thought of before.”

The pandemic has hit home for many people, whether through lost employment or income, taking time off work to care for a loved one, or even contracting COVID-19 themselves. It all serves as a timely reminder of the benefits they’ve been taking for granted for years. “People are going to be scrutinizing more of the options that are out there,” DiLiegro says. “They’ve been passively looking at their benefits, and now they’re asking, ‘If I get COVID, what’s it going to mean for me?’”

Now is the time to highlight how voluntary benefits like disability and critical illness support employees in the event they get sick. But employees will likely have even more questions than usual about their health insurance that brokers and employers need to be prepared to address.

“Most employees are hyper-focused on ‘how is my coverage changing based on COVID-19 and what do I need to know in case the worst-case scenario happens?’” Schneider says. “Shining a light on tools such as telemedicine, EAPs, and preventative care is going to get their attention.” Employers, too, are looking for more answers during this tumultuous time, and brokers should consider adjusting their approach accordingly. “I have one employer who just feels stuck and is looking for guidance,” says DiLiegro. “They’re looking for somebody to go out and say, ‘Here’s what you should do.’ They’re tired.”

Considering the situation and employees’ limited tolerance for change, some employers are holding off on making any drastic changes. “We’re finding that because there’s so much uncertainty and stress in the workplace, employers are less inclined to make any changes,” Pennington says. “They would prefer to increase their contribution and pay a little bit more, rather than to force employees to pay more or change carriers. They don’t want to have disruption.”

But that’s not the case in every market. In South Carolina, for example, where the pandemic has not yet hit quite so hard and the population is more resilient due to their prime “hurricane alley” location, many employers see opportunity. “The people I’ve interacted with are not letting it get in the way of business carrying on as usual,” DiLiegro says. “I still have clients that are kicking the tires on self-funding and alternate ways of doing their benefits programs. If something makes sense, they’ll make it happen.”

Whether it’s the benefits being offered or the way they’re communicated, the right strategies will vary from one employer to another. “For some organizations, keeping things really simple is going to be the best approach,” Benz says. “It’s really up to employers and their partners to make sure extra effort is being taken to get the right information to people so that they know what’s happening with their benefits.”

One group for whom this season of change and uncertainty is a welcome challenge is benefits consultants. “I actually feel this is going to be a great year for open enrollment once people get past the idea that different is bad,” Bundy-Cobb says. “We, as presenters, can now save hours in the car driving to meetings, which means we have more time to devote to strategy and client activities. I think in the end, we will look back and ask ‘Why weren’t we always doing things this way?’”

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