bowling ball marked Disrupt hitting pins marked Business as Usual (Photo: Shutterstock)

We all have had about 5 months to adjust to the “new normal,” which is anything but normal, based on 2019 and historical standards. And that certainly applies to open enrollment 2020, which definitely will not be business as usual. So we would like to discuss the different practical, logical elements that benefits advisors, carriers, enrollment firms, and employers need to consider this year. You may be saying to yourself, why do we need to do anything differently? Why can’t we just handle the fourth quarter this year like we have done for the last decade? Really?

The entire world and the way it functions has changed, perhaps indefinitely. Your business operations have changed. Undoubtedly your clients are operating in an entirely different manner and each likely has uniquely adapted to the new local reality. This is no time to play the ostrich game. It’s time for a reality check and some pro-active planning. Your clients are confused, nervous and stressed out, understandably so. They are counting on you to provide them with solid advice and counsel. And it doesn’t matter what your current role is in our industry, you need to be part of the solution. Otherwise, you are part of the problem which will result in employee confusion, lack of engagement, dissatisfaction, and potentially financial hardship. Now, hopefully, you have a sense of urgency about this matter.

Perhaps you are asking yourself, where do we start? You may be saying, I understand that we need to approach things differently, but what exactly does that mean? What is the right path? As the Cheshire cat said to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s classic: “If you don’t know where you are going any road can take you there.” Let’s think about all the steps in the open enrollment process and what may need to be changed. Ultimately, you want to have a strategic game plan, a roadmap, to guide your actions to optimize the benefits communication and enrollment experience this year.

A good place to start is to hold a team meeting with all your colleagues that are part of the process. Yes, I know that likely will be a virtual meeting, not an in-person meeting. But that just further proves the point about how we all are conducting our work lives in a different manner. So whether it is a conference call, webinar, or video conference set a time for a strategy session to gather everyone’s input. And provide each participant with a list of thought-provoking questions to stimulate the thinking of your team members in advance of your strategy session.

Consider the following list of questions as a potential starting point:

  • If we start with the very basics, what do we need to know about the current employee population?
  • How can we assure that the employee census information is accurate and timely?
  • What procedural changes do we anticipate will be part of this year’s open enrollment?
  • Let’s just focus on the employer-paid benefits for the moment. What should we be asking the employer about their benefits plan offering for 2021? Are there any last minute changes necessitated by the financial condition of the employer? Or any material changes in the employee population?
  • Are we expecting a change in the workforce composition and the work schedule? If so, what will they be and what are the implications?
  • Thinking about the interaction with employees, what do we expect to be different?
  • How will the logistics of the benefits communication campaign be different? And in your opinion, what would be ideal?
  • We know the communication effort is going to be more important than ever before. Any suggestions regarding how to make any plan changes more easily understood?
  • Turning our attention to employee-paid benefits (voluntary benefits), including the newest category, lifestyle benefits, are there any changes? Why are they important? And what can we do to help employees understand their purpose and value?
  • It would seem that it’s going to be more challenging to achieve employee engagement at any reasonable level even approaching what we experienced in 2019. What strategies can be employed to induce employees to “meet” with our team member(s), especially since they may never have previously met before? (ex:  offering a free membership and password to a cash-back shopping program since employees are shopping online more now than ever before)
  • Effective communication between the employer, broker, carrier and enrollment firm seems absolutely critical this year. What are your thoughts on that interaction and how do we provide real-time feedback to optimize our results? How do we all communicate and operate with a singular, common focus? How do we gain the support of the employer’s supervisory personnel to assure that every employee is engaged and participates in the communication and enrollment campaign?
  • Any thoughts on what needs to be done once we are wrapping up the 2020 open enrollment? When should we hold a de-brief with the employer? What topics do we want to discuss? How will we define success for the 2020 open enrollment campaign?

You likely will have other questions that would be pertinent to your team and your clients.

These sample questions are intended to generate a robust, spirited and interactive discussion that undoubtedly will lead to some out-of-the-box thinking and a few breakthrough, game-changing strategies. Make sure that your team designates someone as a notetaker in order that all the discussion, options, and any decisions are fully captured. Then they can be reviewed/refined and shared with the participants, and other members of your organization, as needed.

By now you have gathered a considerable amount of input about a number of issues that are absolutely essential to the success of this year’s open enrollment, and perhaps in the process you have built consensus regarding the key drivers that need to be addressed and their priority. Ideally, that is the case. If not, you may need to schedule a thirty minute follow up session to synthesize the collective commentary and to gain everyone’s buy-in regarding the operational priorities. It will be worth the time and effort.

Now that you have an overarching strategy, you need to develop an action plan and timelines for each client since their circumstances will likely vary, in particular this year. The action plan can be as simple as a checklist of items to be addressed with overall due dates. Alternatively, your action plan for a particular client might identify specific tasks to be accomplished or deliverables, their activation and completion dates, the resource(s) responsible for that action item (within your firm or at the client organization), and the expected outcomes. Once the action plan is documented (perhaps on a spreadsheet for ease of review), it will simplify the daily management of the process, readily identify what has been done, and  highlight what still remains to be accomplished.

At a minimum, your action plan and timetable need to include the following:

  • The number of benefits eligible employees that are still with the employer
  • Getting an accurate census
  • Open enrollment methodology changes
  • Any changes to any employer-paid benefits necessitated by the financial status of the employer or the employee population
  • The number of employees that will be returning to the workplace location (doubtful that it will be a majority)
  • Accessibility to employees – in-person (doubtful), telephonic or electronic, or some combination
  • The logistics of the communication campaign
  • Simplifying the communication campaign to make the plans and any changes more easily understood
  • Explaining any employee-paid benefits, existing as well as potentially new offerings, including lifestyle benefits
  • Inducements for employees to “meet” with a benefits counselor to have solid employee engagement (strive to be as good as 2019) and to secure reasonably good employee participation (in order to achieve last year’s overall enrollment results the participation of a reduced workforce will need to be a higher percentage just to approximate 2019’s overall enrollment)
  • “Real-time” management information about how the enrollment is progressing to provide feedback and to secure the engagement of supervisory personnel to assure that each employee connects with a benefits counselor during the open enrollment period
  • De-brief session(s) with the employer to review the results and build consensus for future actions

It’s not business as usual, but it’s still business. And success in business requires strategic planning, operational execution, and a team commitment to a common purpose. That’s what has been articulated here. You now have a step-by-step roadmap that can guide your actions. Following these steps will assist your team to optimize the results achieved during open enrollment 2020.

Consider the following:

“The dictionary is the only place that success comes before work. Hard work is the price we must pay for success. I think you can accomplish anything if you’re willing to pay the price. Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve our goal, or any goal. The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will.” __ legendary football coach, Vince Lombardi

Remember, you need to manage the important…not the urgent! And you can manage activities – but you cannot manage results. And finally, successful achievement is the intersection point of proper preparation and opportunity. These are management axioms that apply to open enrollment 2020.

Be the best possible resource for your clients and their employees. They all are counting on you.