How crisis changes open enrollment - and 7 ways HR can still succeed

Person doing open enrollment on phone during COVID-19

Open enrollment can be tough on an average year, and as we all know, 2020 has been the opposite of average. With all the risk and uncertainty we’ve been battling, healthcare is one of the big items weighing on everyone’s minds. That anxiety is becoming particularly strong for HR professionals as we get closer to open enrollment season and have to balance new costs, changes to plan options, and increased medical needs with successfully supporting our employees and keeping our organization’s benefits competitive. How can we manage it?

To put things in perspective, according to a survey conducted by Willis Towers Watson back in the summer of 2019, 42 percent of U.S. workers were already saying that they would be willing to pay more for a more generous healthcare plan, as it would make them feel more secure. That was pre-pandemic, so just imagine how those numbers have probably increased today when so many of us have been touched by COVID-19 and have come to value our healthcare benefits much more than in the past. With this renewed focus on health and wellness, we need to do all we can to make this year’s open enrollment a success. Here are some tips to help you make it happen even in the crisis conditions we’re all still dealing with.

1. Consider starting open enrollment earlier

The reality is that it will take a bit longer to get through open enrollment this year because employees are paying attention to benefits more than they have in the past, so they’re likely going to be the most engaged they’ve ever been too. Not to mention that the likelihood that at least some benefits meetings and fairs will be virtual instead of in-person is high. Getting started with open enrollment earlier, so that it's extended a bit, will give you the ability to better deliver information and the time to connect with employees. Both of these points will be discussed further below.

2. Consider passive enrollment as an option

There will be employees who are happy with their current benefits and just want to keep what they’ve got if that’s an option at your organization. Given there’s a lot going on, allowing for passive enrollment might be a good way to ensure employees get the coverage they need this year but also minimize the stress of having to review and select benefits. This may not work if you’re introducing changes to plans this year, or may not be appropriate for your entire employee population, but it might be something to consider for certain departments, groups, or roles.

3. Communicate early and often

Communication will be more important than ever this year as we’re not all in the same physical space with postings in common areas reminding us of open enrollment. With that said, you’ll want to replicate those physical reminders digitally through small doses of consistent communication to keep open enrollment in the forefront of your employee’s minds. Be clear and concise with your messages and be mindful of your audience.

Remember, you may have employees across several generations and they will have different communication preferences, which you’ll want to be sensitive to, so plan your communication strategies accordingly. You may want to consider using text messaging, automated voice calls, short videos, scheduled emails from your HCM system, and mailers to align with communication preferences and increase the likelihood that your employees receive the message. Regardless of your communication method, ensure there’s a steady stream of information to help employees more easily digest what is being shared with them.

4. Take open enrollment prep virtual

We all miss being able to sit across the table from each other to have conversations, but we’ll have to make those virtual meetings work just a while longer. And although those in-person meetings were nice, virtual benefit webinars, fairs, and meetings bring more opportunity for employees to participate if offered on-demand or outside of standard work hours. Plus, employees can have their partners, spouses, and families participate as well, allowing them to weigh in and helping employees make more informed benefit selections to meet their unique needs. Another way to allow this kind of family input is ensuring your employees have self-service, mobile access to compare plans anytime, anywhere, making it easier to discuss what’s a good fit at home.

When planning out your virtual events consider having a mix of on-demand, or pre-recorded, sessions and live sessions plus dedicated chats where employees can ask questions. For any of these sessions you may want to ask leadership to participate as it shows that they care and gives them an opportunity to connect with and hear feedback from employees.

5. Be ready to engage with employees one-on-one

Employees will have questions that they may want to ask outside of a group setting so you’ll want to consider having virtual one-on-one appointments with them. You can utilize a scheduling platform to allow employees to see available times and book a time to speak with you. If this is something that your organization doesn’t have the resources to address, then you may want to consider outsourcing this to a call center so that your employees can still get the one-on-one attention they will need. Most best-in-class benefits administration technology will have a services component that you can outsource this to.

6. Make resources available online

Although you’ll be sending information around benefits options and enrollment out on a regular cadence, it is important to make the resources you are pointing to in your communication available online. The information here should also be clearly organized and easy to access. This way when employees go to this resource page they can easily find and consume the information available to them.

And again, having this information online helps employees make more informed decisions by allowing them to involve their partners, spouses, and families. This should extend to your actual open enrollment process too – it should be digital and follow a simple format that’s easy to track progress in, such as a progressive checklist in your HCM system.

7. Above all, be transparent

Let’s be real – regardless of what you try to adjust about open enrollment to account for what’s happened this year, there will be some negative impacts. Thanks to COVID-19, costs will probably go up, plans may change what they cover, and options may narrow. It’s critical that you be honest with employees about this, even if the truth isn’t what they want to hear. Make sure to weave this kind of information into the communications we discussed earlier so employees aren’t taken by surprise.

The other thing to remember here is you still have the opportunity to control and adjust other HR policies and offerings to mitigate negative changes to healthcare options. What room do you have in terms of pay, bonuses, or other compensation for employees? Are there options you can use to be more flexible or generous about time off? What does your wider total rewards mix look like, and is there anything you can adjust there to stay competitive and boost your employee experience? These are all questions you should be asking as you reevaluate open enrollment.

Conclusion: Open enrollment will be different, but we'll get through it together

Like the entirety of 2020, this upcoming open enrollment period will be unique. Ensuring that you give yourself and your employees enough time to understand the benefits options available will be crucial to your success. Going virtual will allow you to safely provide employees with the information that they need to make the most informed benefits decisions with the help of their partners, spouses, and families right from the comfort of their homes. Allowing for one-on-one time to get all of their questions answered will also be important. All of this will make your employees feel engaged, secure, and looked out for – which we all need these days.

If you’ve got more questions about how a unified HCM system can help with open enrollment and other critical processes during times of crisis, check out our HR technology playbook for times of crisis. It’s full of practical examples to help you navigate through uncertainty, keep your organization successful, and maintain a strong employee experience.

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