Insights from Gallagher’s HR & Benefits Technology Consulting Practice

The COVID-19 pandemic will leave an indelible mark on the work world. No matter how fast a cure or vaccine is available, the way we work may be forever changed. Global real estate firm Cushman and Wakefield introduced a design and set of rules for a “six-foot office,” which adheres to recommended social distancing guidelines to maintain a pandemic-safe working environment. Creating this type of layout will not be easy, nor will it happen overnight, so expect the telecommuting environment to be with us for some time. 

A remote workforce means new complexity and new challenges, including for annual open enrollment. Happily, there is no need for HR managers to start from scratch on a benefits enrollment strategy. There are many technology solutions in the market—some of which you may already own—to counter the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and support remote employee enrollment. These include tools to communicate information, administer the enrollment process and provide assistance for those who need it.

The following are solutions that can help employers manage short-term disruptions to their traditional open enrollment process. These same solutions, however, offer value that makes them worthy of adoption for the long-term.

Virtual Benefits Fair for Remote Workers

Many employers host benefit fairs in conjunction with open enrollment to educate employees about their benefits program and to provide carriers and benefit providers the opportunity to meet one-on-one with interested employees. As organizations expand geographically to multiple locations, the option to work from home becomes more commonplace and face-to-face benefit fairs lose some of their reach. In response, some employers have sought out technology-enabled replacements for the benefits fair. One relatively new option getting market traction is virtual benefit fairs, which take the concept of carrier booths, presentations and meeting rooms into an online environment for one-time or ongoing use.

Given the immaturity of this sector, no single provider dominates the market. Today’s platforms primarily have a similar look and feel, with little user interface differentiation. Most operate with a scheduled “live event” model. Factors to consider when shopping for a virtual benefits fair platform include security, employer’s responsibility for set-up and implementation, carrier support, real-time interactivity, on-demand capabilities and provider experience with benefit programs similar in scope to yours. 

Decision Support Tools That Benefit a Remote Workforce

As benefits have expanded beyond core medical, and now include an array of voluntary benefits, there is a growing demand for decision support tools to help employees choose and use the benefits that best fit their specific needs and preferences. Most “help me choose” tools fall into one of three categories: 1) communication and education, 2) financial and cost support and 3) plan comparison or recommendation engines. These tools—largely viewed as table stakes—are increasingly available as part of a benefits administration platform. 

“Help Me Use” tools, which help employees make smart decisions about how to use their benefits including how best get the care they need and manage their medical spending, are organized around: 1) Communication/Education, 2) Cost and Quality Transparency and 3) Personal Assistance and Advocacy. “Use” solutions have not advanced to the same degree of demand as “Choose” tools and are still available primarily as standalone solutions. Still, we expect them to continue to grow in popularity. 

If you’re interested in adding decision support tools, start by talking to your carrier or benefits administration platform provider to see what they may offer. A benefits consultant may also assist in identifying solutions to fit your needs and budget. While there is no hard data to substantiate the ROI on these tools, the consensus among employers is that they add value through heightened employee satisfaction, reduced strain on HR resources and the possibility for reduced healthcare costs for both the employer and the employee. Multiple studies have shown that decision support tools for making healthcare decisions increases employee engagement and enrollment. Be sure to talk with your provider about data security and consult your legal counsel to determine appropriate (and inappropriate) use of employee information collected from decision support solutions and associated applications.

General Technology Support for Remote Employees 

Beyond technology specifically designed to support choosing and using benefits, there is a wide range of technology that provides general benefits support for employees (remote or otherwise). These include phone, text, video, avatars, live chat and chatbots. All have been available for some time, but the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in new interest and increased use of these technologies. 

Supporting the many options for communicating with remote employees is a large pool of providers. Before deciding on a specific strategy, however, make sure you understand your employees’ technology capabilities and capacity to adopt new tools. For instance, if they will be using their own devices, is the technology “friendly” to the lowest common denominator of resources? Or, will the technology result in a cost to remote employees (e.g., text charges)? As with any solution accessed from outside the organization’s network, consider security issues and whether your telecommuting employees will embrace multi-factor authentication. As there is value in any technology that supports your employees’ benefits-related needs, invest in tools that will support your people strategy in a post-pandemic environment. 

Using a Enrollment Service for Remote Employees

For organizations still enrolling on paper, a shift to an online enrollment platform may be too big of a change in an environment where live training is not an option. For these employers (and employees who lack the necessary hardware or connectivity to participate in online enrollment), consider engaging an enrollment company to support employees through a call center. The best services go beyond the basic enrollment function and help with employee engagement, communication, education and analytics. Think of these providers as an extension of your HR team. Expect enrollment call centers to be offered in conjunction with voluntary benefits. The commissions associated with these benefit offerings typically cover the cost of the service.

Areas to explore before selecting an enrollment service provider include:
  • Volume capacity and amount of dedicated resources
  • Option to customize communications to your employer brand
  • Ways employees can connect with a counselor (e.g., phone, email, video, live chat)
  • Multi-language support
  • Employee feedback mechanisms
  • Real-time statistical monitoring and enrollment results reporting

Next Steps for Open Enrollment

Benefits are an essential part of the overall employee experience and contribute to employee wellbeing. It logically follows, then, that a smooth and satisfactory benefits administration process is critical to your organization’s wellbeing. Facilitating open enrollment in an unplanned remote environment presents several challenges. Implementing technology solutions to address those challenges will give you peace of mind that your employees understand their benefit options, are confident in their choices and have options for assistance. Further, in these times where HR budgets may be under pressure, these same solutions deliver long-term value, so your investment will continue to pay off in a post-pandemic world.

Contact us today if you would like help finding your best-fit HR solution to support all of your organizational wellbeing goals.