Take benefits communication to new heights

8 tips to ensure this important HR information rises above the rest

Originally published at www.davisandco.com.

Employees are busier than ever. As a result, to-do lists are piling up. If you want to be at the top of the heap, follow these eight steps to learn how to:

· Make benefits communication simpler, faster and easier

· Help employees understand their benefits, so they can make smart choices and use benefits wisely

· Give employees good reasons to appreciate the benefits your company offers

1. Start with objectives

When communicating about benefits, you should always start with the end in mind, just as you would with all good employee communication. Think about: What do you want to accomplish? What will success will look like?

Here are some examples:

· Improve knowledge of and appreciation for company benefits

· Increase participation in a particular program

· Reduce the number of calls/inquiries to HR

· Influence more employees to sign up for benefits throughout the enrollment period, rather than at the eleventh hour

· Encourage a percentage of employees to switch from one type of plan to another

2. Know your employees

To design benefits communication that works for employees, you need to know their needs and preferences.

Qualitative research — like focus groups — will help you find out:

· How well employees understand their current benefits.

· Perceptions about the value of benefits

· What employees need to know to make decisions

· How they like to receive benefits communication (which can be different from how they prefer to receive regular internal communication)

Davis & Company has gathered feedback from thousands of employees over the years. Our research tells us:

· Employees don’t want surprises. They prefer gradual change rather than something drastic.

· Employees want clear, candid benefits communication, which is also easy to read and navigate.

· Employees need benefits information in one place, and prefer to look at enrollment information at home, perhaps with their spouse or partner.

· Employees make decisions using side-by-side or “apples-to-apples” comparisons.

3. Develop a communication approach

With the objectives you set in step 1 and knowledge you gained in step 2, you’ve got a strong foundation for developing your approach to communicating benefits.

Here are few examples:

If your objective is to improve employees’ understanding of and appreciation for benefits and research tells you employees prefer benefits information in one place, with enrollment materials mailed to them at home, your benefits communication strategy could include a print handbook that highlights benefits plan information, including health plans, life insurance and tuition assistance.

If your objective is to encourage employees to make smart choices about which health plan to select, and use the plan wisely and research tells you employees prefer side-by-side comparisons of health plan choices, your benefits communication strategy could include a plan overview handbook, that includes an at-a-glance insert.

If your objective is to decrease the number of inquiries employees place to HR and research tells you employees prefer materials that are easy to read and navigate, your benefits communication strategy could include the use of intuitive organization (sections, color, table of contents, index) and navigation tools, both in print and online — with a clear, friendly, service-oriented tone.

4. Be simple, clear and candid

Because the benefits your company offers can be diverse and complex, it’s important that you simplify your benefits communication.

Here are some tips:

· Use the inverted pyramid to organize information. This classic structure puts the information that’s most relevant first, and saves the details for lower down in the message. And it works for any kind of communication, from email to enrollment packages to benefits meetings.

· Let employees know the action they need to take. Be clear, with content like: “Five decisions you need to make” and “A three-step process for choosing your benefits.”

· Be visual. Instead of long narrative copy, break content up into easily scannable segments. Create a table that captures key changes to next year’s benefits. Or add a sidebar with a checklist of decision items. Use icons and images to illustrate your points.

· Avoid the urge to sugarcoat. To maintain credibility, it’s important to communicate honestly. Tell employees why a change was made, how costs were managed and how they can choose and spend wisely.

· Don’t be shy about celebrating good things. Use communication to remind employees about benefits that are designed to make their lives better, such as flexible spending accounts, preventive care, discounted gym memberships and free financial advice.

· Be service-oriented. Include tips, advice and Q&As that will help employees be smarter consumers and live healthier.

· Tell the “why” behind benefits changes. Answer the questions: Why does your company offer benefits? How does the package stack up against the competition? Then share the reasoning behind decisions about change. Chances are, leaders looked through the data and made strategic decisions after careful thought.

· Give benefits communication a human touch. Don’t get so wrapped up in getting the facts right that you forget that communication should feel personal — like it’s written by humans for humans.

5. Use tools for what they do best

Don’t take a one-channel-fits-all approach to benefits communication. Find the tool (or tools) that helps you meet your objectives while still satisfying employee needs.

· Email is great for timely reminders and quick checklists and to provide handy links to information available on a website. But don’t use email for everything.

· Web tools can be used to present complex information. A web tool can take many layers of interconnected information and make it seem less overwhelming.

· Digital screens, posters and postcards can provide important information, like deadlines for enrollment, at a glance.

· Print, such as a comprehensive open enrollment brochure, quick-reference guide or newsletter, is still a highly effective way for employees to digest benefits information. Print can help you:

> Compile all the facts employees need to understand benefits and make decisions

> Illustrate comparisons using charts, tables and other visuals

> Bring benefits to life through examples

> Allow employees to share information with significant others

6. Focus on what employees need to do

The reason to communicate is not simply to provide information; it’s to give employees what they need to do something. So when communicating employee benefits, keep desired action steps in mind. Use imperative phrases like:

· “Act now…”

· “What you need to do…”

· “Reminder…”

· “Don’t forget…”

· “Learn how to…”

· “Don’t miss out…”

7. Manage timing wisely

Timing is one of the trickiest aspects of communicating employee benefits.

Communicate too early, employees are likely to ignore your messages. Communicate too often, employees will think there will be more, so they can wait to act. Communicate too late, employees will feel unprepared and blind-sided.

Instead, find the right balance to:

· Give employees enough time to understand a change that’s coming, so they can get used to it.

· Provide employees a heads-up when something is coming. (“Next month is when enrollment starts.”)

· Be as “just in time” as possible, so employees have the information right before they need to take action.

· Include “friendly reminders” — short messages that don’t overwhelm or annoy, but give a gentle little push to get going.

How? Create a timeline so you can map out how employees will learn about benefits and ensure that the timing creates understanding and encourages people to take action when it’s needed.

8. Measure progress and success

Assessing the impact of your benefits communication is essential to demonstrate the value of your efforts and to adjust your activities to meet your objectives.

· Use spot surveys to get quick feedback about a particular communication.

Example: The enrollment package mailed to my home was useful

o Strongly disagree

o Disagree

o Agree

o Strongly agree

· Conduct an annual (or biennial) survey to assess communication over a period of time

Example: This year’s open enrollment brochure helped me understand the choices available to me

o Strongly disagree

o Disagree

o Agree

o Strongly agree

Example: I felt prepared to make smart decisions about enrollment

o Strongly disagree

o Disagree

o Agree

o Strongly agree

· Analyze web metrics or Google Analytics whenever possible (on your company intranet, portal or benefits microsite) to understand:

o Page views, which help to identify the most popular content

o Average visit duration, which tells you how much time visitors spend on a page

o Frequently searched keywords, so you know the content users look for most often

Follow the eight steps laid out here and your benefits communication will be at the top of employees’ to-do lists before you know it.