Avoid These 2021 Open Enrollment Landmines

by | Sep 30, 2020

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You might guess that tackling 2021 open enrollment amid this year’s upheaval would require an innovative approach. Yet as our 2021 State of the Benefits Experience Survey revealed, HR is planning on many of the same tools, tactics, and techniques that have fueled OEs past. What gives?

In this two-part series, we’ll explore how HR plans to execute OE this year, and why it may not be enough. We’ll unpack the problems plaguing your benefits strategies and the simplest ways to fix them. And, we’ll reveal why this is so much more than a time for “just hosting it all on Zoom.” Instead, it’s an opportunity to overhaul an outdated system for employee good in all the years to come.

The biggest problem with your OE plans

Our 2021 State of the Benefits Experience Report is a comprehensive review of a survey sent to over 9K HR professionals in the summer of 2020. Their responses shed light on some of the most significant problems HR faces going into this year’s OE.

For one thing, employees just aren’t “getting” your OE communications.
The HR pros we surveyed rated their benefits education strategies at a 3 out of 5. “Not bad,” you might say. But what surprised us most was how many stale solutions made their list of go-to education and communication tools.

Our survey found that when it comes to benefits education, 89% were using benefits booklets and guides, 86% were using benefits presentations, and 42% were using benefits fairs. Additionally, 90% will use a benefits portal or website—although most said accessing their full benefits package would require the use of 2-4 separate websites.

Seeing the popularity of these solutions would be one thing if HR was satisfied with its education strategy. Instead, our respondents said they saw room for improvement. That rating of 3 out of 5 for benefits education (a solid C+) success indicates HR should be relying on new tools during 2021 open enrollment and beyond, rather than old-school booklets, presentations, and fairs.

The story is the same when it comes to communicating benefits information. HR teams are falling behind the rest of the world when using SMS, push notifications, and chat tools to communicate.

On HR’s list of tools are enrollment materials (98%), in-person meetings (77%), email (97%), and intranet (68%). About 7% use SMS messages, 21% use app notifications, and 13% use Slack, Teams, or other chat systems.

Another sign there’s room for improvement: our survey found that HR pros spend an average of 9 hours per week assisting employees with their benefits. Even worse, the most frequently-asked question was “finding support contact info when [employees] have employee benefit requests.” These aren’t complicated problems of spousal coverage or billing loopholes. Employes are stumbling at the very first stage of benefits understanding. Can you imagine a stronger indicator that benefits education isn’t working?

The benefits you must highlight during 2021 open enrollment

As we continue setting the stage for an unusual OE, let’s consider what’s at stake. Employees need their benefits like never before. Americans are in a mental health crisis, witnessing social unrest, and facing financial instability. For many, attention spans are shortened by the same forces; new work arrangements, caregiving, childcare needs, and more. All these pulls make it more challenging to get your most important messages through. So, it may be helpful to narrow your focus. What do employees need right now? We can find two easy answers in benefits you likely already offer.

  • Virtual care, including telemedicine, saw a bump in public perception and utilization during the pandemic. In our survey, 89% of respondents reported placing greater importance on virtual healthcare due to the pandemic. If employers are seeing the utility of virtual medicine at a higher rate than ever, shouldn’t that emphasis be passed on to employees, as well? Telemedicine is typically an underutilized benefit. As reopenings make doctors’ visits seem like a better idea, employees might forget the ease and cost-savings of a virtual visit. Yet we know that virtual medicine can save employees up to $120 per visit, on average, regardless of what’s going on in the world. This year is an ideal time to emphasize your telemedicine benefit (if you’re one of the 75% of employers who already offer it).
  • This OE is ideal for focusing on mental health benefits as well, as employee mental health is in crisis. According to the CDC, 40% of US adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use as recently as late June. Specific populations, including young adults, Hispanic persons, black persons, essential workers, unpaid caregivers for adults, and those receiving treatment for preexisting psychiatric conditions, were disproportionately affected. In light of this, it’s clear that employees must know how to access mental health support. But the substance use, financial, legal, and family support resources in your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) are also critical. Yet in our survey, most respondents said they did not believe employees knew about their full EAP offering. Seven percent reported they did not think employees knew about their EAP at all. Given our current crisis, you can’t afford to let EAP slide for another year. Mental health benefits deserve our emphasis in 2021.

OE is coming. Are you ready?

The good news is this: OE is a time to get ahead of these problems. It’s not too late to plan for a knockout OE that tackles this unusual enrollment period head-on and deals with predictable problems before they ever rear their heads. In our next post, we’ll detail insights from our survey you can use to inform your OE planning.

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