Open enrollment: How can HR succeed in a pandemic?


 Open enrollment is already a complicated, high-stress time for HR and benefits leaders. Employees, confused and frustrated by their choices, historically spend little time choosing benefits. Most don’t research their options even though they aren’t literate on benefits, leaving employers struggling to make a significant impact.

But add to that a largely remote workforce and a global pandemic that’s making not just health offerings, but an array of benefits, critical, and those challenges are even greater—making this year’s open enrollment more high-stakes than ever.

Misty Guinn

“We’re used to walking a tightrope of mitigating increasing healthcare costs and still serving the total wellbeing of our employees,” says Misty Guinn, director of benefits and wellness at Benefitfocus. “But right now it’s an earthquake of, ‘We’re not just balancing; we’re trying to create that sense of trust.’ It’s employers that [employees are] expecting to take care of them and give them the right guidance on how to survive. We have that responsibility on our shoulders.”

With that in mind, how can leaders better educate and encourage employees about benefits—particularly given that workers traditionally don’t care about them all that much? And how do they do that virtually?

New Approaches to Enrollment

Some HR and benefits leaders are getting creative with solutions and creating a plan for an enrollment period unlike any other.

“Because we are in this new virtual world, we can’t rely on the banners that used to be outside our building or the fliers that were in the elevators or the drive-bys in the HR department—just the questions and the watercooler conversations,” Guinn says. “We have to create those in this new world.”

About one in five (21%) organizations has made changes to its open enrollment procedures because of the pandemic, and nearly all the changes involve shifting from in-person to virtual, according to research from the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans.

Many organizations have canceled in-person meetings and benefits fairs or made them virtual, says Julie Stich, the group’s vice president of content. Some are replacing printed posters and signs with emails and sending information to participants’ homes. Others are developing videos or more interactive websites to educate workers about choices and the open enrollment process.

For her part, Guinn recorded more than a dozen podcasts about different benefits the company offers to employees to educate them on offerings. Those include core benefits like medical, dental, and vision, as well as perks such as pet insurance, financial wellness, and company-sponsored benefits that employees don’t need to enroll in, like caregiving resources through provider Cariloop. For the podcasts, she interviewed the vendors associated with each product to give employees an idea of how they work and how they can improve their lives.

“It’s a banner time to remind people of all the great things they have to take advantage of,” she says. “I think associates like hearing it that way. In the benefits world, we tend to use so much jargon.”

Guinn keeps the podcasts short, between 10-15 minutes, because “I want to encourage people to [listen while they] take their dog on a walk or while they’re folding laundry or cooking dinner; get up away from a screen.”

Benefitfocus also is hosting virtual office hours this year, in a Zoom Room, where employees can stop by to ask benefits and HR reps about offerings and open enrollment. And its digital benefits platform is available any time online.

Betty Thompson

Booz Allen Hamilton, which has roughly 27,000 employees nationwide, already has a heavy focus on virtual ways of engaging workers during enrollment, including webinars, conference calls, and emails, and the company will continue to invest in those resources this year, as most of its employees are now working remotely, says Betty Thompson, the company’s executive vice president and chief people officer.

One thing the consulting firm is doing differently this year is getting more employees involved in open enrollment. They’re ramping up training on benefits for all managers, for instance, “so that everyone is more knowledgeable,” Thompson says. “Instead of having the 10 people on the benefits team have to carry all the messaging, we are including a broader base.” That’s especially vital for managers, she says, because the firm’s data has found that employees are more likely to listen to their supervisors.

More employers this year, including Booz Allen Hamilton, also are investing in home mailings that include information on different health plans, costs, available resources, incentives, and more. “There’s not as much junk mail in your mailbox these days,” Thompson says. “All the junk mail is in your virtual mailbox. So we think [this approach] gets a little more tangible. You can touch it; you can look at pictures; you can come back and look … I can’t tell you how many emails I open that I forget to go back to.”

Home mailings also are important this year to make sure the information gets in front of spouses and partners. “This open enrollment, more so than ever, will be where we see the family unit come up because of the large amounts of layoffs and unemployment. Maybe they weren’t covering their spouse or children, [and] they might make that change,” Guinn says.

“It’s a family decision. It’s not just the employee that needs to be knowledgeable or thinking about these things,” says Thompson.

‘Employees are Listening’

This year’s open enrollment is all about messaging and making sure employees are keenly aware of benefits that can help them through one of the most stressful and tumultuous times in history. That’s a far cry from recent years when benefits were primarily seen as a key differentiator in a hot job market.

“It’s no longer just a war on talent; it’s really about being able to just survive,” Guinn says.

To that end, employers are touting the benefits they feel are more vital to their workforce—even if they aren’t benefits that employees need to enroll in during open enrollment (an employee assistance program or caregiving resources, for example).

Booz Allen Hamilton, in particular, is touting its mental health programs, which include an employee assistance program, parental mental health support, and digital meditation. That’s an especially important focus as mental health conditions rise at an alarming rate due to the pandemic. “It’s on everyone’s radar,” Thompson says. “We are going to communicate and focus on mental health because they’ll be paying attention. We don’t want to add to the noise; we want to focus it on mental health.”

Benefitfocus’ Guinn says she expects more use of certain voluntary and supplemental benefits that may help protect employees’ finances, which can be more fragile during a pandemic. Benefits such as pet insurance and identity theft insurance will be important focus points during the company’s enrollment.

Employees tend to select the same benefits year after year. This year, though, with markedly different working and living situations, that will likely change, says Leston Welsh, head of business segments at Prudential Group Insurance.

That means “employees will need better information and more time to analyze how a different set of benefits may be better suited for their new normal,” he says. “A different hierarchy of benefits may be driven not only by a heightened awareness of what benefits are offered but also by an understanding of how today’s environment impacts what is offered and how these solutions address new and different needs.”

Some good news: Prudential research finds that the pandemic is driving a significantly higher number of workers to report an increase in the value they place on the employer benefits, including a double-digit increase in how likely they are to remain at a job based on non-health benefits such as retirement savings, disability insurance, life insurance and other tools to help alleviate financial stress.

“The dangers of an ‘It won’t happen to me’ mentality are now very clear, and employees are placing greater value on benefits because they are more aware of how these benefits can help them during a life event, including paying for high, out-of-pocket medical costs and hospital visits,” Welsh says.

The fact that employees are listening is an opportunity HR and benefits leaders don’t want to waste.

“We always say in benefits it’s not a one-size-fits-all. But now that saying has [never] held more truth,” Guinn says. “People are going to remember this time more than ever. And going into open enrollment, they are going to remember how we responded.”

Can I forbid employees from traveling during a pandemic? Ask HR

Question: I work for a nonprofit with sites in Florida and Texas, states where COVID-19 cases continue to rise. Our company has already mandated that employees wear masks while out in the field. However, we have been battling with what the organization can and cannot require after work hours. Can we restrict personal employee travel since they are frontline workers? – Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor Jr.: While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health authorities are urging Americans to limit travel, you may not prohibit employees from traveling within the U.S. or to other countries. 

This may seem to contradict the guidance received by many workplaces from their local and state health departments, but it’s worth breaking down the “why.”

Many states have “off-duty” conduct laws. Simply put, these prevent employers from restricting an employee’s after-work activities – assuming such after-work activities are legal. 

Passengers are required to wear a mask while flying on a plane for all major U.S. airlines and at the airport.
Employers should encourage employees to remain cautious and mindful while traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic.  
ANDRESR, GETTY IMAGES

That said, you can – and should – encourage employees to remain cautious and mindful while traveling. It could be a simple reminder, or, you could go so far as to advise against nonessential travel to known COVID-19 hotspots. After all, it’s not just about this one employee, but the rest of the company and perhaps your clients, too.

It’s also worth noting while an employer may be unable to prohibit an employee’s personal travel, they can establish firm safety policies and protocols that must be followed by employees within the workplace. This may include requiring employees to notify an employer of travel plans to a state or city that is considered a COVID-19 hotspot.

Or, if a traveling employee returns from a high-risk area, you could mandate they self-quarantine for 10-14 days before they return to work to keep themselves safe and protect their colleagues from potentially getting the virus. Other options include allowing an employee to work from home, if applicable, or have them use paid or unpaid leave until the incubation period has passed.

COVID-19 has certainly created a new set of challenges for employers, but no process or policy can possibly erase risk – at least not completely, anyway. Taking practical measures to safeguard the workplace and protect your clients can help prevent exposure without infringing on employees’ personal activities outside of work. 

I hope this helps, and I hope you stay safe!

Q: My boss is organizing a team-building afternoon. The last time she tried to do this, I declined. I did not know that it was a 'work' thing. I was told she was disappointed that I didn't attend. I really don't want to go. Is there a way to politely decline, or if I have to attend, can I include this event on my timesheet? – Anonymous

Taylor: Thanks for writing. We’ve all faced work events we’d rather not attend and spend that extra time with family and friends instead – trust me, I know. But with more than half of the American workforce at home, many employers are trying to find new and creative ways to engage their staff and ensure teams stay connected.

Here’s the short answer: Sure, you could decline to participate in your work’s team building events. But what would this say about your attitude toward your job, boss, and team? Saying no could end up hurting your relationships with your manager or colleagues, and you may miss out on a key professional growth opportunity.

I want to emphasize your boss likely isn’t doing this to take time away from work or to simply schedule another meeting. Rather, managers put together team-building activities to foster a more inclusive environment and to create a stronger sense of community among your team.

Technically speaking, if you are an hourly employee required to attend meetings or other work-related events, you should be paid – and the rate of pay must be at least minimum wage. This time would also count toward overtime. You may want to check your employee handbook or talk to HR to clear up any confusion. 

If you truly do not wish to participate, you can respectfully talk about your feelings with your manager. You don’t mention what the team-building activity is, but if your reason for not attending is due to lack of comfort or even a medical reason, they may understand.

Ultimately, whether or not you choose to attend is up to you. However, at the end of the day, these activities are about your own professional development, and how you can better work with your team to reach your goals and improve the company’s bottom line.

Given how 2020 has changed the workplace, it can be hard to feel motivated and connected at work. I encourage you to not think of team-building exercises as a chore or another item on your to-do list, but a chance to make new connections, learn more about how your teammates think and work, and even have some fun!