It’s Never Too Early To Start Planning For Open Enrollment

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Does it feel like Christmas just happened yesterday? Are you still mistakenly putting “18” instead of “19” when you write the date? Are you still in recovery mode from the craziness that is Open Enrollment season?

You may be shocked to learn this, but… It’s almost summer. And if you haven’t started planning for OE 2019 yet, don’t panic, but you’re probably behind. And you are definitely not alone!

Employee Benefit Adviser’s Open Enrollment Readiness Benchmark index stood at 31 out of a possible 100 for Q2. Employers scored themselves for their progress on different OE activities relating to the benefit plan design, preparation, management, and plan design analysis and follow-up.

Benefits experts say that, in reality, most employers don’t have a formal strategic plan for their benefits activities, and many do not survey employees to collect the info needed to shape that strategic plan. Designing a benefit plan is the first step in what most advisers say should be a 12-month process to prepare for open enrollment.

That’s right – 12 months. As in one full year. So the day after OE ends, pop some champagne for a well-deserved toast and then start looking towards the future because it’s already time to start preparing for next year’s OE.

Phase 1: Benefit Plan Design

If you’re planning on just reusing the exact same benefits plan that you used last year, you may want to reconsider.

9 out of 10 employers have never even considered how their benefits package can support their company’s business strategy. It’s important for HR departments to have a strategic discussion with upper management as well as a benefits adviser and ask themselves the following questions:

  1. 1. Why do we offer benefits in the first place?
  2. 2. What are we trying to accomplish with our benefits package? What can we accomplish?
  3. 3. Is our current plan design meeting those strategic goals?

One answer to question #1 that more and more employers are now realizing is crucial is employee recruiting and retention. In today’s competitive hiring landscape, a well-designed benefits package can be the deciding factor in attracting and retaining top talent. Half of workers would leave their current job for a position with benefits that better fit their needs.

help wanted sign

Depending on what those needs are, you may not even need to do a major overhaul of the plan you already have in place. Relatively low-cost voluntary benefit offerings like identity theft protection are in high demand amid increased cybersecurity risks, and wellness programs could end up saving you money in healthcare costs in the long run.

Show employees you are making an effort to determine what benefits they want the most by asking for their input via surveys or focus groups.

Stacy Solorio, Director of HR and Operations at Atara Biotherapeutics, spoke on a recent webinar with PlanSource and BambooHR about her company’s efforts to keep in touch with their employee population. A dozen or so employees from Atara Bio are on a policy and engagement committee that gives the HR team quarterly feedback about any policies impacting the work environment such as time off, social activities, recognition and appreciation, health and wellness, and community involvement. HR summarizes this feedback for the executive team and they use the suggestions to have candid discussions when changes need to be made.

planning for open enrollment on laptop

This early phase is the time to determine whether your benefits package really is meeting your employees’ needs, and figure out what you can do to fix that if it isn’t.

Phase 2: Open Enrollment Preparation

So you’ve spoken with your benefits adviser, upper management, and employees, and figured out a perfect benefits plan that will meet everyone’s needs, save your employees and your company money, and make everyone happy. The hard part is done, right?

Wrong! If you don’t have strong employee engagement during OE, all of that hard work will go to waste. Everyone will log in on the last day, pick the plan with the lowest monthly premium without reading anything about their options, you’ll receive angry emails and phone calls when they discover too late at the doctor’s office that their coverage isn’t what they needed, and you may even lose your top talent to an organization that knows how to effectively communicate their amazing benefits package.

Mapping out an OE communication strategy well in advance is crucial for getting employees engaged. There is a significant gap between the effectiveness of traditional communication channels and the needs of today’s workforce. This is where you’ll want to put on your marketing hat; using communication strategies from the world of marketing will help you get your message across to everyone, and do so in a fun and engaging way.

open enrollment planning via mobile device

What is the message you want to get across besides just the dates of OE? One thing you can focus on in your communications is any important changes (improvements) that have been made to the benefits package.

Use every communication method you can think of: emails, posters, printable PDF benefits guides, educational videos, text message alerts, informational sessions, even weekly “office hours” for employees to come in and talk with you individually are all possibilities. (Tip: You can learn more about communication best practices and access free OE tools and resources in our online open enrollment kit.)

This is a situation where knowing your employee population and demographics is essential and familiarizing yourself with their communication preferences BEFORE you start your OE communication planning is extremely helpful.

Phase 3: Open Enrollment Management

This is where the rubber hits the road! Hopefully, you’ve done all that you can do and it’s out of your hands at this point, right?

Wrong again!

This is where your OE communications need to ramp up – send a gentle reminder email and/or text message every day during OE so that you don’t get that influx of enrollments on the last day. Getting people involved and engaged early during their OE period gives them the maximum amount of time to fully consider their enrollment choices and ask all the questions they can think of before it’s too late.

You may need to create a sense of urgency, and that’s perfectly okay – for the average employee, benefits are their second largest annual expense, and yet they only spend 18 minutes on annual enrollment. It’s in their best interest to spend some time on it, and it’s in your best interest to help them understand this.

Don’t assume everyone knows benefits lingo. Have educational resources available for those who may have basic questions and are too embarrassed to ask them. You may be able to insert educational benefits videos throughout the enrollment process, or have a benefits cheat sheet guide posted in conspicuous locations to help with common health insurance terms.

OE Cheat Sheet

Measure your open enrollment metrics in real time so that you can stay on top of how many or which employees might need support. Technology can help with this – many ben admin solutions have reporting capabilities that give you a snapshot at any given time during OE of how much time is left, who has and hasn’t enrolled, and whose enrollment is in progress.

Measuring open enrollment metrics and recording employee feedback during OE will help you execute Phase 4 of OE preparedness.

Phase 4: Open Enrollment Design Analysis and Follow Up


So you’ve made through open enrollment and you’re on the other side. Hooray! Hopefully, it was as smooth as a Sunday drive. But, if there were some bumps along the road, now is the perfect time to look back and take note of where you had trouble so you can fix it for next year.

winding road

Take some time to look back on everything you measured and analyze it – enrollment engagement, the effectiveness of your communication strategy, benefit usage and employee feedback. All of this information can be used to improve your benefit plan design and strategy for the following year.

Implementing a “nudge campaign” to keep communication channels open all year round will be helpful for ensuring employees are taking full advantage of the benefits they’re paying for. Personalized communications are the norm in today’s email marketing landscape, and they’re extremely effective in getting employees engaged. Use the data you’ve collected to your advantage to get employees to actually read the information you’re sending them with these tips from Kelley Butler at Benz Communications:

  • Pseudo personalization – if you don’t have time to completely personalize your materials, simply adding the first name into each email subject line goes a long way for getting them to at least open the email.
  • Versioning – create multiple versions of one piece of info or multiple pieces of a campaign based on employees’ demographics or enrollment selections.
  • Personas, or “someone like me” employee types – Separate your employee population into chunks by job department, family status, income, and other characteristics, and try to tailor your benefit messages to apply to each.   
you got this

If this blog post made you feel like you need that post-OE drink right now, don’t stress! The numbers show that regardless of size or industry, most employers find it challenging to keep up with open enrollment preparation.

There’s a lot to manage, but if you split up the process into smaller monthly goals and take advantage of all the resources you can find, open enrollment will be smooth sailing and clear skies all around.

Need OE Assistance?

Don’t wait until it’s too late to start planning your perfect open enrollment. Check out our free open enrollment kit or contact us below to see how PlanSource can help ease your OE pains.

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