3 Technology Lessons Employers Learned During Open Enrollment

Originally published in ToolboxHR January 21, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly accelerated the digital revolution, which has driven home the need for effective and adaptable HR technology. However, is the technology alone enough to help companies deal with the challenges of a rapidly changing business environment? Frank B. Mengert, founder and creative visionary of ebm discusses technology lessons employers learned during open enrollment.

Is your benefits administration technology working for you, or are you working for the technology?

Coming off of another open enrollment season, now is an excellent time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Perhaps you were betting on that technology solution that promised to make life easier, and you discovered (or were once again reminded) that it does the exact opposite. Or, given the chaotic year, maybe you had to scrap the process that always worked in the past at the last minute because of unforeseen complications with conducting open enrollment remotely.

Benefits administration technology can be a lifesaver during but only if it is paired with the right strategy for an effective rollout. By learning lessons from previous open enrollments, you can adopt the right technology solution — and the right strategy — to better serve your employees.

1. Companies Must Be Strategic About Employee Benefits Communication

Open enrollment looked different for many companies this year. Communicating about benefits became much more difficult for companies working remotely for the first time. They might not have realized just how much information they shared about employee benefits through fliers in the break room or conversations in the halls.

As with everything else, these HR departments turned to technology to communicate about upcoming open enrollment. Using email, instant messaging, and online forms to communicate and collect information seems instant, but when employees and HR staff are not in the same place, it was challenging to communicate the sense of urgency — especially if they were conducting open enrollment virtually for the first time. Employers still relying on physical paperwork to complete benefits enrollment experienced an even bigger hurdle this year.

Open enrollment requires a lot of back and forth communication, so companies must have a way of managing that communication and tracking where employees are in the enrollment process. Technology can solve half of that problem, but HR departments need a workflow in place for ensuring timely, consistent communication, and strategy that started well before open enrollment season to complement their technology solution.

2. Companies Must Prioritize Carrier Connectivity

One of the biggest gaps HR departments fail to plan for is how they will communicate employee information to their carrier. If a company added or switched to a new carrier this year, the HR department got a crash course in how well the company (and the carrier) is prepared to handle data aggregation and reporting.

Each carrier has their own standards regarding the timeframe for building files, required data transfer formats, and processes for open enrollment versus ongoing enrollment. For companies that did not have a clear understanding of their carrier’s needs — and how to relay that information — their HR department likely lost a lot of time manually aggregating and sending information (sometimes as much as 8–10 weeks). Whatever cost-savings the company hoped to enjoy by changing carriers was immediately hurt by poor planning.

The companies that saw the most success with a new carrier during the past open enrollment season had both technology and strategy on their side. A cloud-based benefits administration that offers employee self-service to manage their own data and documentation was key for time-savings, especially during a year when workforces were distributed. Their HR teams also took the time to proactively plan for how they would share information with the carrier so that any issues could be addressed on time.

3. Companies Must Start Planning for Next Year’s Open Enrollment Now

The open enrollment conversation needs to happen well before the end of the plan year—even as early as the previous open enrollment season. Last-minute decisions and delayed rollouts ultimately result in greater inefficiency.

Some companies think that if they are going to adopt a new benefits administration technology solution, the perfect time to debut it is during open enrollment. That is the worst time to try a system rollout. Dozens if not hundreds or thousands of employees rely on open enrollment to work smoothly. A failed implementation means a dissatisfied workforce and an overworked HR department.

Instead, now is the time to start thinking about how you will improve for next year when the lessons learned in the previous open enrollment are fresh in your mind. You will have plenty of time to learn the features, ask questions, design workflows, and most importantly, test it out with your new hires and employees who might experience a life event. During that time, you can learn your technology and hone your communication and connectivity strategy to make next year’s open enrollment a vast improvement over the last.

Planning Ahead for Benefits Administration

The biggest technology lesson that employers learned about open enrollment this past year was not about the technology itself, but how they use it. You need a benefits administration technology solution that covers not only the data management itself but also a tool that helps you think strategically about how your company can best prepare for open enrollment. Technology is fantastic, but you have to make sure it is working for you — and not the other way around.

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