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Opinion: Employers: Get ready for virtual open enrollment

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Open enrollment is right around the corner, and this year poses different challenges for both employers and employees.

COVID-19 has forced businesses to embrace technology and get creative not only when it comes to day-to-day operations, but also to meetings, conferences and events. Open enrollment for employee benefits will be no different. COVID-19 has impacted benefit plan design and health care costs, and it may have financial impacts on employees.

The effects of COVID-19 on health care and benefits will be top of employees’ minds heading into open enrollment season, and the current environment will be a point of stress for many. Employers should address the impact of coronavirus on health benefits head on and explain how it’s affecting benefit packages.

A recent BenefitsPro survey of more than 150,000 employers found there were dramatic changes in employees’ prioritization of their financial goals since COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, the majority of employees chose “taking a vacation” as their No. 1 financial priority. When asked again, 90 days from when lockdown orders started, employees switched their priorities from vacation to “setting up an emergency fund” and “saving for retirement.”

The current state of the economy has changed many people’s behaviors, and this means employees are more stressed and are starting to think more about long-term challenges. For employers, this is why wellness programs and health benefits are becoming more important, as they can enable employees to invest to meet their long-term needs, not just short-term wants.

Here’s how employers can better prepare and plan for a beneficial and virtual open enrollment session this year.

Plan early
First, pause and reflect on the past year.

Talk about what was effective – this can help frame the conversation around this year’s format and any plan changes. Be sure to think about and understand the benefits employees need now versus this time last year, as well as the impact of COVID-19 on benefit goals. Highlight benefits that might be more useful during the pandemic such as telehealth, mental health services, and coverage for COVID-19 testing and treatment.

Consider conducting a survey or quiz to employees before open enrollment to gauge what aspects of a benefits package they are most interested in learning about. By taking advantage of new technology that enables one-on-one, face-to-face interactions, benefits teams can actually provide more support on-demand and have the opportunity to make the experience more beneficial and perhaps better than before.

Consider a virtual benefits fair
A virtual benefits fair can engage all employees, including those working remotely.

Create an agenda and consider hosting multiple sessions to ensure that these sessions fit in with all employees’ schedules. Send out reminders and outline what employees can expect at the fair, including highlights and changes to any benefits packages or offerings. Keep the presentation simple and straightforward. It can be helpful to create a benefits FAQ digital handout for employees.

Employers also may consider inviting vendors to attend and participate in virtual benefits fairs and host breakout sessions through virtual breakout rooms.

Provide on-demand support
Many employees are still working from home, but that shouldn’t mean they don’t have access to enrollment help and guidance.

Employers should make it possible for their employees to virtually stop by their desk for help. To avoid being inundated with calls or emails, employers should consider working with their HR team using a calendar tool where employees can book times with staff members to talk through considerations, ask questions and make the process more personal.

It’s important to invest in technology and test it out in advance. Consider sending text alerts or emails to your employees about enrollment and record the primary information session so that employees can access it at a later date for a refresh or if they missed it.

Make it personal
Employees expect personalized and engaging communication and will want their specific questions to be answered rather than receiving generic content.

Educate employees on the benefits available, how they work and what type of value they should expect. In turn, this will build benefit awareness, financial hardship support, resource directives and a caring culture.

Keep in mind that COVID-19 is changing the benefit-covered population, as well as goals and priorities. Be prepared to adjust strategy as the current environment is always changing. Claims data can help identify trends and potentially any gaps in care that need to be addressed. Invest in technology, support and education tools for your employees.

Phil Mason is the executive vice president and chief operating officer of institutional banking and director of health care services for UMB Bank in Kansas City. He can be reached at


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