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Techno trends ...More firms offer benefits information via Web sites

Posted online

by Patrick J. Walsh

for the Business Journal

It's likely that your employees use online tools to help them manage their personal finances.

They'd undoubtedly welcome the flexibility of tracking their employer-sponsored savings or retirement plan assets online whenever and wherever it's convenient for them.

Employers increasingly are using intranet or Internet Web sites to allow employees to access their employer-sponsored savings and retirement accounts, and other benefits programs.

Merrill Lynch's 10th annual survey of employers and benefits managers, conducted in 1998, found that 15 percent of companies use intranet or Internet Web sites for this reason, a figure that has almost doubled in the last two years.

Components of online access. Online access to employer-sponsored benefits can be an integral part of your company's overall education and communications program.

Employees are eager for information that will help them save and invest for their futures. In the companion Merrill Lynch survey of employees, 81 percent of employees said they find the information they receive from their employers useful.

Here are a number of ways companies are using their Web sites to provide access to their 401(k) plans or other retirement plans, automatic saving plans, employee stock ownership plans, stock option programs and health or flexible spending accounts:

Enrollment. A good way to increase participation in a plan is to make the process easy.

You can use your Web site to allow employees to enroll in a plan, make changes in their enrollment status and choose or change a personal identification number.

Account management. Employees can retrieve basic information about their accounts and monitor the performance of their investments online.

If you offer a number of different investment options, you can supply information, such as descriptions of mutual funds and performance data, to help employees make specific investment choices. Even more valuable, you could offer employees the opportunity to transfer funds between investment options.

Market data. Plan participants who self-direct their investments find current market information helpful when choosing between investment options and deciding when to make changes in their portfolios.

A useful part of your online capabilities could be to supply stock quotes, intraday market index movements and news.

Financial planning tools. A Web site is an ideal place to offer extensive information about overall retirement and financial planning.

Your educational section could offer basic information about investing and financial management. With modeling tools, you could allow employees to create "what if" scenarios to help them make goal-based decisions about their investments, compare mortgages or consider the impact of loans against their 401(k) plans.

Access to assistance. Even with online access, employees will need additional information or help on occasion.

Through your Web site you might offer the opportunity for employees to submit questions via e-mail, or include a telephone number for employees to call to reach service representatives.

Meeting diverse challenges. Companies are using online access to benefits information to help meet a wide range of challenges in their retirement plan education efforts, including geographic and work force diversity.

For example, CoBank, an international agricultural bank cooperative based in Englewood, Colo., that uses Merrill Lynch's online benefits service, has 10 domestic and two international sites. The company states that it has found that a central, technology-based source of information is critical.

Add the personal touch. Providing online access to benefits information for your employees can ease the demand on your benefits manager or human resources personnel. But online access can't replace the personal touch.

Used in conjunction with financial planning and investing seminars or personal consultations, online access to benefits information can help your employees better manage their employer-sponsored saving and retirement plans.

(Patrick J. Walsh is senior vice president and director, group employee services, for Merrill Lynch.)

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